Entrepreneurship, UAVs and Star Wars: A conversation with Daniel Sola, CEO of Archangel Aerospace

We caught up with Daniel Sola, CEO and founder of Archangel Aerospace, an aerospace consultancy specialising in High Altitude UAVs (aka HAPS or High Altitude Pseudo Satellites) and space.

 

This is my first interview with an entrepreneur for Rapid Innovation Group’s “entrepreneur’s viewpoint” page. I am excited to see where our conversation takes us.

Well I will try and give you an “entrepreneur’s viewpoint.” I find that if I describe myself as an entrepreneur I suffer massive imposter syndrome [laughs].  Maybe that’s because I’ve spent a decent amount of time rubbing shoulders with extremely successful founders in Silicon Valley or maybe it is the curse of British self-deprecation.  Who knows.

 

Considering it’s the dream of imaginative children to get as close to space as possible, I’m interested in how you got into this line of work?

Well, I studied engineering at University even though I’m not an engineer by instinct. I almost studied History or Classics. In all honesty I was a terrible engineering student for most of my degree and I even attended PPE lectures instead.  We did a solar-electric high altitude drone project in my third year, I got enthusiastic about it and suddenly I was an engineering scholar and doing pretty well.  I am most interested in outcomes of projects that can have a big impact so even if I did choose an arts degree, I think I would have got to a similar destination in my career by a different route.

I always intended to work for myself, but after University I looked at my debts and options and felt the tug of The City.  As many graduates do, I felt there was a painful choice to either earn lots now to build something special later or do good work now, utilising my engineering skills. That is one of the things I enjoy about Silicon Valley. They have shown this is a totally false dichotomy and doing valuable things pays.

I decided to spend a few months in The City whilst my security clearances were coming through. I had planned to just earn some cash whilst waiting for clearances but it was something I found difficult to leave. The people were bright and energetic, it was fun and I was looking at something like a 60% pay cut at the graduate level to go and do science or engineering.  The City often talks up competition for top talent to justify bonuses.  This really misses the point. London banks aren’t competing so much with New York or Paris for top talent; they are competing with productive British industries and startups for the pick of graduates.  I think we will see this trend reverse as technology continues to disrupt old industries and inefficiencies though, so I’m optimistic for a resurgence in UK technical talent getting on with doing productive things.

 

So after working as a trader did you set up Archangel Aerospace?

No I spent 5 years gaining skills and experience before that. I began working for QinetiQ on three main areas. Asteroid deflection, infantry modernisation and high altitude UAVS.

It was at QinetiQ I got involved with the development of Zephyr, a High Altitude UAV. The last we developed with QinetiQ was Zephyr 7 and Airbus are now working on the Zephyr 8. Archangel Aerospace was founded to support the World Record flights in 2010 and we’ve continued to be involved since.

 

Can you explain your involvement with Zephyr further?

The story behind Zephyr is an interesting one. At the end of the First World War, Royal Aircraft Establishment was banned from making airplanes, so the engineers there pooled their own funds to develop an aircraft which they called Zephyr.

Similarly, this project began as an internal start-up with employees at QinetiQ putting their own money and time in to get it off the ground. The first prototype was called Zephyr 2 in homage. The Zephyr programme is somewhat bigger today and has produced a High Altitude Pseudo Satellite powered by the Sun and is unique in its ability to stay in the air for weeks or months. It holds three world records for altitude and duration. It started as a hobby which many dismissed as “it will never work”. Soon enough there were people tapping watches and asking “where is it?”

 

Bringing things back down to earth briefly, given your involvement with solar and battery technology on Zephyr, what’s your view on these two technologies in meeting future energy needs?

I think with regard to solar, the efficiency of the cells and scalability of production will be key. New production methods for amorphous triple and quadruple junction solar cells are really interesting. Scale in supply is a significant gap which needs to be crossed in order to lower costs and lead to widespread adoption. A lot of energy tech faces the same catch-22: scale is the way to lower prices and lower prices are needed for scale.

What Tesla did with its home battery (Powerwall) was significant in pairing cars and homes to batteries. The more this technology can be scaled up the faster it can lead to mass adoption. The basic Tesla Powerwall is quite undersized but even if it was sold at zero profit it still makes sense for Tesla do it to drive up scale and drive down the costs for car batteries.  One of Musk’s other companies, Solar City, will install solar cells on your roof that make more financial sense with some home storage so it is an easy upsell.  Regardless of how effective this particular home battery is, it’s a smart business move and it certainly makes the market more credible for other suppliers.

