Throwback Thursday: The Rise and Fall of Flying-Car Startup Kittyhawk
It’s Throwback Thursday, and today we’re taking a look at the rise and fall of flying-car startup Kittyhawk. Founded in 2010 by Sebastian Thrun, a former Google VP and leader in the development of autonomous vehicles and Google Glass, Kittyhawk was backed by Google co-founder Larry Page. The company remained shrouded in secrecy until 2015, when it unveiled its Flyer aircraft, which was designed for vertical takeoff and landing. Kittyhawk had ambitious plans to revolutionize transportation with its electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft and make air travel more accessible to the general public. However, despite its initial hype, the company struggled to find a clear path to profitability and faced mounting competition in the space. In this post, we’ll delve into the backstory of Kittyhawk and its founders, the problems the company set out to solve, the timeline of events leading up to its shutdown, what worked and what didn’t, the results analysis, and the takeaway for startup founders.
Sebastian is a scientist, educator, inventor, and entrepreneur. He is also the founder, chairman, and president of Udacity, whose mission is to democratize education. Sebastian was the founder of X (previously Google X), where he led the development of the self-driving car, Google Glass, and other projects. He spent several years as a professor at Stanford University where he led the Stanford Racing Team, whose “Stanley” won the DARPA Grand Challenge. Stanley is now on display at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
Chris Anderson serves on the FAA's Advanced Aviation Advisory Committee and led the ASTM drone Type Certification standard-setting process. He was previously CEO of 3DR, at the time America's largest drone company, and founder of the Linux Foundation's Dronecode project. Before that he was the long-time editor of Wired Magazine and author of the New York Times bestselling books “The Long Tail” and “Free,” as well as an editor at The Economist magazine in London, Hong Kong and New York. His background is in science, starting with studying computational physics and doing research at Los Alamos, which culminated in six years at the two leading scientific journals, Nature and Science.
VP of Engineering
Alex joined Kittyhawk from Amazon Prime Air where she served as the Launch Lead for their next generation drone delivery service. Prior to Amazon, Alex served 6 years at Wing Aviation during the company’s growth from a Google[X] project to an operation making 140,000 customer deliveries in 2021. Reporting to the CTO, she led Aerodynamics and Performance, Reliability, and Flight Test teams. Alex bridges the gap between Aviation and Tech, with experience developing vehicles including Google’s high-altitude long endurance solar drone Titan, Sierra Space’s crewed Dream Chaser, and multiple programs at Raytheon. Alex brings nearly two decades of experience in varied engineering functions including Design, Materials, Program Management, Quality, and Manufacturing.
Michael Huerta served as Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) from 2013 to 2018. Michael redefined the FAA's regulatory relationship with the aviation industry leading to greater levels of safety and led the effort to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system to pave the way for the safe integration of commercial space operations and small unmanned aircraft systems.
Head of People
Deborah Ford is passionate about driving employee success, team engagement, and Diversity / Inclusion / Belonging. She has led teams in startups just beginning their journey and mature organizations with diverse stakeholders, global impact, and ambitious goals. Dr. Ford has co-authored over 50 professional publications, papers, and presentations—each dedicated to building strong organizations with energized employees that thrive. She received her M.S. from George Mason University and her PhD from Portland State University in Industrial/Organizational Psychology.
Mariya is an experienced general corporate lawyer passionate about aviation and advanced air mobility. She leads the legal & finance teams at Kittyhawk and dabbles in generic business matters in her spare time. Before joining Kittyhawk, Mariya formed and led the legal department at DroneDeploy. Before that she spent a decade at top US law firms, starting her career at Crowell & Moring in New York and D.C. at the height of the subprime loan financial crisis and then moved to Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Silicon Valley to become fluent in general corporate matters and common sense legal practice.
Director of Safety
Léonard brings expertise and passion for deploying large scale airborne autonomous systems. Prior to joining Kittyhawk, he was Head of Aviation Strategy at Loon (an Alphabet Company) where he worked to advance human automation teaming, novel performance-based safety concepts and develop collaborative traffic management. Previously, he served as Loon’s Head of In-Flight Operations, where he built and led the teams in charge of safely operating hundreds of vehicles and close to 2 million flight hours, leveraging concepts inspired from Google where he worked earlier in his career. Leonard was the chair of the HAPS Alliance Aviation Working group and is a fellow member of the Royal Aeronautical Society.
Sr. Director of Manufacturing
Karash brings Kittyhawk a history of manufacturing solution design. He began his career as the primary technical resource in large production scale-up programs developing production solutions for aerospace materials products, and capital equipment based production/automation solutions. Most recently he served as the COO for several aerospace manufacturing companies supporting programs such as the 787 Dreamliner and the F35 Fighter Jet with design-to-manufacturing systems design, deployment and growth.
What problem did Kittyhawk set out to solve:
Timeline of events:
What worked and what didn't:
The Results Analysis:
Conclusion and takeaway for Startup founders: