By Christine Graf
Aviation company Wright Electric has moved its headquarters to the 280-acre Saratoga Technology + Energy Park (STEP) in Malta.
Founded in Boston in 2017, the company is developing zero-emissions electric airplanes for short regional flights. Their electric motors and motor controllers are versatile and will be able to serve other industries including the maritime industry, according to the company.
Co-founder Jeff Engler, a Hudson Valley native with a B.A. from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, is an entrepreneur who has also worked in the private sector. He previously co-founded Podimetrics, a company that designed the SmartMat, a medical device used for the early detection of foot ulcers in diabetics.
“These foot problems lead to early amputations and early death, and it often tends to be in veterans,” he said. “It costs the medical system billions and billions of dollars. It’s a large social problem and a large economic opportunity, and that’s really the same as with electric airplanes.”
Engler’s interest in electric airplanes was piqued ten years after he visited a web site that allowed him to calculate his personal carbon footprint.
“What I found was that it turned out that each time I ate vegetarian, it had a relatively small impact on my carbon footprint. But a single flight had a huge impact,” he said. “Subsequently, there has been a lot of research on this, and it turns out you would have to eat vegetarian for over a year to offset the carbon from even a single New York to Chicago flight.”
A few years later, when Engler was given the opportunity to start another new company, he had what he called a “light bulb moment.” Knowing that electric airplanes were on the horizon, he decided to do what he could to accelerate the adoption of this technology.
“I wanted to try to accelerate it by a decade or so,” he said. “That was the original goal of our company–to accelerate the adoption of commercial electric aircraft by ten years.”
After identifying that 98 percent of carbon emissions in the aerospace industry come from planes larger than 100 passengers, the company chose to focus their efforts on the propulsion systems of large airplanes. Since that time, the company’s engineers have been tasked with building an electric version of a jet engine.
“We built our first version last year, and it’s been in testing. We are planning to do test flights of our electric jet engine in 2023 or 2024,” said Engler. “We’re testing it first on the ground in our laboratory. Then we will be going to a simulated altitude chamber. Step number three will be actually putting it on an airplane and flying it.”
Their Wright Spirit Aircraft builds on a four-engine, 100-passenger platform and transforms it to an all-electric, zero-emissions aircraft serving one-hour flights. Wright Electric’s mission is to eliminate carbon emissions from all flights under 800 miles by the year 2040.
The company has already formed partnerships with NASA and the United States Air Force as well as EasyJet in Europe and VivaAerobus in Mexico.
Because the majority of Wright Electric’s 20 staff members are engineers, Engler said the company was a perfect fit for the Capital Region.
“Our initial engineers were G.E. research engineers. There’s incredible engineering talent in the Albany area.”
Their proximity to GlobalFoundries gives the company access to the electrical infrastructure that is needed in order for them to test their high-power motors.
“For testing those motors, you need a lot of electricity,” said Engler. “We were able to get a space in the same office park area as GlobalFoundries, so there was already a lot of power there. As a start-up company it’s much better to go with a lower cost office space than to have to build something out yourself.”
The recent passage of the CHIPS Act (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors for America) which was signed into law by President Biden in August, is good news for Wright Electric. It includes the Cleaner, Quieter Airplanes Act which creates a goal for cleaner, quieter airplanes, and accelerates the work that NASA is doing to reduce greenhouse gas and noise emissions.
“It basically says that for competitive and environmental reasons that the U.S. has to become a leader in electric aircraft propulsion,” said Engler. “This is a major opportunity to do that.”
Although there are other companies working on electric jet engines, Engler believes Wright Electric is positioned for success.
“Even though there may be research going on at these big aerospace companies, sometimes it takes an outsider to come in and push the industry forward,” he said.