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Vermont's Beta Technologies is growing fast. But it faces challenges on its path to electric flight

A white electric plane flying above low clouds with mountains in the background.
Brian Jenkins
/
Beta Technologies
Beta Technologies' Alia aircraft takes a test flight with Mount Mansfield in the distance. The company is pushing to get its aircraft federally certified by 2024, but it faces obstacles ahead.

A company in South Burlington wants to revolutionize the future of flight. Beta Technologies is part of a fast-growing industry working to build electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.

It's growing at a rapid clip. Just five years after Beta was founded, it has nearly 300 employees in Vermont, with plans to hire hundreds more. But the company is still several years away from launching its product, and it faces obstacles and uncertainty ahead.

Company leaders speak boldly about the scale of their ambitions.

“Beta started about five years ago as a mission-based company to help bend the curve on climate change,” said chief operating officer Blain Newton, sitting in his second-floor office in the company’s headquarters at the Burlington airport.

“We’re out to prove that electric, fully-sustainable aviation is commercially viable,” Newton explained.

To do that means creating entirely new systems to get a plane off the ground and into flight, powered by batteries. So, Newton said, Beta is really a propulsion company.

“We build really insanely reliable, high torque-to-weight ratio electric motors, inverters and the battery systems that power it," he said.

Five people working around a large wooden table, surrounded by tools in a room with white walls.
Henry Epp
/
Vermont Public
Employees and interns work on a recent morning inside Beta's fabrication shop. The company has nearly 300 employees in Vermont, and recently hired 80 interns.

This work is largely happening in South Burlington by employees like Chris Doyle, who works in the company’s fabrication shop. On a recent morning, Doyle held a small piece of aluminum, preparing to grind it down.

“One of the electrical engineers in the back of the airplane suddenly needed a new piece of aluminum about this shape exactly," Doyle explained. “So I’m going to just mill that up right quickly right here.”

Doyle is one of over 350 people the company now employs, mostly in Vermont, but also in Plattsburgh, Montreal and other locations. Their growth has been exponential: COO Blain Newton said when he started at Beta three years ago, there were about 30 employees.

The company’s technology has also come a long way since its start in 2017. Back then, CEO Kyle Clark, who grew up in Vermont, quietly led a small team to make their first prototype of a battery-powered aircraft that takes off like a helicopter, then flies like a plane. Their second prototype began flight testing in Plattsburgh in 2020. This May, the company flew it 1,400 miles from Plattsburgh to Bentonville, Arkansas. That flight took a week, with a number of charging stops along the way.

“What's interesting about Beta is that they've been flying this aircraft on meaningful flights around the country, over significant distances with people inside,” said Elan Head, a reporter who covers the burgeoning eVTOL industry for a publication called The Air Current. “That's a pretty big accomplishment.”

More from Vermont Public: Electric Aircraft From Burlington Startup Begins Flight Tests In Plattsburgh

Beta is in a competitive field. According to one industry-watcher, nearly 700 companies are trying to get into the eVTOL business. Some are better funded than Beta and have also completed significant test flights. Others haven’t yet flown their aircraft. Head said many in this prospective industry are looking to get into what’s known as “urban air mobility.”

“Which is a vision for the future in which these aircraft will be used to fly people around or between cities, similar to the way Ubers or taxis are used today,” Head explained.

Think electric flying cars, ferrying those who can afford it above city traffic. Beta may supply its aircraft for that purpose. Last year, it announced a deal with a company called Blade, which currently sells helicopter flights from Manhattan to JFK and Newark airports. Blade ordered 20 of Beta’s electric aircraft to be delivered in 2024.

"They've been flying this aircraft on meaningful flights around the country, over significant distances with people inside. That's a pretty big accomplishment."
Elan Head, reporter for The Air Current

But Beta is not banking on carrying passengers right away. For the most part, it's focused on selling its planes to transport cargo, COO Blain Newton said.

“We built a working aircraft, one that's designed to be a utilitarian,” he said. “One of our customers called it the flying F-150. So it's really intended to be a working vehicle.”

