Editor’s Note: Over the next two years, we’ll be hosting a series of GoFly Master Lectures where industry experts share advice, insights, and answer questions from anyone interested in participating in the GoFly Prize.
For the fifth in our series of “Master Lectures,” veteran venture capitalist Will Porteous shares insights into the aerospace funding landscape, outlining areas of opportunity and the challenges successful companies must overcome to win over investors. Throughout his two-decade career as an investor, he has served on the boards of over 20 companies, including aerospace and satellite companies such as Spaceflight.
Watch the full lecture above, and keep reading for an extended conversation with Will. If you have follow-up questions, check out current discussions about design on the GoFly forum or start your own thread!
What was your first thought when you heard about the GoFly competition, and why do you think it’s important?
GoFly is a remarkable reflection of where we are in the innovation cycle of aerospace. A major company like Boeing is looking to the entrepreneurial community and saying, “The next great wave of innovation in aerospace could come from here. And we want to help stimulate it. We want to use the market forces to drive innovation forward.” It’s a very enlightened perspective that’s indicative of where a lot of large companies are in their thought process about innovation. There’s recognition across a broad range of industries — automotive, financial services, healthcare — that innovation is going to happen outside of their R&D environments. GoFly is one of the most notable, large-scale, visible efforts of this kind, certainly in aerospace.
As an investor, what excites you most about the future of the aerospace landscape?
For me, it’s the convergence of trends that we’ve seen in other parts of the hardware and systems world arriving in aerospace. A lot of our investing activity within aerospace has been focused on the satellite industry, which is also part of the computing industry. And when you look at the satellite industry through the lens of the computing industry, it’s sort of shocking the way people build systems, how much they spend, and that it’s evolved at such a slow rate. Our interest as investors is predicated on the fact that radically new, cheaper innovation models — which we’ve seen in the computing industry for a long time — are now shaping the way we build satellites and aircraft.
Tell us more about these new innovation models.
One crucial innovation in aerospace is the adoption of rapid iterative development cycles that we often see in the software and hardware and systems worlds. You launch ten satellites, get them operational, generate some revenue, learn a lot from that phase of the constellation, and that informs your design for generation two of your spacecraft, which you then build and deploy. All of that happens in three- to six-month cycles. This rapid build-test-deploy-gather feedback-rebuild-repeat approach is becoming the new convention. Companies that started building their satellite constellations two and a half years ago are now on the fourth or fifth of their crafts. They’ve come a long way in a short amount of time, and it’s a crucial factor in creating successful companies. We like to fund people who have a very concrete business plan that they’re executing upon. That’s a lot more interesting to us than a pure long development effort.
As a VC with 20+ years of experience, you’ve had the chance to interact with a lot of entrepreneurs. What skills will successful teams need to have in order to make their audacious goal a reality?
There’s a set of qualities that are essential, but often undervalued. Everyone’s pursuing something breakthrough with an innovative design, and almost all of them are technically viable. The elusive skill is really commercialization. Raising capital has to be a fundamental core competence for any entrepreneur in the aerospace sector. By and large, our view is that most of these companies will be successful — if they can raise the money. It’s an unusual thing to say, but the biggest risk of failure is not getting the money. We focus an awful lot on teams’ access to capital, on the strength of the syndicates as the crucial differentiator. It’s that evidence of strong commercial demand and the ability to point to customers in the near term. We don’t like to fund ventures that we’re not going to see turn into a business for two or three years.
Does commercial demand exist already? Or is it still on the horizon?
There’s no question that the demand is there — just look at the growth in commercial air traffic. I think it’s a matter of safety. The greatest value in this sector will be created not by the development of individual flight vehicles, but by the creation of the safe framework to support them and to make the use of those vehicles convenient and reliable.
What was the best piece of advice you received in your career that might be particularly helpful to GoFly participants?
Have a deep, detailed understanding of how you’re going to make money and constantly revisit that. Make that your guiding star, if you will. It’s important in this sector because it’s very easy to get lost in the innovation and the technology. You need to be really focused in how you target investors. You need to understand, down to an individual partner level, who’s really active in aerospace and approach them with development models that are capital efficient.
Will is a General Partner of RRE Ventures. During his 17 year career as an investor, he has served on the boards of more than 20 companies, including Breather, BuzzFeed, Paperless Post, Pilot Fiber, Spaceflight and Spire. Will is also an Adjunct Associate Professor at Columbia Business School and the Chairman of the Dockery Farms Foundation, which he founded. Before entering the venture capital industry, Will held senior management positions with SupplyWorks and NetMarket, the e-commerce pioneer now owned by Cendant Corp.