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🛩️ Building the world’s first cargo drone airline
Founders Factory Startup Bulletin #25
Welcome to the Founders Factory Startup Bulletin—“Created for founders, by founders”.
Each month, we bring you a round-up of startup and investment stories, key learnings from founders, and insights from the Founders Factory team.
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This week, Svilen and Konstantin Rangelov sat in front of a Forbes photographer and shaved off the long curly beards that adorned their faces. This was no daily shaving ritual: this was years in the making, the end of a pact they made to each other when first starting DRONAMICS—to not trim their beards until they saw their first cargo drone take flight.
Nearly a decade after launching, last week saw their Black Swan cargo drone’s first test flight, the next step in their mission to transform the cargo industry, introducing cross continental same day delivery while radically cutting carbon emissions.
In this month’s Startup Bulletin, we were lucky to speak to Svilen and Konstantin who shared learnings from the DRONAMICS journey so far. From discovering problems to solve, to knowing when to stick to your guns, there are heaps of useful insights for founders.
Also in this month’s Startup Bulletin:
Our top recommended reads—from tapping into active users to runaway AI
Highlights from our portfolio this month—hosting unicorn founders, new programme launches & more
Opportunities, events, new roles
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💡 Five lessons from building the world’s first cargo drone fleet
By Svilen & Konstantin Rangelov, co-founders of DRONAMICS
Over just less than a decade, Svilen and Konstantin Rangelov have taken a concept of ultra-efficient cargo drones, designed the Black Swan, fundraised and built their prototype, and now launch their first test flight.
Here’s some of what they learned during the process:
1. Look for problems in your everyday life
The concept of drones was nothing new in 2014: people were already talking about last mile delivery drones that could drop packages on your doorstep.
Konstantin, at the time studying in the Netherlands, hypothesised on the best way to transport his favourite Bulgarian cheese to his doorstep. There’s no way a flimsy lightweight drone could withstand the distance: nor could this single package delivery be in any way cost effective.
So what about a more robust drone, the capacity of a small delivery van but which could travel the breadth of Europe in hours, not days? The lightbulb flicked on in our heads.
2. External factors can be critical to your success (a.k.a you make your own luck)
Success happens at turning points in points in history, often the result of technological advances that make what you are proposing even more plausible. This is where the name ‘Black Swan’ came from, referring to the discovery of something (literally, black swans) that were previously thought mythical or impossible.
For us, three technological trends massively powered us:
For one, the cost of carbon fibre. This ultra light and strong material had gone down in cost over the past decade, making it a particularly popular construction material for aerospace and aviation. To create a drone so efficient and robust, while also affordable, this was crucial.
Secondly, advances in communications. Chips were shrinking in size by the week, where once a processor needed to power a Space Shuttle could fit inside your phone. Again, this enabled automation (and autonomous flight) at a cost that wouldn’t have been previously possible.
Thirdly, advances in satellite technology. Coverage was now just about global, meaning you could fly and connect anywhere, even in the sky. This made us think—why are we still so restricted to transporting goods by land and sea?
3. Sustainability is also an efficiency and affordability challenge
The business we’ve built has sustainability at its core. But for us, while environmental impact has always been central to what we do, this has always been rooted in efficiency.
Growing up in turbulent economic times in Bulgaria, sustainability has always meant doing more with less—whether this is with food, materials, fuel, etc. So building an ultra-efficient cargo drone was about building an aircraft that could carry goods further, faster, and more affordably.
Now, the cargo industry is incredibly driven by cost: no one will use your service unless it is saving them money. So we needed the Black Swan to not just be sustainable but also more affordable—by no means an easy feat in engineering. But we succeeded, and our offering is up to 50% cheaper than existing same day air cargo.
4. Fundraising demands flexibility too—especially in hardware
Since launching, we’ve raised over $40m in pre-Series A: but money’s not always been readily available to us. Not having money certainty has meant we’ve always needed to build with a flexible mindset.
We started building back in our home country of Bulgaria because we knew it would make our capital go further. Not only this, but we built everything ourselves where possible. If we didn't have enough money for the right material, we’d have to use the next best thing to get us through to the point where we could prove we could solve the problem in order to raise.
5. Don’t be afraid to stick to your guns
Part of being a founder is about spotting new opportunities and knowing when to pivot. But equally important is about knowing when to stick to your guns.
So while we’ve had to be flexible about the way we’ve been building, and the materials we’ve been using, we’ve never pivoted away from the original specification of the Black Swan—350 kg capacity and 2500 km range. The 350 kg capacity because this is the capacity of a small delivery van; the 2500 km range because this covers the whole of Europe in one flight, as well as the maximum distance from the midpoint of the US to all of the 48 mainland states, and the South China Sea.
This concept has been our north star, driving the whole organisation (now 170 people) towards achieving our goal of being the first cargo drone airline. We built well ahead of the curve, before regulation was even in place, now positioning us to commercialise well in advance of our competition.
You can read Svilen and Konstantin’s full story here:
📚 What we’ve been reading
A Startup Guide to Facebook Ads 2023 (Founders Factory)—FF Growth Lead Louis Butcher shares his playbook for nailing paid advertising
Finding the White Hot Center (NFX)—revealing the power of tapping into your most engaged and active customer base
Hype: The Enemy of Early Stage Returns (Ramy’s Newsletter)—”Hyped sectors consistently lead to meagre outcomes. Outsized returns on the other hand happen where you least expect them.”
Can we stop runaway AI? (New Yorker)—deep dive into the terrifying truth of an all-powerful AI, and whether enough is being done to prevent it
🚀 News from the Founders Factory portfolio
As mentioned above, DRONAMICS launched their first test flight of their Black Swan cargo drone. Taking flight for around 10 minutes and covering 21km, it was remotely piloted by two commercial airline pilots from their ground control station at Balchik Airport in Bulgaria
We launched our Children’s Health Impact Accelerator, a 10-week bootcamp in partnership with Innovate UK and various healthcare partners, aiming to support and fund entrepreneurs in the paediatrics innovation space. Read more about it here
We hosted the founders of Canva—Melanie Perkins, Cliff Obrecht, Cameron Adams—at our London office at 180 The Strand, hearing the story behind the growth of the graphic design platform
Bower Collective, a business spun out of our Venture Studio, are launching a crowdfunding campaign. They’re aiming to remove plastic waste through their home refill subscription service for personal and home hygiene products
Opportunities in tech
Founder & CEO at Project Gigu (helping D2C ecommerce launching in new markets)
Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Project GridShare (fractional renewable energy)
Talent Investor at Founders Factory (Milan)
London Tech Week (June 12th - 16th, London)—annual global celebration of tech, this year exploring a number of themes around sustainability and next tech frontiers. The Factory team is appearing in various panels across the week, including:
We’re hosting the Web3 NextTech Stage—including panels featuring Sahil Sachdev (Head of Venture Design), Eniola Ajuwon (EIR & founder of Prism Labs), and more
Claire Mongeau (Investor) and Olivia Brooks (Investor) are speaking on a panel on how global tech can future-proof a sustainable economy (June 13th, 12:20 pm)
HealthTech Breakfast Club, co-hosted by Olivia Brooks (Investor) and AlbionVC on the ‘Future of Health Tech’ (June 13th, 4pm)
[Check out the full LTW agenda here]
See you next month 👋