Beta’s other orders are from companies like UPS and United Therapeutics, a company that’s working to develop artificial human organs. Those firms would be using Beta’s aircraft to haul stuff, not people.

Industry reporter Elan Head thinks that could give Beta an advantage.

“I think Beta, moreso than many of its competitors, is focused on smaller, but very practical, markets that could give it a really well-defined path to entry in terms of operating this vehicle right away, as soon as it's certified,” Head said.

A photo showing a building with trucks outside of it against a blue sky with a few clouds
Henry Epp
/
Vermont Public
Beta is headquartered in this building on the grounds of the Burlington airport in South Burlington. The company says it has nearly 300 employees in Vermont and intends to eventually hire hundreds more to build its aircraft.

In two years, Beta expects to be assembling its planes in Vermont to ship off to customers. The company said it just broke ground on a manufacturing facility on the Burlington airport grounds.

“The goal is to have 300 aircraft a year coming out of that facility [by the] middle of the decade, and that'll be several hundred folks staffing that,” Newton said.

Beta’s fast growth has caught the attention of state leaders, including Gov. Phil Scott. At a press conference in late March, Scott made a bold prediction about Beta’s potential impact on Vermont, comparing it to another company that brought thousands of jobs to the state decades ago.

“I think this is as big as when IBM decided to locate in Vermont,” Scott said. “This is going to have that big an impact on us.”

More from Vermont Public: Beta Technologies receives state incentive for possible expansion in St. Albans

Meanwhile, the state government has backed up Scott’s excitement about Beta with over $3 million in grants, which Beta will receive over several years if it makes capital investments and creates a specific number of new jobs. That includes money it will receive if it follows through on a plan to do battery testing at a former Energizer plant in St. Albans.

Then there are local schools and colleges. They all want to get in with Beta.

Officials with the University of Vermont, Champlain College, Vermont Technical College and the Burlington Tech Center each told Vermont Public that their schools have so far had conversations with Beta, and had students go on to internships and jobs with the company.

“I think this is as big as when IBM decided to locate in Vermont. This is going to have that big an impact on us.”
Gov. Phil Scott

“They're in a very rapid space of growth,” said Chris Koliba, the director of UVM’s Office of Engagement. “Our position is, we're here and willing and able and interested to work with you [Beta].”

While none of the schools have formalized a partnership with the company, Burlington Tech is in talks to build a new training facility with the company on the airport grounds. And they’ve received some help: Sen. Patrick Leahy got them a $10 million earmark for that project.

So, Beta has a lot of potential to make a major impact on the Vermont economy, and local institutions are hoping to get a piece of the action. But Beta’s product is still years away from market, and there are obstacles ahead.

Hear the second part of the story, here:

First, there’s money and customer orders: To date, Beta has raised over $800 million from entities like the Amazon Climate Fund and Fidelity Management. The company expects that amount will be sufficient to get its aircraft to the point of federal certification. It’s also an enormous haul for a Vermont startup.

“Things like that are really noticeable to the outside world,” said David Bradbury, head of the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies. But even with all that cash, he said the company will have to tackle some fundamental business questions in the coming years.

“Can you build it? Can you scale that construction and building?” Bradbury said. “And then can your customers find return on investment for certain use cases?”

An white electric plane, surrounded by tools and equipment, inside a hangar at night.
Brian Jenkins
/
Beta Technologies
Beta's prototype Alia recently flew from Plattsburgh, New York to Bentonville, Arkansas over the course of a week. Beta intends to manufacture hundreds of electric aircraft like this on the Burlington airport grounds.

Beta already has prospective customers, like Blade, UPS and United Therapeutics. Beta’s competitors in the eVTOL industry have announced big orders as well.

But some of those orders may be more legitimate than others, according to industry reporter Elan Head. She said United Airlines, for example, has said it will buy electric aircraft from a company called Archer.

“But it hasn't necessarily put down any money in these orders, and in fact, has received some very attractive stock incentives from Archer for announcing its intention to explore an order at some point in the future,” Head said.