We’ve been told that fuel cells will be important for a while now.  The date changes but the rest of the slide deck looks the same. For most cases, fuel cells don’t make sense to me as the round trip efficiency is too low. Unless you were immediately going to use a substantial amount of the energy stored for heat generation anyway, batteries are the answer for home storage.  For cars the rapid recharge was attractive but rapid charging batteries are coming and you still don’t want all that heat.  For some bigger solar electric aircraft, fuel cells may well make sense with specific designs.

 

What are the applications of HAPS? How do you see them as addressing significant global issues?

HAPS of course have a military use for surveillance and communications but the commercial applications are probably more valuable. HAPS are cheaper than orbital satellites and produce better quality imaging and communications with better spectrum reuse. In a commercial capacity Earth monitoring could be applied to pollution monitoring, agriculture, border controls and sustainable fishing to name a few. The potential to sample weather and atmospheric composition directly, something satellites can’t do, is great. That side is exciting but it can be difficult to find a customer with cash for global scientific missions.

 

 R+D in this area is often military funded. Given the commercial applications of HAPS, do you see investment diversifying?

It’s hard to see where funding in HAPS will go. We have already seen huge amounts of money being poured into it by Google and Facebook given HAPS applicability to enable internet connectivity throughout the developing world. I expect that just like satellites the first customers will be (and have been) governments followed swiftly by commercial communications, which will come to dominate.  The science missions will wait for the economies of scale to drive the cost right down.

 

Business is often about mitigating risk and shaping perception. What risks do you see in terms of perceptions of UAVs in getting HAPS funded and widely deployed?

Unfortunately, the word drone gets used a lot and often these refer to quadcopters used by amateur photographers and hobbyists. They can pose significant threats in civil aviation and when a bad enough incident occurs there will be a backlash against all Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

Having said this, regulators have been very accommodating in the projects I have worked on, allowing special permissions to fly within busy airspace in Europe and the Middle East for example. The safe answer is always ‘no’ so I have been really impressed with some of the enthusiastic efforts by these regulators to help us get to a ‘yes’.

It has been significantly harder to agree arrangements for regular routine flights, which is likely to involve legislative change. Right now, a lot of regulators are inundated with requests for flying multi-rotors straight off eBay (and that’s the operators who request permission). That workload is only going to increase so I feel quite sympathetic towards them.

 

What’s next for Archangel Aerospace?

Well, we are moving offices to Oxford. We are going to set up shop in Harwell, a hub for innovative space technology. Using our expertise and knowledge we want to carve out our own niche in the emerging HAPS market, as well as working on some lower level UAV and payload products. We think we are onto something special and have a pretty clear vision for the future but the key for us is to rapidly get to a testpoint for each product as early as possible.

 

Lastly, what did you think of Star Wars (the latest film instalment, not Reagan’s Cold War defence initiative)?

I thought they played it safe to be honest. It’s the 4th time they’ve blown up the Death Star or something similar so some new ideas would be nice. It reminded me why I wanted a lightsabre as a kid growing up in the 80s. It’s hard to hate on a Star Wars film so long as there is no Jar Jar Binks so I think it’s a thumbs up.

 

Corporate Masochism: What’s the safety word?

Flogging a dead horse.  Wasting your time and mine.  Competing in a rapidly diminishing space.  Failure to find product market fit.  Not knowing when to stop.  The definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result).

Whilst still unacceptable in larger organisations, at least these practices can be resourced (assuming the whole of the rest of the organisation is not similarly engaged in fruitless tasks).  In a growth organisation they are terminal; resource spent in pointless activity starves other avenues of investigation of oxygen.  A strong narrative raises more money to pour back into the leaky bucket, ultimately burning investors – and potentially destroying markets.

Jack Welch’s biography described the senior management of GE’s nuclear power division discussing their new plant sales targets with him in the early 1980s.  What was significant in the nuclear power industry then?  Three Mile Island – the disaster of 1979.  Welch told the managers the market for new plants was dead, and that they should adapt the division’s business model to services – no one was going to be buying new power stations with public opinion firmly against nuclear power.  He didn’t understand the way the business worked (he was told), but a) he was CEO, and b) he understood how people made purchase decisions – particularly in the domain of critical public infrastructure.

