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Cory Combs

Name: Cory Combs
Ag:e 33
Job: Title Co-Founder and Executive Tech Fellow
Company: Ampaire, Inc.
Years in the Industry: 12
Education: Stanford University (B.S and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering)

Dealerscope’s 40 Under 40 Honoree 2021

Describe your current role.
I’m the co-founder and executive tech fellow at Ampaire, which is developing the next generation of hybrid-electric aircraft to reduce the environmental impact of air travel. My role has recently shifted to working more on advanced R&D, looking at what’s the next step beyond the current airplanes we’re working on in order to push the boundaries of what’s possible with electric aviation. I’m also on the board and still doing quite a bit of general company management-related things, including working on advocacy for our industry through thought leadership and helping position the company as a leader in the electric aviation space by participating in TED as a TED Fellow.

What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of just founding a company that works, in a very short period of time. We were able to bring the biggest plane that I’ve ever flown using electric propulsion, in the air, with a fraction of the budget and time that that other people have spent. I’m proud of that and also of repeating it with the second plane about a year after. And then taking that second plane to be the first-ever to operate on an actual commercial route with a partner, Mokulele Airlines, as a daily ops demo — so, not paying customers, but we were carrying people and doing daily operations in Hawaii, and then we’ll be doing that in Scotland, in about a month or so.
What you’re going to see eventually is the kind of private jet experience being democratized and made more affordable to a much wider audience, but it’s going to be green, and it’s going to be quiet. And it’s going to be at the airport near you. There are 5,000 airports across the US, one within 16 minutes of the average American, but only about 4,050 large hubs that most people use out of those 5,000 airports that are public use (actually, there are 10,000 If you count private airstrips). So that’s world-leading infrastructure that anyone who, say, attends CES will be able to use. Instead of having to drive hours and hours to an airport to catch a connection and then be stuck at airports with delays all day, they could go from the nearest airport and fly right out of there. You could fly from, say, Napa to Las Vegas, which is something that only wealthy executives could do before. The same will be true of cargo and commercial freight, flying from any airport and after 10 p.m., since it’s quiet.

What do you like best about your job?
Well, there are many things, but I think the thing I like best about it is that we’re truly breaking ground in aerospace with things that haven’t been done before. We’re building a 19-passenger plane right now. No one’s made a hybrid even close to that size before. I love pushing boundaries. When you look in the aircraft industry for the last couple of decades, it’s been super slow with innovation; we think that electric propulsion is kind of the third revolution in aviation — a complete sea change. Being on the leading edge of that, I think, feels just pretty optimal.

What technology are you most excited about at the moment?

I’m most excited about some of the work that people are doing on solar and storage at airports. I mean, you’ve got 5,000 airports all over the country. They’re the perfect places to be these kinds of charging and renewable energy and transportation hubs all over the world. They’re ground fuel and secure facilities, so they can’t be built on, and they have to stay flat. They’re also local power users. So rather than put all the solar panels all over farmland or other land that’s ecologically sensitive, on Hawaii, for example, where there’s so little land, you can put them at the airport, where it’s already needed. But the great thing is that airports aren’t used at night, so they’re a great place to charge all kinds of ground vehicles at night — not just planes, but also electric transit buses, school buses, shuttle buses — all sorts of vehicles.

Who in the CE or technology industry do you look up to, and why?
There are a lot of folks who I think have paved the way in electrification, but I’m going to skip over those big names, even though I admire them a lot. I’m going to say a more unusual one. At Tesla, I admire the chief designer, Franz von Holzhausen. I admire him partly because that’s not my skill set, but also because of his ability to make electric vehicles into something that people really desire, that are actually sleeker and more user-friendly than existing combustion engine vehicles. Because even though electric cars aren’t new, they used to be ugly cars that maybe performed okay, but were such a sacrifice in terms of user-friendliness and looks when compared with combustion cars.

What career advice would you give to people just getting started in the CE or technology industry?
Based on my experience, I’d say that if there’s something that you truly believe in and you truly want to do, and it just doesn’t exist somewhere else, then don’t be afraid to take the leap and create it yourself. If there isn’t the company that you want to work at, if there isn’t the technology that you want to work on being developed by someone else, then take the leap yourself or find some other people who want to join you to do that. I never grew up thinking I wanted to start my own company or be an entrepreneur, but I ended up starting one because no one else was doing it. It was the only way to work at the intersection of electric vehicles and aircraft.

What, in your opinion, is necessary for the CE/technology industry to thrive in the next five years?
We need to renew the culture of risk-taking and iteration. When you look across at hardware technology in the U.S. over the past couple of decades, the trend has been moving towards designing everything electronically up front, to try and think all the risk out of a product, and then spend five years developing it. By the time it launches, it’s already obsolete and not nearly innovative as it could have been. Instead, it’s time to look back at the innovation heritage in aerospace and in in consumer electronics: It’s try, test, fail, iterate, get things done, and learn by doing; then, your ultimate product is going to actually be safer, less risky, and better overall by doing that work up front. I think that risk-taking has, especially in the hardware industry, really declined overall. I’m seeing some successful models when I look at companies like Space X. So don’t just take the approach of aiming for some gold-plated future solution and spend the next 10 years designing it on your computer. Instead, build something, even if it’s not your final product goal. We originally wanted to do a jet, but we started by immediately building a plane that we could do then, with the resources and personnel that we had at the time, and then iterating on that. We’re already on our third iteration, and it’s flying commercial flights.