vroom, vroom

Forget flying cars — this Houston innovator wants to get flying motorcycles off the ground

A Houston entrepreneur and investor is bullish on bringing flying motorcycles to existence. Courtesy of Aviator Cycles

When it comes to flying cars, Jeff Chimenti wants to give Elon Musk a run for his money — even though Musk, famously, has a lot of that.

But Chimenti is confident that his startup, Aviator Cycles, might be one of the first to get a vehicle off the ground and up into consumer markets. That's because he's not focusing on cars at all — the prototype, unveiled at a recent promotional event in the Woodlands, is a critical propulsion system for what Chimenti calls a personal air vehicle, or PAV.

The PAVs that Aviator Cycles plans to make are more like motorcycles or four-wheelers and intended for recreational use — but the high-tech system could change how other designers make flying vehicles.

"All of this is really happening," says Chimenti, a Houston-based investor and chief visionary officer and co-founder for the startup. "We're pushing it forward."

And, hopefully, upward. Aviator Cycles's first PAV doesn't fly yet, but smaller models have, and Chimenti expects to see a successful launch within one year. The company is making PAVs because there's a lot of red tape around making cars — traffic systems will need to be redrafted.

So for now, the unique propulsion system, which has come a long way since co-founder Jesse Marcel made his first patent on it before the company was even made, is being fastened to the Aerorunner GSX, a sports vehicle that will flutter from about four feet off the ground for safety.

Aviator Cycles plans to start taking reservations for these in the next six months. But Marcel says that his proprietary propulsion system will eventually make its way to other companies and vehicles; Audi, Porsche and Boeing, for example, have announced flying car projects in recent years.

All this innovation is part of a push toward alternative transportation, but it feels like a resurgent space race — just a little lower this time. Aviator Cycles, based in Spokane, Washington, isn't the only manufacturer. In 2018, California-based Hoversurf announced a hoverbike with a set of helicopter blades. It was supposed to ship out earlier this year for $150,000. Across the world — in Britain and Israel, for example — companies are developing bikes to compete in a brand-new flying vehicle market.

"Everybody that designs is great, but they're ultimately going to have to use our propulsion system," says Chimenti.

A new kind of 4x4 might fly, literally, in the Pacific Northwest, where the culture is all hiking and being outside. Texans, though, tend to have a better relationship with their air-conditioners than the great outdoors. Houston, especially, is mostly the urban sprawl of twisting highways — the same unregulatable stretch of concrete that Chimenti has avoided making vehicles for.

But Chimenti is optimistic about the potential for Space City. Last October, the Houston City Council gave $18.8 million to develop the Houston Spaceport, a kind of "mission control" for the future of commercial alternative transportation. Near Ellington Airport, the site has launch pads and lab space — but, maybe most excitingly for people like Chimenti, it has a tech incubator for developers to design and test their equipment.

Houston, then, has a historical stake in how we explore the space above our heads — and what's left for the regular person to explore is closer, below the stratosphere. If Houston has already been instrumental in getting all the way up there, then some light hovering will be nothing. When it comes to flying motocross, Chimenti says, Houston won't have a problem.

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Building Houston

 
 

Mike Francis, co-founder of NanoTech, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his plans to fireproof California. Photo courtesy of NanoTech

A few years ago, Mike Francis caught a video of a man's hand coated in some sort of material and placed over a fire. Nothing was happening to the man's hand — the coating completely protected it — but something was happening in Francis's brain, and a year ago he founded Nanotech Inc.

Based in Houston, NanoTech' is focused on reducing energy waste by proper insulation within the construction industry — a half inch of NanoTech's material is the equivalent of 30 inches of fiberglass. However, perhaps more important to Francis is the life-saving capability the product provides in terms of fireproofing.

"We're working with all of the major players in the state of California to not only fireproof the utility infrastructure, but eventually homes and businesses," Francis says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal, if we're looking into the future, is to fireproof that state — and we're working with the right people and companies to make it happen."

To the best of his knowledge, Francis says NanoTech is the only company this far along working on this goal. Millions of utility poles go up in flames as the forest fires sweep through the state, and coating them with NanoTech could help prevent this damage.

Of course, as the company grows, Francis is lucky to have the support and the funds behind him and his team. Earlier this year, Halliburton selected NanoTech as the inaugural member of Halliburton Labs. For the past few months, NanoTech has been based in the labs, receiving hands-on support, and NanoTech will join the year-long inaugural cohort of 15 or so companies in 2021.

NanoTech also has a new member to its support system — and $5 million — following the close of its seed round led by Austin-based Ecliptic Capital. Francis says he was looking for an investor to bring new expertise the company doesn't have yet, and Ecliptic will be crucial to growing globally.

"Those first investors, especially in your seed round, are critical to your growth," says Francis. "We're so excited to be partnering with Ecliptic — we just trusted them."

Francis shares more about fundraising during a pandemic and what being based at Halliburton has meant for his company's growth. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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