Skepticism shadows Zunum Aero

Concept art of Zunum’s aircraft family

Concept art of Zunum’s aircraft family

Zunum Aero would have been many people’s pick to be one of the start-up companies to succeed in the fourth aviation revolution.

The company’s three hybrid-electric regional aircraft concepts promised a catch-all solution that would cut flight costs and fly more quietly and with lower emissions than conventional aircraft. The aircraft was touted as being able to travel up to 700 miles when it debuted and – along with moderate advances in battery technology – the range was expected to increase to over 1,000 miles by 2030.

The project represents a stepping-stone forward towards the fully electric future of flight. Whilst fully electric propulsion is where a lot of the market is focused, many agree that hybrid propulsion comes first. As a result, Zunum attracted attention from the media and investors.

Fast forward to 2019 and Forbes has reported that the company reportedly laid off most of its 70 staff members and is on the hunt for new funding to keep the project afloat, with its two biggest investors unwilling to bankroll the firm further.

Zunum Aero was founded by tech industry veteran Ashish Kumar, whose resumé includes management roles at Google, Microsoft and Dell, and Matt Knaap an aircraft designer who has worked with the Aviation Technology Group and TLG Aerospace.

The company was established in 2013, refining and patenting its aircraft designs. In June 2017, it secured an $800,000 grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce. Just two months before that it launched its first venture capital round securing “substantial” investment from both JetBlue Technology Ventures and Boeing’s newly formed Horizon X Ventures.

In May 2018, Zunum’s reputation was strengthened when the JetBlue-owned private jet charter company JetSuite committed to purchasing up to 100 of Zunum’s six-to-12 seat aircraft upon certification.

When queried about Zunum’s current standing, JetBlue Technology Ventures issued this statement: “JetBlue Technology Ventures was an early-stage investor in Zunum and, as is the case with all our investments, we partner with start-ups to gain strategic insights into emerging technologies, like electric propulsion. We are aware that Zunum is continuing to fundraise amidst a growing market for electric aircraft.”

JetSuite was unable to provide comment at this time.

When Revolution.Aero spoke to Mr Kumar at the first Revolution.Aero conference in September 2018, the company had expanded its small team to almost 90 people on payroll and 50 full-time employees (eventually growing to 70). Its next step was making the commercial case for the aircraft and convincing the tier 1s that the aircraft and technology was worth investing in.

It started to seek out other investors to inject $50 million in Series B funding into the business but failed to net any further investors. It has kept up the search for investors but has yet to close a deal. The Forbes article also mentions that the company laid off “nearly all” of its 70 staff members and gave up its Indianapolis facility in November last year to conserve capital – promising to rehire staff when it secured new financing.

Following these recent developments, Boeing’s Horizon X Ventures has stated: “Boeing’s HorizonX Ventures was an early investor in Zunum. We are currently taking a more passive approach to our relationship, as the company is searching for additional funding.”

Zunum did not respond to our request for comment.