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.

Florida startup Fit:Match chose Houston for its first location of its AI-enabled retail store. Photo via shopfitmatch.com

In November, on the first floor of Friendswood's Baybrook Mall, wedged between the Abercrombie & Fitch and the Apple Store, a small studio popped up. At the window, a bubblegum assortment of balloons replaced the usual spruced-up manakin, and the shop is sparse for racks of clothing.

That's because the Fit:Match studio isn't really trying to sell clothes — it's trying to help you buy them online. By fusing artificial intelligence with retail shopping, Fit:Match makes ordering clothes online more trustworthy. The writing on the walls promised to revolutionize the way that people could: "Shop what fits. Not what doesn't," reads a neon sign. The tech might not only reduce long waits for the dressing room — it could abolish it altogether.

"You never have to try on clothes again," says Haniff Brown, founder of the Florida-native startup.

The store does have a fitting room, but Brown says it's not really for trying on clothes — it's for preparing to "get fitched," the process through which the imaging tech measures a customer's body.

It's fitting that the pop-up sits next to the iPhone giant. Fit:Match uses the same 3D imaging tech as Apple's FaceID, Brown says, which blasts infrared light at thousands of dots at a user's face. Where the light bounces off, the AI technology images the person's face. The sensors at the Fit:Match studio in Baybrook Mall expand this to the rest of the body. In 10 seconds, the AI sensor lets people sketches a customer's shape through 150 measurements.

Those measurements become indicators of how well a piece of clothing will fit the wearer. In the initial phase of the project, Brown's team fitched thousands of women — wanting to keep things neat, the company hasn't ventured into men's fashion yet — and compared the scores of the AI's algorithm with how the women scored their own clothes.

Now, once a customer has been fitched at the Baybrook studio, she can log online through an app or the company site and sift through thousands of clothes that will likely fit her. Each clothing item — mostly smaller brands that range from eclectic pieces and dresses to athleisure right now, Brown says, although he's already working to partner with better-known labels — is rated with a percentage of how well it's likely to fit the individual customer, based on her measurements and on how snug or loose she likes her wear. From the array of brands, she'll get specific matches — clothes that have a 90 percent chance or higher of fitting — that might look completely different from a friend's. Over time, the app will also update her on the latest matches.

"You're going to have this personalized wallet," Brown says, adding that this will also decrease a store's rate of return. "You will see a completely truncated assortment of clothes that are meant to fit you."

The Baybrook Mall hosts Fit:Match's first location. Brown says he chose the Houston area for its size and demographics, calling it a "hotbed to test new ideas, to get traction, to get customer feedback," and is even considering expanding to the Woodlands Mall and other places around Texas, too. It's also not far from the Austin-based Capital Factory, which brought Fit:Match under its wing late last year to help the startup raise $5 million.

In the meantime, the five-member management team at Fit:Match is focused on getting more Houstonians fitched. In the first month of operations, the studio measured more than 1,200 mallgoers, and Brown says the company could fitch a quarter million in the next two or three years.

"We think that the opportunity here is immense," Brown says.