There’s an often-used word in the VC industry, that with the passing of time seems to become a little vintage. That word is “moonshot”. Moonshots are outrageously ambitious innovations that have an outsized chance of failure, but which in the small chance of success can fundamentally change the way we do something as humans. Originally, the term was coined by NASA’s Apollo moon missions program in the 1960s, and as venture capital picked up in the decades after, it became a moniker for what venture capitalists should be funding: crazy big ideas.
In the past ten years, venture capital has greatly commoditized, and with that, the risk profile has decreased as well. Most of the time we look at entrepreneurs building solid but incremental innovations. Moonshots are expensive and difficult, and most funds have solid pipelines of startups who chase understandable, tangible opportunities.
With Vitosha we’re lucky to have a fund mandate that allows us to take many, and very different bets. With EUR 26m under management and a plan to invest this money in over a hundred companies, there’s room to properly diversify our portfolio. And every now, if the stars align, we can even afford a moonshot.
And a moonshot is exactly what our investment in Assen Aeronautics is all about. The company is developing a human transportation drone, which is aimed at providing a safe, fast, and convenient way for a person to fly locally point to point with vertical takeoff and landing.
Assen Aeronautics is not the only company developing such technology. Big names like Joby Aviation, eHang, and Volocopter have raised billions among them in the quest to build a passenger drone product. What sets Assen apart is the company’s namesake, its founder Assen Andonov.
Assen is the kind of gritty, no-nonsense founder with a crazy big dream and a huge determination to reach it, whatever the odds, that you are more likely to find in a place like Bulgaria, rather than Silicon Valley. A true inventor, he dreamed of building his own flying machine ever since he was a kid. His first successful attempt to do so came in the 2000s, when he built an ultralight one-seat fixed-wing aircraft that took to the skies in 2009, with over 100 completed test flights. Assen’s dream of taking the prototype to serial production hampered on the heavy regulatory requirements, lack of financing for such endeavors at the time in Bulgaria, and his own lack of aerospace and aviation expertise. To fix the latter, he set himself another goal: to become a commercial aviation pilot.
In 2011 he set off to the US to fulfill this goal, going from private-pilot training, to commercial, to airline pilot certification, and has since been flying Airbus A320s for a major US airline, getting the experience and industry contacts that he needs, and saving what he can to realize his next big dream: developing and producing a passenger drone.
In his endeavor with Assen Aeronautics, Assen Andonov is relying on his old gritty skills, enlisting help from friends who are aviation engineers, automotive designers, and luxury segment business developers. He managed to hire a few key experts from competing drone businesses, and is drawing no salary as he keeps his team afloat while they develop a flying prototype.
Assen’s story in many ways reminds me of another Southeast European prodigy that I met a decade ago, early on in his entrepreneurial career. Croatian Mate Rimac had modded an old BMW 3 series with an electric battery and powertrain that he himself developed in his garage, and when we first met in 2011, he showed off photos of that car, with a styrofoam mockup of a supercar that he said will be the big product that will change everything. I remember that many people wouldn’t take him seriously then, but here we are ten years later, with the Rimac Nevera officially being the world’s fastest production car, and Rimac Automobili having raised over USD 200m and becoming the owner of the iconic Bugatti brand in the process.
Last week, Assen’s team unveiled the latest prototype of their drone, the Lynx, which so far can make successful low takeoffs and landings, and with a completed design that is now ready to hit a roadshow, where it will be shown to potential first buyers.
For us at Vitosha, the crazy idea of building a drone to transport humans is just a small part of the story. The much bigger part is a bet on a founder who doesn’t take no for an answer, and who isn’t spoiled by strong tailwinds or big fundraising successes. To see the Lynx prototype in person, and to witness its first flying tests, knowing how much work and how little money has gone into getting it to where it is today, is what finally made us believe in this moonshot.
As Assen takes his prototype on its first roadshow, we are excited to support the company with our Vitosha fund, and are looking forward to the rollout of the next stages of this moonshot project. For all we know, we might have to start thinking of expanding our office rooftop to accommodate drone landings soon :)