Lilium, The German Firm Building The First Electric ‘Air Taxi’



Lilium is almost as ambitious as European startups come. The Munich-based company is developing an all-electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) jet, which it hopes will one day power an on-demand “air taxi” service, arguably making flying cars a reality.

And although it’s still early days — the two-seater Lilium Jet prototype only took its first and public and ssuccessful test flight  in April — the startup is announcing a number of key hires from notable companies in the transportation space.

They are Dr. Remo Gerber, former MD for Western Europe at Gett, who joins Lilium as chief commercial officer; Dirk Gebser, who takes up the position of VP of Production and previously held manufacturing executive roles at Airbus and Rolls Royce; and Meggy Sailer, who joined Lilium as Head of Recruitment in February and was formerly Tesla’s Head of Talent EMEA.

(I also understand that Gerber and Sailer were recruited with the help of Dan Hynes, Growth Acceleration Partner and Head of Talent at Atomico, the London VC firm that has backed Lilium)

In a call with Gerber, he told me he was “super happy” to be joining the German startup, noting that there are very few companies in Europe with the same level of ambition. “It is definitely the most fascinating job I could have ever imagined,” he says, audibly excited. “I’ve done quite a few things in my time and I’ve seen quite a few companies but never anything even remotely like that.”

To add a little color, Gerber pointed out that his training is in physics (“a long time ago”) and that his grandfather was a pilot in World War II, and his uncle also a pilot. This, and the first time he saw the Lilium jet fly, made the opportunity to join a startup building a new kind of air travel “irresistible.”

However, with Lilium at least a few years away from a commercial launch — the startup says publicly only that it hopes to have its “first manned flight in the next two years,” while the test flight was operated remotely — I ask Gerber why a chief commercial officer is needed and what exactly he’ll be doing, in the short term, at least.

“It’s a really good question,” he says. “First of all, we’re probably not as far [away] as some people might think. And we’re pushing very hard into that direction. Secondly, a lot of the things that need to happen now are obviously commercial of nature because they affect regulatory, they affect where we want to go.”

As a theoretical example, he tells me to imagine that Lilium wanted to offer an air taxi service between London Heathrow and Thames Embankment (an outer city airport to the heart of the city), which would require a landing pad on the Thames river, perhaps instead of the now defunct Garden Bridge project. This alone would require some time to think things through and work with regulators and the city to help understand “some very fundamental principles” that make Lilium different. “It’s not a helicopter and it’s not an airplane,” he says.

Specifically — and unlike competitors — Lilium’s VTOL is pegged to be fully electric, meaning, like electric cars, it produces zero emissions when being operated. It also claims “ultra-redundancy,” in terms of staying in the air if there are jet engine failures, including being equipped with its own parachute in case it fails entirely. And Lilium says the jet is no noisier than a large truck, relative to distance. These aspects, says Gerber, make it not quite like anything that exists today.

It is at this point that I voice the possibility of hundreds or thousands of air taxis in flight simultaneously, and Gerber concedes that air traffic control will also need to be figured out, as will what he describes as “the last mile” problem.

Here he is referring to the fact that in many instances an air taxi will only help you complete one part of the journey, albeit a major part with estimated distances of up to 300 km. This means that any Lilium landing pads will ideally need to be planned as part of a wider transport system and in partnership, even though VTOLs can already use existing helipads and airports and have minimal infrastructure requirements compared to, for example, high-speed rail.

Returning to Gerber’s role at Lilium, he tells me he’s also taking COO and CFO responsibilities, including helping to put systems in place to scale the company from its current 60 or so headcount, while the company’s four founders focus on engineering. Another important responsibility is “investor relations,” which is likely to be particularly time intensive given a company like Lilium will have huge capital requirements.

As we wrap up our call, I push Gerber for a more definite timeframe for when we can see Lilium make its first commercial flight, even though I know he probably can’t provide one. “They would kill me if I didn’t ask,” I tell him, feigning an apology. Lilium’s new chief commercial officer breaks out in laughter, before replying: “They would kill me if I answered.”