Lilium Goes Big
Receives Another $830M in Investments to Bring its 7-Seater eVTOL to Market
By Mike Hirschberg, VFS
On March 30, Lilium GmbH announced that it had agreed to merge with Qell Acquisition Corp., and revealed the development of its 7-seat Lilium Jet.
For many reasons, the Free State of Bavaria, Germany, is often compared to the Lone Star State in the US, where “Everything is bigger in Texas.” Outside the Bavarian capital of Munich, at the Special Airport Oberpfaffenhofen, Lilium has been developing its electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft technology since it was founded in 2015 by Daniel Wiegand, Sebastian Born, Patrick Nathen and Matthias Meiner.
The company has been the subject of recurring criticism over the years for pushing seemingly outlandish performance claims without sufficient substantiation (or including sufficient caveats), and for not always being forthcoming with details. As opposed to some companies who were raking up hundreds of flights and saying very little (e.g. Joby Aviation) or flying a lot and talking a lot (e.g. EHang), Lilium was sometimes considered to have a “big mouth” — making wild claims that it seemed unlikely to be able to back up.
In January 2020, German aviation publication AEROKURIER and Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading news magazine, published analyses and comments from outside engineers who concluded that, based on the minimal data Lilium had released, that the company’s Lilium Jet couldn’t possibly fulfill Chief Executive Officer Daniel Wiegand’s repeated promise that the eVTOL would carry five people 300 km (186.4 miles) at 300 km/h (186.4 mph) with reserve power to spare.
Interestingly, these outside critics did not seem to slow the flow of investments appreciably, with Lilium receiving nearly a quarter of a billion dollars just two months later (see Lilium Draws Searing Publicity, Then Soaring Investment, Vertiflite, September/October 2020). In July 2020, Lilium told Vertiflite that “In the last three months, we’ve announced $275M in total [new investment], which brings us up to a combined total of $375M and a valuation of more than $1B” — thus becoming the second eVTOL startup company to be crowned a “unicorn” (after Joby).
Apparently, those who could see behind the veil of secrecy came to a much different conclusion than those watching from the outside.
Still, the public and eVTOL experts scratched their heads. The existing 5-seat prototype had barely begun transition testing when it was destroyed in an electrical fire. COVID-19 had seemingly shut down testing of the second aircraft. But in November 2020, the company announced plans with Tavistock Development Company to build a vertiport near Orlando, Florida, with a 300-km (186 mile) range; this was followed in January with an agreement Ferrovial to develop a network of at least 10 vertiports across Florida.
However, the company’s stunning announcement on March 30 showed that it was getting big money to back up its big mouth, and build an even bigger eVTOL aircraft — the 7-Seater, the culmination of five years of technology development across four generations of technology demonstrators.
The Lilium 7-Seater will carry a pilot and six passengers.
Combining with Qell (Nasdaq: QELL), a publicly listed special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), is expected to add an additional $830M to the company’s roughly $380M raised to date. This is based on approximately $380M in cash held in trust and a $450M private investment in public equity (PIPE), including investments by Baillie Gifford, funds and accounts managed by BlackRock, Tencent, Ferrovial, LGT and its direct impact investing arm Lightrock, Palantir, FII Institute and private funds affiliated with PIMCO.
Qell is led by Barry Engle, a former president of General Motors North America, and is “focused on developing next-generation, sustainable mobility.” Upon closing of the transaction, the merged company will be called Lilium N.V., and plans to list ordinary shares on the Nasdaq under the ticker symbol LILM. The transaction values the combined company at approximately $3.3B, at the $10.00 per share PIPE price.
Engle stated in the Lilium press release that Qell was “thrilled to be partnering with Lilium to together build the leader in regional electric air mobility. Qell set out to find an exceptional and ambitious technology company, with significant growth potential — and in Lilium we have found that. Lilium has unique technology and one of the most accomplished engineering and commercial teams in electric aviation. The 7-Seater Lilium Jet is a game-changer for transportation.”
The combined company is expected to add Engle to the Board, joining current Board members, which includes former Airbus CEO Tom Enders.
“The experienced Qell leadership team is looking forward to working with Lilium. Our board has a collective set of experiences in growing businesses, strengthening operations, expanding globally, raising capital and creating long-term value,” Engle said. “I have spent my career in mobility and been part of the electrification of the automotive industry. The market and societal potential from the electrification of air travel is enormous. I, and the whole team at Qell, are excited for the impact Lilium can have and the part we can play.”
