Interview: Wingtra

I met Leopold Flechsenberger, Business Development Manager at Wingtra on December 2015 in Zurich, Switzerland.

Wingtra is a technology startup settled inside ETH Zurich. Their main business is the design, development and production of a new kind of civil drone which has VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) capabilities. Watch the video (link: http://youtu.be/QADvPDWtgFU).

Andrea: Why the founders decided to open the start-up at ETH Zurich?

Leopold: The choice to set up a startup within ETH has been given by a number of reasons: some of the Wingtra people are former students at ETH. We can easily access shared knowledge and skill inside ETH and get in touch with professors and PhD researchers to solve quickly any kind of development issues. And we have a prestigious “name” to spend when relating with investors and third parties. Investors are keen on financing startup companies settled at ETH which for them means a sign of quality and trustability.

What about Wingtra? How many people work here?

Wingtra is a fast-growing startup. We have expanded from 4 to 22 people within a year and a half. Four of us deal with business development matters, while most of the others are hardware engineers, mechanical engineers and software engineers. A number of nationalities are represented from Switzerland to India and Egypt.

How this company started? And who put money in it?

Wingtra founders decided to start their startup funding the company with their savings, thanks to the fact that costs were kept low by the decision to stay at ETH. To run the company they succeded to get funded by a Swiss fund who gave them around 340.000 CHF. This amount of money helped Wingtra in its initial growth but the increasing number of employees to pay requires today more money to support the company. Wingtra founders are going to visit the Silicon Valley in order to meet Venture Capitals there and get a new round of funding. This amount of money will help Wingtra to pass from prototyping to production.

When you'll be ready for the market? And how you know the market is ready for your drone?

Wingtra is planning to sell the first units in 6 months at the time of the interview.In order to create the most suitable product to sell to their customers, Wingtra has interviewed around 40 prospect customers of their product in order to understand the real needs of their future customer base. First usage is on trasportation at high speed of medicines and everything related with pharma industry. In Africa with high-speed drones you can overcame the lack of road infrastructures said Leopold. Their drone has a payload of max 0,5 kgs, can fly one hour at 55 km/h in full autonomy and its ideal for delivering medicines and small packages. Another application is data gathering over big ground parcels like in agriculture and mining. Their drones can be configured with cameras, thermal sensors, telemetry sensors and any other kind of device to collect data.

I spoke about the phenomena we are witnessing in Italy where new drone service micro-companies are created by wedding photographers who reinvent themselves as drone operators. Despite the size of each micro-company, their huge number is creating a new labor market since graduated students in Engineering are recruited by these new businesses (worth 350 million EUR in 2015).

Leopold anyway restated that the big deal with drones is in data gathering not in photo/video production.

What is your biggest issues developing the drone? Or marketing it?

Biggest problem for Wingtra is to test prototypes in both simulated conditions and in real life. During the interview some of them where testing a drone in the wind tunnel to improve aerodynamics. Their drone is fully autonomous and do not require any kind of human intervention. There is an issues with the Swiss legislation that do not permit any autonomous flight. As in Italy drones can be flight by sight nearby the human pilot. The reason is the liability in case of crash. In USA the FAA already gave some exception for enabling autonomous flight (like FAA drone law Section 333).

I also pointed out that this disruptive technology is bringing innovation to both its application sector and cross-sector. This is important to remind for