Electrifying Aerospace with Wright Electric

For this episode, Steve sits down with Jeff Engler, CEO of Wright Electric. Jeff talks about the development of an all-electric zero-emission aircraft called the Wright Spirit, offering hour-long flights. Steve and Jeff talk about the reality of carbon concerns in the aerospace industry, misconceptions about Aerospace hubs in the US, and exciting projects within the defense industry.

Listen to the Podcast


Steve Melito: So hey, welcome to New York State Manufacturing Now, the podcast that’s powered by FuzeHub. I’m your host, Steve Melito. Today we’re talking to Jeff Engler of Wright Electric, which is developing an all electric zero emission aircraft serving one- hour flights, and that’s not all they’re up to these days.
Jeff, welcome to the podcast.

Jeff Engler: Thanks very much for having me.

Steve Melito: That’s great to have you here. So hey, tell us about Wright Electric. You’re designing an aircraft called the Wright Spirit. What’s that all about?

Jeff Engler: Yeah, absolutely. When we looked at the carbon footprint of the aerospace industry, we realized that a substantial fraction of the carbon emissions from flying comes from airplanes larger than about a hundred seats. And taking a step back from that, when we looked at people’s personal carbon footprints, we realized that for a lot of people, flying is the single largest source of their carbon emissions. For example, you would have to eat vegetarian for over a year to offset the carbon from even a single relatively short roundtrip flight, let’s say, from New York to Chicago. So we said, ” Can we do something about this? Let’s try to build propulsion systems for airplanes larger than a hundred seats, and let’s try to reduce the carbon footprint of the aerospace industry.”

Steve Melito: Beautiful. Now Jeff, you’re in a space where there are some other players. I’m not going to call them up by name, of course, but what’s your secret sauce? How do you compete with them? What do you do differently or better than anybody else?

Jeff Engler: Our team is incredible. We have folks based up in Malta. We have folks based in other parts of the US as well. They’re dedicated, they want to focus on reducing the carbon footprint of the aerospace industry, hardworking and just executing, executing, executing.

Steve Melito: So you mentioned Malta. When folks think about aerospace in New York State, they think about Long Island, they might think about the North Country. Why Malta? How did you get into the capital region, which I’d love to see become an aerospace hub but is currently not one?

Jeff Engler: Yeah, it actually already is an aerospace hub. You just probably wouldn’t know it. There’s a lot of work happening in the Albany area related to very high power motors and the computers that control those motors. For example, GE researches up here, a bunch of research universities as well. And so for our specialized field of electric airplanes, this is already one of the world’s hubs, and we were able to find a fantastic space in a technology park that had access to a lot of power and the perfect size for what we needed.

Steve Melito: Excellent. So hey, does it matter to your company that you’re not too far from say, Montreal, which is I believe, the third largest aerospace hub?

Jeff Engler: No, that’s a major advantage. That’s another reason why the Albany area is so good. If you think about the capital region, you have access to incredible propulsion and motor talent in the Albany area. Then you have incredible airplane building talent in Montreal and other parts of the Eastern seaboard, and there’s big FAA branches in Boston and other parts. So this area has a lot of talent and a lot of firepower.

Steve Melito: That’s excellent. So in addition to building an aircraft, I was on your website today, as I mentioned, and Wright Electric is developing a generator. It makes high megawatt power possible even without a grid. It sounds like the Air Force likes it quite a bit. What can you tell us about this product?

Jeff Engler: So we received a contract from the Air Force, signed that contract earlier this year, to take our motor end to turn it into a gen set. So if you think about what our company does is we make a very, very powerful electric motor that can simulate the gen engine core of an engine of a big airplane. That electric motor running backwards operates as a generator, and we can put that into a system to create power anywhere in the world that’s ultra, ultra lightweight. If you think about organizations like the US Department of Defense, they’re moving people and resources around the world, and they want to do that in a way that’s as lightweight and compact as possible. So we can build them a generator that’s less than half the weight and half the volume of a typical generator they might buy today.

Steve Melito: Now Jeff, what is your background like? What did you do before getting involved with or starting Wright Electric?

Jeff Engler: Before I started Wright Electric, I was a co- founder of a medical device company that’s raised about $ 75 million and reduces the impact for people with chronic diabetes of problems with their feet. The company is called Podimetrics. It’s based in Boston, and we work with Veterans Affairs Hospitals around the country.

Steve Melito: That’s excellent. What made you decide to get involved in aviation? Has it always been a lifelong interest?