Wiegand said, “We’re incredibly excited to reveal the development of our 7-Seater Lilium Jet and announce the next stage of our growth. This is a validation of all the hard work over the last five years from our talented team and our world-class partners and investors…. In Qell, we have found a partner who shares our ambition for sustainable mobility and brings tremendous experience in running mobility and hardware businesses.”
The proceeds from the SPAC are intended to fund the launch of commercial operations, planned for 2024. This includes the finalization of production facilities in Germany, launch of serial production aircraft and completion of type certification. Lilium said it has put in place a rigorous aerospace program across all certification, design, testing and production phases, with maturity gates at every stage of the aircraft’s development cycle.
Lilium’s 650-personnel team includes over 400 aerospace engineers with “a combined 4,000 years of aerospace experience” and its leadership team were previously responsible for developing and delivering some of the most successful and complex aircraft in aviation history, including the Airbus A320, A350 and A380, Eurofighter Typhoon, Gulfstream G650 and Harrier VTOL jet. The cash injection will facilitate further expansion of the workforce, and finding additional partners.
Lilium has already announced that it is partnering with world-class suppliers whose technology and services have been certified in aerospace around the world for decades, such as Toray Industries, providing the carbon composites for the aircraft’s primary structures; Aciturri, manufacturing the fuselage and wing systems; and Lufthansa Aviation Training, training Lilium’s pilots.
To date, Lilium has secured approximately $200M of commitments from infrastructure partners, including Ferrovial and Tavistock Development Company. Up to 14 vertiports are already planned in Florida. Lilium is also in advanced discussions with key infrastructure partners for 10 vertiports to build a network across Europe.
Other eVTOL SPACs
Lilium is the third eVTOL developer SPAC in the past two months and had been rumored for several weeks (see “SPACtacular Financing: Billions Coming for eVTOL,” Vertiflite, March/April 2021).
On Feb. 10, Archer Aviation and Atlas Crest Investment Corp. (NYSE: ACIC) announced they would merge in a SPAC with $1.1B in gross proceeds, including $500M held in trust and $600M in a PIPE, reaching a valuation of $3.8B.
Reinvent Technology Partners (NYSE: RTP) announced a SPAC with Joby Aviation on Feb. 24, which raised $1.6B for a $6.6B valuation. The fundraise included $690M cash in trust plus an $835M PIPE and a $75M million convertible note, and is expected to fund the company through certification in 2023, build-out of its manufacturing facilities and initial operations in 2024.
In addition, helicopter operator Blade UAM landed a $400M SPAC and announced plans on Dec. 15, 2020, to eventually transition to eVTOL aircraft. Finally, on Feb. 18, Surf Air Mobility Corp. of Los Angeles announced that it had entered into a definitive agreement to acquire hybrid-electric conventional takeoff and landing (eCTOL) pioneer Ampaire.
Wiegand originally conceived the basic eVTOL jet concept in 2013. There were two small-scale models, Gleiter and Hexa, followed by two sub-scale prototypes: the fifth-scale Dragon and half-scale Falcon. The earliest operational concepts had two sets of pivoting, retractable canards, as well as folding wings to fit in a parking space.
Lilium’s third-generation Eagle was a full-scale unmanned demonstrator sized for four seats, which conducted a series of unmanned test flights in April 2017.
Following a relatively abbreviated flight test program, Lilium moved forward with a five-seat model, announcing it in 2018 as its production model, with room for a pilot and four passengers. The five-seater, recently revealed its name as “Phoenix,” has 36 “electric engines” — fans embedded in the flaps of the forward and aft wings — ganged in sets of three fans, each vectoring independently for control in hover, transition and cruise. Two aircraft were built. On May 16, 2019, Lilium announced the first flight of its first untethered, unmanned five-seater, which had taken place on May 4, 2019, after extensive ground testing.
A Lilium press release and video in October 2019 showed the aircraft flying in partial wingborne flight, “flying at speeds in excess of 100 km/h” or 62 mph. The Feb. 2020 fire and the COVID-19 lockdown and restrictions, precluded any further work on the second Phoenix demonstrator, but it has been completed and fitted with improvements. Wiegand explained in an interview, “when the fire occurred was when we reassembled the battery pack to resume the second part of the flight test campaign. And then we had the fire, we had the shops closed for 6–8 weeks because of all the cleaning in the buildings. And after that COVID hit and we said, okay, then let's use the time to upgrade the aircraft.”
However, a Feb. 10, 2021 article on Forbes.com, revealed that the company was working on a 7-seat version its Lilium Jet, and had aspirations for even larger models. In fact, the article quoted Alexander Asseily, an early investor in Lilium and now the company’s chief strategy officer, saying that Lilium had long abandoned the 5-seat design, “We were never going to ship it, we were never going to certify it.”
