Deep Tech Dive #5 | Norris Tie Co-Founder & CEO of Exosonic, Inc.

For this Deep Tech Dive, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Norris Tie, Co-Founder and CEO of Exosonic, Inc. Exosonic is a supersonic aviation company developing a new standard for travel with their low-boom supersonic jet capable of cruising at Mach 1.8 overland and comfortably carrying up to 70 passengers. Founded in 2019 and admitted to Y Combinator class of 2020.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Deep tech companies need to launch a product in 5 to 10 years. If possible, consider a multi-product approach that will help you accomplish your bigger vision.
  2. In regards to a new way of recruiting, we all have to come to some understanding that opportunities are not equally distributed amongst everyone. We should be cognizant of the privilege that someone doesn’t have and look more into one’s ability to be self-sufficient with the capability to learn on his / her own.
  3. The greatest barrier to making supersonic flights commercial is the loud sonic boom.

“Developing an aircraft that can pass regulatory scrutiny is complicated enough, but equally challenging is the need to prove to airlines that the model will turn a profit.”

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Norris if you could tell me about yourself and what led you into this field of supersonic flight?

The journey actually started a long time ago when I was in high school. I knew that we wouldn’t be flying at subsonic speeds forever but for whatever reason, commercial aviation was stalling. I didn’t see anyone tackling the problem of faster flight and wanted to solve this problem. Since high school, I’ve dedicated my academic and professional experiences to accelerate travel times.

My personal motivation for this was because I traveled a lot to Asia and grew frustrated with the very long flight. I thought to myself, what could I do about this? At UCLA, I studied aerospace engineering. In industry, I explored ways in which to propel vehicles faster than the speed of sound to determine the right technology to enable faster travel. So I looked into hypersonics, rocket travel, in addition to general supersonics. From my industry experiences, I thought that supersonic flight was already well understood. But the biggest barrier to getting wider adoption was really quieting the loud sonic boom.

When was the idea of Exosonic conceived?

I got to work on Lockheed Martin’s X-59 program funded by NASA, the low boom supersonic flight demonstrator. The purpose of that aircraft was to lift the supersonic overland flight ban, and put in a noise limit, instead of a speed limit. I thought, well, if we can develop a quiet enough supersonic airliner by muting the boom, then we can take advantage of future regulatory changes allowing supersonic overland flight within a certain noise limit, and really bring supersonic travel to its fullest potential, which is flying supersonic anywhere and everywhere around the world. From that inspiration, came Exosonic.

What about the boom prevents supersonic aviation from being widely adopted?

It’s loud, really loud. But it’s more than that, it’s a physical phenomenon. It feels like a bomb going off. So when you’re flying supersonic overland it generates sonic booms. It’s like a continuous explosion that travels with you, making houses and buildings below you shake as you fly over. Imagine that happening every time a supersonic airplane was going over your house. In fact, they did that in the 1960s called the Oklahoma City Flyovers, and people were terrified for 6 months. No one wants their house to shake every 2 hours.

What’s the timeline for Mach 1.8?

The timeline depends on the regulatory process of getting the commercial airliner approved. That typically takes five years. The long timeline is due to the aircraft design, manufacturing, and certification processes. In terms of flight, it’s like any other supersonic airplane that we can develop today, and that can fly between 50,000–60,000 ft. Regular airplanes today fly anywhere between 34- 40,000 ft. We’re not going up to space.

How did you come to be a company?

The first step was to find a co-founder, so when I got to business school, I started reaching out to people at Stanford in the aerospace engineering department. The second person I met Tim MacDonald also shared the vision of evolving commercial aviation. He had the right level of experience, having done a lot of conceptual aircraft design as part of his Ph.D. at Stanford. We’ve been working together ever since 2017.

How does it feel to be the founder of a deep tech company?

I think that the reputation of a deep tech company launching a product in 10+ years is something we want to move away from. Investors don’t want to see their money thrown into a black hole that may not pay off without seeing the fruits of the labor. So we’re taking a multi-product approach. SpaceX didn’t start with Starship to go straight to Mars. They started with Falcon 1.

That got us thinking that we should develop a small supersonic UAV as the first vehicle that we can sell. And we did find interest from commercial and government entities. From there, we plan to go into other derivative products and use that technology to develop the supersonic airliner over time.

Any big wins so far with this multi-product approach?

Our biggest win has been with the Air Force. We’re developing a supersonic executive transport version of our airliner, where we can transport high-ranking government personnel around the world in half the time. You can see our cabin interior in this CNN article. This has really helped us grow our team and pay for some testing that we’re going to do later in April. So far, we’ve collected $1.4 million in contracts with the Air force. Our pre-seed round has been primarily funded by USAF with a few Angel checks here and there. They have allowed us to hire really experienced people, that have allowed us to punch above our weight.

If you are attracting really intelligent people, that is a notion of what you have accomplished thus far. And that’s the way it should be, recruit smarter.

I totally agree. I mean, in terms of intelligence, it’s not just like one scale where everyone is just really smart in one thing. I mean, intelligence is such a multi-dimensional thing. We can bring on someone with 40+ years of experience, but they may not know some of these other tools that are coming up because they’ve learned other things. And that’s why having junior engineers can be beneficial, they are aware of the latest and greatest tools.

What are some external forces that could push you guys forward?

Given a multi-product approach, there are some synergies that we can have with the government. Like helping us out with aviation regulation. Similar to fintech regulators, but in the commercial aviation world, there is a body of regulators, not only at the national level but also at the international level. It’s important to attend those meetings because you get to learn about how these organizations, countries, or civil aviation bodies are thinking about how regulations will change over time, whether that be greenhouse gas emissions, noise emissions, or air traffic control for the future supersonic transport vehicles. For a startup at our size, we can be there, but not necessarily need to expand the resources to go push those efforts, because it’s a community that’s helping us push which is really helpful towards our cause.

For a non-college graduate, what would it take to get into your industry?

We’re a business that has multiple roles. It’s not just engineering, there’s also business development, customer outreach, etc. On the engineering side if someone were to come to us, and somehow taught themselves the basics of aerospace engineering, and even demonstrated that through practice, whether that be presenting their own research or developing their own prototypes at home, to exhibit their knowledge base, then yeah, we would certainly hire them.

In some sense, given that self-motivation to learn that material on your own would make that person an even more competitive candidate. In school, a lot of things are spoon-fed, but I don’t wanna oversimplify education, because it’s important. But the point is if you learn something yourself and can put it into practice that’s really exceptional.

For the other non-technical roles, I don’t have a formal background in airline analysis and I taught that stuff to myself through my own research, plus talking to people in the industry and learning from them. All these things can be done on your own through online resources to learn about the airline industry, read financial documents, and then talk with people, go to conferences, things like that.

What do you think needs to change about recruiting?

We all have to come to some understanding that opportunities are not equally distributed amongst everyone, even within a certain university. Some people come from different backgrounds, financial circumstances, etc. And when I was going through college I didn’t have to do work-study or get help to pay my tuition, because of scholarships and financial aid I received. That gave me the flexibility to be part of clubs and go to networking events.

As a recruiter, we need to consider that when we look at resumes, to be cognizant of that. We should holistically look for people that are self-sufficient, hardworking individuals that have the capability to learn. And it can come in many different ways.

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