It reminds me of the Grolsch man in the late 1990s and early 2000s adverts – someone needs to step in and just shout ‘stop’.  Group think is a terrible thing, leading to terrible consequences.  Without perspective organisations are prone to engaging in extended periods of corporate masochism – it’s not working, so try harder, and everyone remains or becomes increasingly miserable.

There are endless management texts on this subject (see above: Jack is a good primer), so I won’t indulge in a set of paragraphs doing a bad job of regurgitating these – rather, here’s a list of scenarios which, if you find yourself in them, should lead to pause for thought – and asking the question ‘Am I engaging in corporate masochism?’

 

  1. ‘What we need to do is push harder’
    • Why?  Pushing isn’t working, so find a way around whatever’s stopping you

 

  1. ‘What I want is a keen young person who’s entrepreneurial to …..’
    • So you want someone else to do something you don’t like doing, involving the expenditure of lots of energy, ultimately for your benefit?  If you don’t like doing it, there may be an underlying problem (assuming everyone enjoys success)

 

  1. ‘We need boots on the ground’
    • Do you?  It hasn’t worked in countless international situations – and a military ‘solution’ is never a solution – it’s just an enabler of political solutions

 

  1. ‘This worked before’
    • But the world, in my personal experience, changes immensely – it might not work now

 

  1. ‘I want a sense of activity’
    • Do you?  I generally want a sense of success, not a set of busy fools

 

  1. ‘It’s obvious’
    • Show, not tell – it might be ‘obvious’ because of a firmly held, outdated, value system – if the audience cannot see it, it isn’t obvious

 

  1. ‘How can you be so sure?’
    • It’s not always possible to be sure – but mix known ‘activity to output’ efforts with some risk taking, because a risk appetite enables innovative thinking

 

What’s the safety word?  The Grolsch man has the answer, and when someone says ‘stop’ take care to listen to them to understand why they are applying the breaks.

New Year Reflections

New year is an opportune time to reflect on the year that’s gone by, and to resolve never to repeat the mistakes of the past. For any such resolution to work, one needs to think very candidly about one’s own mistakes. So…lesson learned:

I saw what I believed to be the right course of action, but it wasn’t the course that was taken. This meant that I lost the argument. To lose the argument when you are wrong is the right outcome. Reason, logic and the wisdom of others have prevailed and all is right with the world.

If you lose the argument when you’re right then you need to think very carefully about your failure to persuade. Building a case and arguing it is the core of getting any deal done, and mistakes made in the broad church of persuasion are not to be repeated and so turn into invaluable life lessons.

The specific lesson for me here was this – I knew that different arguments for the same outcome would resonate with different characters, but acquiesced to having the key discussion in the presence of all invested parties. The rest is history.

What of course I should have done was to isolate discussions, to have got each on-side in the manner best suited to them, and to have walked into the final meeting asking for no more than a show of hands. Why didn’t I do this? With the benefit of hindsight, I’m pretty sure it was good old fashioned hubris.

There is nothing new or novel in treating people as individuals – some of the great thinkers have determined this should be a moral imperative never mind a business one – but anything worth doing is worth planning, and anything that is of fundamental importance is worth planning with military precision. When you come to execute the plan and it takes 5 minutes and looks as simple as CO2, that’s a pat on the back even if no-one but you knows it.

Rapid Innovation Group closes 3 client partnerships in the second half of 2015

The client in question has developed a patented wind energy solution which extracts up to 100% more power from the wind than conventional wind turbines.

Between September and December 2015, RIG worked with the client to close 3 international sales partners based in strategically valuable territories: The Philippines and South East Asia, The Canary Islands, and Italy.

Don’t try harder, iterate faster

Trying harder while generally doing the same thing is not the recipe for finding product market fit or finding early traction. It is a recipe for running out of runway. It is also a very human reaction.

Take a competent sales person from an established company selling an established product with an established proposition. Put them in an early stage company with an unproven product. Give them a target market and a proposition based on best current assumptions. S/he starts to fail. No traction. Their manager should say ‘well done, move on, no market there, please fail faster next time’.

But, of course, it doesn’t happen. Failure is perceived not as the route to success but rather as its opposite. The competent sales person is pushed to succeed. Confidence dips. The disillusion is that it is now the formerly competent sales person who is now deemed incompetent or not trying hard enough. S/he works harder because that’s what worked so well in their previous job. More failure. The sales person gets fired. Wrong horse wrong course.

And yet the truth is simple enough: if a competent sales person gets little or no traction within a reasonable time frame, then there is no market. Iterate the proposition or move on.