Meet the crop spraying startup with plans for space exploration

Deep Dive
Psyche Aerospace

From grain belts to asteroid belts. Psyche Aerospace’s 23-year-old CEO and founder plans to disrupt Brazil’s agricultural aviation industry before switching his attention beyond the planet.

Gabriel Leal is an outlier among CEOs. At 22, the Brazilian national founded his startup which is developing a fleet of autonomous drones designed to spray large crops more efficiently and safely than traditional aircraft. Now valued at R$75m ($13.8m), Leal says agricultural spraying is just a stepping stone. Once established he wants to expand into space exploration. (Those who know the subject may well have inferred the connection to space already given the firm is named after the asteroid 16 Pysche – the largest of the metal-type asteroids).

“I’m from a small city in the border regional of Brazil, the population is about 30,000. My dad is a farmer, my grandfather was a farmer and his father before him too. But I never had the will do that. I was motivated to continue the farming business, but I am a nerd, so I began this project when I was about 15 and called it 16 Psyche. After the most valuable asteroid in the solar system,” Leal tells us.

Sitting in Psyche’s headquarters in the aerospace heart of Brazil – São José dos Campos — Leal has grown the company from a 15sqm room in 2022 to now employing about 100 people across three facilities. But he has no plans to stop expanding, the goal is to increase employee numbers to more than 1,000 by the end of 2025.

Leal’s ambitious plans link back to the asteroid. As the most valuable in our solar system, 16 Psyche has been priced at $100,000 quadrillion (way more than net global private wealth). It is that untapped plethora of resources that Leal sees the ability to grow economies to unprecedented scales. “It is hard to imagine how to grow an economy 20 or 50 times over a period of decades on our planet. But when you think about space resources and how we can explore those resources to create new ecosystems, we can think growing economies by those orders of magnitude.

“It is like when the Europeans came to America.”

The first port of call to make Leal’s vision come to life, is the agricultural spraying business. Known as Harpia P-17, the highly automated drone is capable of spraying up to 5,000 hectares in 24 hours. With one ground controller able to oversee six drones in operation at any given time, a fleet of P-17s can cover even the largest farms in Brazil in less time, with less risk and for less money than crop dusters. Only 2% of Brazil’s 5.16m farms are over 500 hectares, but these facilities are responsible for over 36% of the countries agricultural production.

“We have over 100m hectares of farmland here in Brazil. It is an insane area, but the technology is very behind. It has got to the point where if you can develop a solution like our drone there is only one question asked by farmers: ‘Does it work? If it works, I want it on my farm’. We currently have 1.5m hectares in our wallet which can make us R$100m revenue in the first year, we want to double that in year two and with that get a value of at least R$5bn. Then we will have the basis to start space exploration.”

Psyche Aerospace recently closed its first investment round securing R$15m ($2.8m) funding from a new undisclosed investor. The funds bring the total raised to R$17m following a pre-seed contribution from Brazilian investor Eder Medeiros in 2023. Medeiros owns 20% of Psyche Aerospace, as does the new investor, Leal is the controlling shareholder with 48.5% and the remainder is divided among other minor stakeholders.

The funds raised will feed into the “industrialisation” phase of P-17’s development — Leal tells us he wants to vertically integrate wherever possible, building components from the engine to outer casing in-house. It is currently building a facility in São José dos Campos which it expects to be capable of producing three aircraft per day once operational.

Beginning this August, the company intends to demonstrate a proof of concept at the farm of Gilson Pinesso, president of the Brazilian Cotton Growers Association and one of the most prominent grain and cotton producers in the country. When fully commercialised, Leal wants to charge R$20 ($3.70) per hectare for the service. With letters of intent already signed Psyche can name some big customers including Nardini Agroindustrial and Tereos.

A startup that grows absurdly in six months, developing an unprecedented product, from absolute zero, with contributions from individuals, is not seen every day, especially in Brazil,” says Leal.

Psyche’s founder and CEO is a proud Brazilian. He has no plans to export the agricultural spraying technology beyond his nation, not least because there is more than enough demand at home. “We have so much space here in Brazil. I’m not a politician, but I am from here. We have such a great market potential, it doesn’t make any sense to me to shift focus to anywhere else when we can create industry and jobs here in our country.

“We are creating a different market here in Brazil. We are the third largest aerospace manufacturer in the world, but we don’t have a big ecosystem in aerospace companies funded with private money, it needs to be developed. That is what I feel this latest investment is helping us to do. We want to create a new movement that encourages private investment in domestic aerospace companies. 

“It is not about my company, or about the technology, it is because our efforts are enabling others to do something similar.”

Leal says being a 23-year-old CEO has its downsides, but the negatives are outweighed by the positives. “Some people in the beginning do not put much credibility on the company because of my age or because I didn’t go to college. But it has limited impact. I think my age is a benefit because I am closer to the younger generation. I am more motivated than a 50-year-old CEO. I also think I can motivate others because I am an example. I am a guy from a poorer region of Brazil, I don’t have a degree, I am not an engineer. But I am an entrepreneur that had a dream I believed in.”

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