Hermeus is taking a "big swing" by developing a 20-seat transport that can fly at speeds of Mach 5. Photo: Hermeus

Atlanta aerospace startup Hermeus has raised a $16 million Series A funding round to help develop the world’s first commercial hypersonic jet, a bid to fundamentally change the speed at which the global economy moves. 

Hermeus’s jets would travel at a top speed of Mach 5 — five times the speed of sound, or about 3,800 miles per hour — reducing travel time between New York and London to just 90 minutes from seven hours. (For comparison, the famous Concorde, which was grounded in 2003 after nearly 30 years of transatlantic flight, flew at Mach 2.)

The investment round led by Canaan Partners also included existing partners Khosla Ventures, Bling Capital and Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund. It comes after the successful test of Hermeus’s prototype engine in February and will help build the Atlanta-based team and set up a local test facility with light manufacturing capabilities. The company’s next milestone is developing and ground-testing its full engine.

Founders acknowledge Mach 5 to be a “big swing” for a startup aiming to achieve a goal that has eluded larger players. 

“We’ve normalized to the speed at which we move about our planet for over half a century. Our goal at Hermeus is to fundamentally and sustainably redefine human connection by accelerating the global transportation network five times over,” said CEO AJ Piplica in a statement.

But investors have been impressed with Hermeus’s ability to hit milestones in relatively short periods of time, perhaps thanks to a team stacked with alumni from the likes of SpaceX, Blue Origin, NASA, GE and Honeywell. “This is the team– with deep industry experience and vision for what’s possible — best positioned to deliver us Mach 5 flight,” Canaan General Partner Rich Boyle said in a release.

Hermeus’s founders say the speed was chosen intentionally: materials, engine components and flight controls tested at that speed are already available, some of them as parts of missiles and rockets.

Hermeus tested its prototype engine in February and is using investment funds to develop its full engine. Photo: Hermeus

The trick is going to be piecing it all together, co-founder and COO Skyler Shuford told Global Atlanta in an interview. A particular hurdle will be successfully transitioning mid-flight between the low-speed engine, most likely a traditional turbine design, to a ramjet engine such as those used in the SR-71 military reconnaissance jet or even in next-generation missiles.

“It is a very complex system and at those speeds it’s very hard to separate the engine from the airframe,” he said.

Hermeus believes it can compete with aerospace and defense giants because it isn’t weighed down by legacy programs.

“The typical commercial OEMs have order books of trillions of dollars of subsonic aircraft. They would have to cannibalize a lot of those future markets for something that hasn’t been proven, and they would have to do it at a scale that is much larger and more expensive than a small, agile startup. To some extent it’s the traditional ‘innovator’s dilemma,'” Mr. Shuford told Global Atlanta, referring to the theory that larger companies can miss out on big technological shifts because they’re too invested in serving existing customers.

Hermeus’s nimble size means it can use “off-the-shelf” components from other firms in the short run — GE turbine engines, for instance — while developing proprietary systems whose parts could be made in-house or farmed out to local machine shops. Vertical integration is the goal, but progress will be incremental by design

While Boeing launched unmanned hypersonic aircraft a decade ago and the U.S. Air Force aims to achieve it decades from now, Hermeus hopes, like its eventual planes, to get there faster.

‘We’re really kind of attacking the future needs of hypersonic a bit early, while no one’s really looking,” he said.

In fact, the Air Force may be instrumental in making that happen: Its AFWERX innovation program awarded Hermeus $1.5 million toward its combined-cycle engine research, presumably to power an eventual Mach 5 Air Force One.

While the novel coronavirus pandemic has led to a huge shift to remote meetings and all but halted the freewheeling global travel on which its future success will be based, the company remains undeterred.

“Even though the pandemic has shown us that certain aspects don’t have to be done in person, there are certain industries and situations where face-to-face really matters, when you’re trying to sell products that are not intuitive or are highly complex, when you need to feel the sense of the room, look someone in the eye, understand their body language. We haven’t solved that with virtual yet,” Mr. Shuford said.

The Air Force’s innovation unit awarded the company $1.5 million toward its engine research, presumably to help power a Mach 5 Air Force One. Photo: Hermeus

He added that Hermeus’s relatively small 20-seater can make up for fewer passengers with more frequent trips, meaning that the price of a Hermeus seat could eventually be on par with a business-class ticket.

Mr. Shuford said Atlanta was a natural place to launch the company, given that some founders were already here. The city also pairs amenities with a competitive cost of living that will help lure mid-career professionals away from established aerospace hubs like California and Washington.

Atlanta’s also home to Delta Air Lines Inc., UPS and the world’s busiest airport to boot. It also sits at the center of the Southeast U.S., which has a strong aerospace manufacturing base and defense sector.

The company has already posted seven job openings seeking engineers in aircraft systems, testing, structure and flight-software, along with “general badass applicants” and a principal IT administrator. Hermeus is based at Peachtree-Dekalb airport at 1954 Airport Road.

Learn more at hermeus.com

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...