One of the first tenants at Switzerland Innovation Park Biel/Bienne, start-up company evolaris aviation is working with the Swiss aircraft manufacturer MSW Aviation to develop the world’s first electric-powered aerobatic plane. The young electrical and mechanical engineers from the Bern University of Applied Sciences spin-off have set themselves ambitious targets.
Your company is based at the Switzerland Innovation Park Biel/Bienne (SIP BB). Is there space for a whole airplane?
No, but who knows, perhaps it will be different in the new building. An airplane doesn’t really belong at SIP BB anyway. We make the small, highly complex components here. Essential success factors are not only that SIP BB is located very close to the Bern University of Applied Sciences (BFH) but also that the BFH Energy Storage Research Centre (ESReC) is a fellow tenant at SIP BB. In other words, everything related to the project is close by. For the airplane itself, we have been able to rent a large hangar in Nidau for a fair price.
How did you come into contact with SIP BB?
(Laughs) Together with the ESReC, we were more or less the first tenants at SIP BB. At the time, there were maybe five people working for the innovation park. I don’t know precisely how many there are today, but I believe it’s more than 30. In that sense, we were practically pioneers and have witnessed SIP BB’s rapid development.
A frequent piece of advice is: “Set up a company on your own as it will save you a lot of trouble and heartache.” There are three of you. Is the atmosphere often heated at evolaris?
We are three completely different characters who spend a lot of time together, so of course there is potential for differences of opinion. We also integrated this aspect into the preparation phase for our project, however. Each of us set out what we expected of the collaboration. At our company, conflicts are not swept under the carpet but are brought to the table and talked through. It’s actually quite like a relationship – one in which our product is our baby, so to speak: it is complex, varied and challenging.
Were you aware that it would be so complicated?
Yes and no! I have known a lot about aviation and gliders ever since my childhood. My first contact with aircraft manufacturing was during my year as an intern at Max Vogelsang’s company, MSW Aviation. For that reason, we knew what to expect in these areas at least. Then there are all the legal requirements, the aviation requirements, the processes that must be adhered to, and all the knowledge of aerodynamics, power electronics and software programming. We were naive in terms of the amount of time and money it would take to develop the whole drive system, however – we got our estimates wrong there.
A dream that is turning into a nightmare?
No, it’s never been a nightmare. But we have been under great pressure both physically and mentally at times. In the run-up to the exhibition at AERO Friedrichshafen in April 2017, we were working practically night and day and were pushed to the absolute limit. But we never thought of giving up – that would have been a real shame.
Why are you investing in aircraft and not in cars?
Because the aircraft market is a niche and we can supply it with a highly complex product. Aviation is a world of its own in terms of technology and many “inventors” find that off-putting – especially the glut of aviation regulations and safety requirements that have to be observed. Of course we cannot keep up with this like a company on the scale of Microsoft, but that was never our goal. We want to make a difference by taking small steps, and that plan really could come to fruition over the longer term.
Ten years from now, we see evolaris aviation manufacturing aircraft engines and supplying system components for the aviation industry, from batteries to control and safety software to the drive engine itself. We are capable of implementing complex development projects in a short period of time thanks to our team’s broad range of skills. Three further customers from the aircraft market have already commissioned us to produce engines or construct drive systems for them.
And where are you with your project at the moment?
In November 2017, we took our airplane Votec Evolaris to the Birrfeld airfield in Aargau and carried out ground tests, structural verifications and strength and system tests. The final approval by the Federal Office of Civil Aviation will take place in February 2018, and the first test flight will be conducted in the spring.
Who will fly the plane?
That was something we had to negotiate with the Civil Aviation Office, too. For us, it was important that our aircraft maker, Florian Gygax from MSW Aviation, would be permitted to fly – not just because the pilot needs to really know the plane, but also because we built it ourselves and therefore want to fly it ourselves. That is part of our success story: “We are a young team that, together with an experienced aircraft maker, has built the first electric-powered aerobatic plane in the world!”