Those kinds of order announcements could be little more than PR. But for its part, Beta COO Blain Newton said all the orders for their aircraft are “firm.”

“They are firm, committed orders with contracts behind [them],” he said.

Head said Beta’s orders do appear more legitimate than some other eVTOL companies, with a caveat: Unlike some of its competitors, Beta is a private company.

“We don't have a lot of visibility into the details of these specific transactions,” Head said.

More from Vermont Public: GlobalFoundries is growing amid the chip shortage. But is it committed to Vermont?

Whether Beta planes do eventually head off to companies like UPS and Blade depends on another looming question for Beta and the rest of the eVTOL industry: Will their aircraft get certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)?

The FAA needs to sign off on these new aircraft to ensure they’re safe and reliable to carry commercial passengers and cargo. This is key: If Beta’s aircraft can’t get FAA certification, they don’t have a product to sell.

For the last few years, Head said companies like Beta had been working with the FAA, expecting to get certified under an existing set of rules for small aircraft. But then in May, the agency threw the industry a curveball.

“Instead of certifying this eVTOL aircraft under this airplane framework, it was going to certify each aircraft as its own special category of aircraft,” she explained.

In short, Head said, this is a major reversal spurred by a bureaucratic dispute within the FAA. The bottom line is, the certification process for Beta and others could be delayed.

“Whether that's months or years has yet to be seen,” she said.

For its part, the FAA says this change won’t delay the launch of eVTOLs, and Newton at Beta said the same.

“We're working really closely with them [the FAA],” Newton said. “We meet with them several times a week on this, and so we've no reason to believe that it will shift our timelines.”

“Can you build it? Can you scale that construction and building? And then can your customers find return on investment for certain use cases?”
David Bradbury, Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies

The next big question for Beta: Can it create the product it set out to make? That is, an aircraft that takes off and lands vertically, which takes a lot of battery power. So far, Beta’s completed some impressive flights, like the recent one from Plattsburgh to Arkansas and back. But it's been doing those kinds of flights by taking off and landing like a conventional airplane, not vertically.

Elan Head is watching to see if that will change.

“So for Beta, we would be looking to see these same flights that they have been doing with a vertical takeoff and landing at each end, which demonstrates that they do have the battery capacity and the performance necessary to complete meaningful missions,” she said.

Beta notes the company has a second aircraft in Burlington that’s been testing its vertical takeoff and landing capabilities and is making “tremendous progress,” according to a spokesperson for the company.

Presuming it completes its aircraft, and gets certification from the FAA, then Beta will actually have to build its product. It plans to do that at its future assembly plant on the Burlington airport grounds, and hire hundreds more people to manufacture the aircraft. That could create lots of good-paying Vermont jobs, but it could also exacerbate an underlying problem in the area.

“I would say the greatest challenge is going to be housing, because you need housing in order to recruit workforce, you need a place for someone to live,” said Chris Carrigan, the head of business development at the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

More from Brave Little State: How can Vermont solve its housing crisis?

Vermont, and Chittenden County in particular, already has a housing shortage. In response, Beta has gotten into the real estate market: In 2020, the company bought seven homes in South Burlington for nearly $2 million dollars to house employees who are new to the area.

Beta is also working with a local health care company to staff up an in-house clinic, and it has plans to open a child care center for its employees, Blain Newton said.

“We're trying not to add any additional pressure into the system, in fact, to alleviate pressure from the system to the broader community,” he said.

With plenty of potential — and uncertainty — on the horizon, Vermont Public asked Newton to look ahead: What does he think the company’s Vermont headquarters will look like three years from now, in 2025?

He said he envisions hundreds more employees, cranking out planes at a constant rate for many deep-pocketed customers. Plus, a training academy to transform local residents into Beta employees.

“The goal is by that time, and I think it's more than achievable, is that we are a commercially viable, sustainable aviation company," Newton said.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp:

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Henry is a reporter and co-host of The Frequency, VPR's daily news podcast.
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