Jeff Engler: Well, of all things, my grandfather is a retired aerospace engineer and my grandmother is an environmentalist, so I had a lot of family history in this space. About 10 years ago, I looked at my personal carbon footprint and I realized that flying was between 60 and 80% of my personal carbon footprint. And my guess is for many of the people listening, if you do a carbon footprint calculator, what you’ll find is that even if you only do a couple flights a year, those flights really add up very quickly, and they far overwhelm many of the other things that people do to try to reduce their climate impact. So actually, the first thing I tried to do is to take the low technology solution, which is I tried to stop flying. That didn’t work great because I wanted to go visit people, and I had family members and things like that. Then a couple years later, I was given an opportunity to start another company. I had looked at what happened with electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are better for the environment, they’re lower cost. There’s a lot of advantages beyond just the environmental benefits. And I thought, “You know what? That’s already happened with electric vehicles. It’s taking a long time for that to happen, but it’s starting to finally happen. That’s what’s going to happen with airplanes.” So I wanted to be part of that and started the company a little over five years ago now.

Steve Melito: So New York State is home to a number of inventors and entrepreneurs, startups, established companies that want to develop green technologies, clean technologies. One of the things that happens, though, is you can’t do it without money. What is your situation like in terms of your ability to go out and raise revenue, and is there any advice that you can give?

Jeff Engler: Oh, absolutely. So we’re funded through a couple different places. We’re funded through governments, from NASA, the US Department of Energy, the US Air Force and the US Army. We’re also funded by private organizations as well, venture capital firms and things like that. What I would say is the most important thing to do is to understand what value you’re adding. What is the thing that you’re making and what’s the way that you can demonstrate as quickly as possible to your constituents, whether that’s government funders or whether that’s investors, that what you’re doing has value and that it’s actually making progress. So keep your head down, don’t try to do too many things, but really focus on the value that you’re adding.

Steve Melito: Excellent. So what do you think is next for Wright Electric? What’s the next milestone that you want to reach? Is it to land a certain type of contract? Certainly the Air Force one is pretty impressive.

Jeff Engler: Yeah, so what we’re doing right now is we’re testing our motor on the ground. Next year we’ll be testing it in an altitude chamber, and then after that we’re going to actually put it into an airplane and test it up at high altitude. You can sort of simulate all you want, but there’s really no substitute for actual live testing.
Another thing that we’re doing as a company is we’re starting a small division to begin customizing batteries for the aerospace industry. So we’re not going to become a battery company. We’re not going to design batteries from scratch. If you can imagine that a battery that might work on the ground, maybe it doesn’t work as well up at 40,000 feet when the air is different, the temperature is different, and we’re starting to do work in terms of customizing batteries to operate at high altitude. For anybody who’s listening, in particular, we’re working on a type of a battery called a metal air battery, but we’re working with aluminum air batteries, but it’s a field in which there’s a lot of background. So if you’ve worked on zinc air batteries or hearing aid batteries or other forms of metal air chemistries before, we’re hiring in that space, we’d love to talk with you, especially if you’re in the capital region.

Steve Melito: That’s great. How do they get in touch with you?

Jeff Engler: They can reach out on our website or just reach me directly. My email address is Jeff, J- E- F- F, at our website, WeFlyWright.com. So that’s Jeff@ WeFlyWright. com, and just say you heard about us on the podcast, and I’d be happy to speak with you.

Steve Melito: Excellent. Let’s switch gears a little bit. I guess it still fits in line with battery technology, but supply chain issues. Are you running into anything that’s impacting your ability to continue to innovate?

Jeff Engler: Oh absolutely, yeah. Unfortunately, we have supply chain issues regularly. If you remember a couple of years ago, there was the large container ship that was stuck in the Suez Canal. So we were under contract and we had a deliverable that was due, let’s say in the middle of the year, and we were contractually obligated by a government agency to get that deliverable in. But because we had a component that was stuck on a ship that was unable to essentially arrive, we had to get a contract extension. That’s just a small example, but when you make physical hardware, you have to deal with supply chain issues all the time. How do we solve it? Well, the main way we solve it is through a lot of redundancy. So we generally, instead of having a single source for something, we’ll try to get multiple potential sources. But sometimes too, we’re a small company and we don’t have a lot of leverage. So if there’s one piece of equipment, sometimes that equipment goes to a more important customer than it does to us, even if in theory we should have gotten it first.

Steve Melito: Yeah, it can be a tough one. I know we talked a little bit about the next major milestone, but where do you think you’ll be, say, in five years or maybe even 10 years? There are certain regulatory requirements that are coming down that are going to promote electrification. Do you see a lot of advantages there for you, or do you think mostly that’s going to go towards ground transportation, maybe both?