The Lilium Jets feature 24 "electric engines" on the wings and 12 on the canard.
A Bigger Aircraft
The Lilium “7-Seater Jet” — indicating six passengers and a pilot — has a projected cruise speed of 280 km/h (175 mph) at 3,000 m (10,000 ft) and a range of 250+ km (155+ miles), including reserves. The company also published its dimensions: the wingspan is 13.9 m (45.6 ft) and overall length is 8.5 m (27.9 ft), though a comparison to its 5-seater wasn’t found.
The company says its eVTOL aircraft will “revolutionize regional travel, saving people hours not minutes.” It’s “regional shuttle service will enable sustainable, high-speed transportation.” The 7-Seater Lilium Jet has market-leading capacity — company founder Wiegand noted that it has 50% more passenger capacity than its leading competitor, the 4-passenger Joby air taxi — and is “capable of quiet vertical take-off, allowing Lilium access to more landing sites and the opportunity to build higher network density, avoiding the need for expensive ground infrastructure.”
In an interview with Vertiflite, Wiegand said that Lilium hired its commercial team four years ago, in 2017, and they looked extensively at the different business models, such as air taxi, shuttle flights, etc. After a year of study, the company “decided to fully exploit the ability of our technology to go for a bigger airplane, because we found that a shuttle business model going into a city would give us two big advantages. Firstly we would get higher time savings. We would get hours of time savings for our customers, not 10, 20 minutes or so. And because of that, it would enable us to bring more passengers on one flight.”
He noted that “this is crucial to get better unit economics and to get the prices down, because it allows us to distribute the cost of the pilot and the landing fees — which are always the same [regardless of number of passengers] — over more passenger tickets.”
Thus, with this 2018 decision to go to a larger aircraft, the 5-seat Phoenix became a technology demonstrator before its first flight.
Lilium applied for concurrent type certification for a high-capacity aircraft with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2018. Development of the 7-Seater Lilium Jet began in stealth mode following this milestone. In 2020, the 7-Seater Lilium Jet received CRI-A01 certification basis from EASA. The EASA Special Condition SC-VTOL draft was published in October 2018, and finalized the following July.
Explaining the process, Wiegand said, “You start with the requirements and the regulators. Then you talk about your means of compliance with the regulators. Once you have clarity on this, you pursue into the detailed design, you have your preliminary and critical design reviews, and then you're going to ground tests and flight testing…. we are now in the detailed design of the 7-Seater.”
A rendering of the Lilium 7-Seater cabin.
In conjunction with the March 30 announcement, Lilium for the first time revealed significant new information on its aeropropulsion approach. The company posted an informally peer-reviewed paper, “Architectural performance assessment of an electric vertical take-off and landing (e-VTOL) aircraft based on a ducted vectored thrust concept,” by founder Patrick Nathen, and reviewed by four European academics. While no data was provided, it laid out the basic approach of the company’s proprietary Ducted Electric Vectored Thrust (DEVT) technology, and why the company believes it has a breakthrough in aeropropulsion performance. The paper indicates an incredible lift-to-drag (L/D) of 18.4, similar to airliners flying at 35,000 ft (10,000 m), and a wing thickness ratio (t/c) of 12% — less than a turboprop and half that of the V-22 Osprey.
The company has conducted extensive ground testing. In Lilium’s investor video, Brian Phillipson, Deputy Chief Technology Officer, noted that the company has “more than 50 different test facilities and the manufacturing facilities required to support them… They allow us to assess structural performance, aerodynamic performance, thrust, propulsion, acoustic and — particularly today, we're standing in the acoustic wind tunnel, which allows us to assess the acoustic performance of different fan types, different rotor types and to measure the radiated noise, as well as the propulsion efficiency of the motor.” Images showed a full-scale 3-fan segment in a wind tunnel test.
Lilium says it has successfully developed, tested and refined the underlying technology for its eVTOL jets, DEVT, along with key control systems, aircraft and battery architecture. DEVT technology enables Lilium to scale to higher-capacity aircraft and keep noise emissions and ground footprint low, according to the company.
The 7-Seater Lilium Jet will be Lilium’s first aircraft to go into serial production, but it has plans for larger aircraft in the future. Lilium notes that its aircraft will have 30x fewer components than a commercial airliner and is designed for ease of manufacturability and scalability. Lilium applies automotive-style design for manufacturing methods and is designing for fully automated high-quality production of its engines, actuators and batteries.
As more data and information come out, it can be analyzed and considered in proving its breakthrough in eVTOL technology.
A Lilium full-scale fan segment for testing.