Jeff Engler: Oh no, there’s a lot of work happening in terms of regulation in the space. The FAA, the essentially main regulatory body for aerospace emissions in the US, has been very proactive in leading the charge in terms of building out a regulatory framework for electrified airplanes. So I think what you’re going to start to see is, five years out you’ll start to see smaller airplanes going to market either fully electric or potentially hybrid electric versions. You might even see that sooner than five years, in the next couple of years. Then in the next 10 years, what you’ll start to see is new airplanes designed from scratch that use these technologies. So if you think about the electric vehicle industry, Tesla, their first car was a retrofit of an existing car. Their second car was a clean sheet designed from scratch car, but their first car, it was taking an existing vehicle and retrofitting it to be an electric. So what you’re going to start to see with airplanes is the exact same trends. It’ll start with retrofits, and that’ll be in the next five years or sooner, and then you’ll start to see clean sheet designed from scratch vehicles in the next 10 years.

Steve Melito: Excellent. So what do you say to people that are skeptical, and I’ll use the example when it comes to electric cars, and the range is not as good when it’s extremely cold, and people are concerned about running out of juice, and for them to get up in the air might be frightening. How do you assuage some of those fears?

Jeff Engler: Oh, absolutely. First, there’s the technical thing, which is that you have to sort of prove that the technology is there. That’s number one. But I think number two is, it’s a mind shift. So it’s human nature to think about your existing car and think about how annoying it is that you can’t go 550 miles on a tank of gas or something like that. So you say, ” Well, that’s really frustrating.” But then the second thought about an electric vehicle is, ” Gosh, I never have to go to a gas station again because I have a charger at my home. I have a charger at my office. On the rare occasion that I’m doing a super long road trip, it’s nice to have a 10 minute break every couple hours, stretch out a little bit.” In practice, these things like range anxiety, are, if you allow yourself to think about all the negative things, of course you’ll be frustrated. But instead, think about the fact that you’re not paying $ 6 a gallon at the tank. You’re actually getting your gas for a lot less, and you never have to go to a gas station. I think what you’re starting to see is people who are making the shift, they say, ” Oh my gosh, I don’t even think about how upset I thought I was going to be about range anxiety. I’m thinking about all the things that make this an amazing experience for me that I never even could have conceived of when I was having to deal with a regular fossil fuel car.” And you’ll start to see the same with electric airplanes. For example, one thing that people tend not to talk about is how loud airplanes are. Just think about throughout the course of a day, how many times you hear an airplane overhead, especially if you’re, for example, living near an airport, and you just assume that that’s just a way of life, you just have to deal with that. But in fact, why should you have to deal with that? And electric airplanes are going to be quieter. Not only are they better for the environment, though, but they’ll be a lot quieter. That’s the sort of thing that once those come to market, you’ll start to see a lot more acceptance because people realize how good it is.

Steve Melito: Excellent. Hey, one last question. There are probably some manufacturers out here that are listening and are pretty excited about what you’re doing and want to know if there’s a way to talk to you or engage you to get into your supply chain. How do you handle those type of requests? Do you talk to those folks? Is there a process?

Jeff Engler: We take inbounds in terms of supply chain. Like many manufacturing companies, we build specialized equipment and specialized components, and so we have to really search out to find the shops that have the components or have the machinery that we need. But if somebody’s working on a technology that they think would be a good fit for us, we would love for them to reach out, and we’d love to be able to talk with them, especially in the capital region.

Steve Melito: Outstanding. Jeff, thank you so much for being on New York State Manufacturing Now.

Jeff Engler: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. Hope you have a nice day.

Steve Melito: You’re most welcome. So hey, we’ve been talking to Jeff Engler of Wright Electric, a company that you’re going to want to watch if you’re interested in the electrification of everything, if you’re part of the transportation industry, or if you’re just looking for something interesting to keep tabs on, I think this is a company that’s going to go somewhere. So before we go today, I’d like to tell you about an opportunity that you have to meet some prime contractors in the transportation industry. It’s called New York State Keeps the World Moving. It’s a transportation supply chain event, and it is scheduled for September 28th in Corning, New York in person. Would you like to meet BAE Systems? And if you’re into ground transportation, how about Nova Bus or Alstom? If you’re a New York State manufacturer, this is your chance to meet these and other primes, find out how to become part of a transportation supply chain and learn what the leaders are looking for. If you’d like to attend, please go online today and register. The link is BIT. LY/ Transportation- NY. If you didn’t get that link, don’t worry. You can email Info@ FuzeHub. com and let us know you’d like to register, and we hope to see you there. So on behalf of New York State Manufacturing Now, this is Steve Melito signing off.

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