Homegrown Albuquerque firm Aspen Avionics has joined forces with the AIRO Group, a recently formed aerospace conglomerate that’s seeking to go public on a U.S. stock exchange.
Aspen, a venture capital-backed firm that launched in 2004, merged last fall with the AIRO Group, which now unites nine diverse companies that are pooling their individual strengths in commercial and military markets for unmanned operating systems and aircraft.
The AIRO Group, in turn, announced in March that it’s exploring options for a public listing through a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, potentially putting AIRO Group members on a joint fast track to begin publicly selling stock as a single entity with a diverse array of operations.
The merger with AIRO and imminent prospect of public listing could place Aspen Avionics on a high-growth trajectory going forward, said Brian Birk of Santa Fe-based Sun Mountain Capital, which manages the New Mexico State Investment Council’s investments in local startup companies. To date, Aspen has raised nearly $50 million in private equity, including at least $8 million in SIC money channeled through Sun Mountain.
“This is an excellent opportunity for the company to tap into public markets to raise money and fund future growth,” Birk said. “Pardon the pun, but for Aspen, the sky’s the limit. We’re very excited about the prospects.”
Going public would provide an “exit” opportunity for Aspen’s venture backers if they choose to recover their original investments in the company with potentially significant returns, said Aspen president and CEO John Uczekaj. Others may decide to stay on as Aspen grows in new markets.
“For now, things remain as they are, but when we go public, it will provide exit opportunities for our venture capital investors who have stuck with us through both good times and difficult periods,” Uczekaj told the Journal. “Their backing has been critical to getting us to where we are today.”
It’s been a long road for Aspen, which has grown over 17 years from a startup into a well-established avionics firm with national and international brand recognition.
The company is a pioneer in the global transition from analog systems to digital avionics for small commercial and general aviation aircraft. It developed some of the industry’s first digital flight displays as drop-in replacements for aging mechanical gauges and controls, allowing general and commercial aircraft owners to install modern cockpit panels at an affordable price.
Its Evolution Flight Display System, or “glass cockpit,” offers a full suite of real-time data on things like altitude, air speed and weather, plus navigational data to increase a pilot’s situational and terrain awareness with photo-quality moving maps and traffic displays.
Those systems are now installed in some 20,000 aircraft across the globe, Uczekaj said. The displays are certified for installation worldwide in both planes and helicopters.
The U.S. and Canada account for about 74% of sales.
“About 26% of our business is in international markets outside the U.S. and Canada,” Uczekaj said. “Our biggest regions are Europe and Australia, with emerging growth as well in South America.”
The company faced rough times following the 2008 recession. But it emerged from that downturn with solid markets and sales, pushing annual revenue up to $14.2 million by 2012, when it topped the Journal’s Flying 40 list of fast-growing technology companies.
Prior to the pandemic, Aspen was approaching $20 million in annual revenue, Uczekaj said. But the crash in air travel during the coronavirus sliced away about 25% of the company’s market last year.
“The industry took a big hit in the pandemic,” Uczekaj said. “Still, we managed to remain profitable without laying anybody off, and the markets are coming back now. We’ve seen slow but steady growth since November and December.”
The company currently employs 47. It operates out of a 15,000-square-foot facility at Indian School Road near San Mateo.
In recent years, Aspen added new products that helped accelerate growth. That includes a touchscreen GPS navigational system that connects with the company’s digital cockpits. That allows customers to comply with new Federal Aviation Administration mandates that require all general-aviation aircraft to have systems that can automatically send critical flight information on things such as altitude, direction and speed to air-traffic controllers.
It also developed a product to connect iPad applications with digital cockpits, allowing pilots to prepare flight plans on mobile devices for transfer to cockpit avionics.
And the company has continuously upgraded its digital flight displays over the years, adding fresh capabilities for both new and existing customers.
“We’ve built real loyalty, with almost 100% uptake on our upgrades by existing customers,” Uczekaj said. “In today’s world, brand still means something. Our customers are not choosing to replace us with competitors.”
Now, by merging with the AIRO Group, Aspen is broadening its markets to aggressively enter the unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, space for both commercial and military aircraft. The AIRO Group is focused on three high-growth sectors in the commercial aerospace and defense industries, including drone and urban-air-mobility technology, advanced avionics, and products and training for military systems.
Until now, Aspen had focused fairly exclusively on the general and business aviation sectors, first as a pioneer in the shift to digital systems, and then as a go-to brand in what’s now a well-established analog-to-digital evolution in the aerospace industry. Those areas will remain central to Aspen’s business model going forward, but through AIRO, it will now expand its avionics expertise into rapidly-emerging UAS markets, Uczekaj said.
“The emergence of drone technology and a maturing regulatory environment to start flying cargo and passengers encouraged us to move forward with the AIRO Group,” Uczekaj said. “We see big growth in that area.”
The nine companies united in AIRO are all small firms that have built solid foundations in their individual sectors. They bring together a range of expertise in everything from manufacturing and integration of airframes, products and avionics to providing services and building innovative artificial intelligence capabilities for autonomous flight.
Together, they constitute an “unparalleled ecosystem” for end-to-end drone solutions, said AIRO Group CEO Joe Burns.
“Through our internal synergies and external partnerships, we are poised for the long-term operation of a drone ecosystem that will serve as a backbone for moving freight and people,” Burns said in a prepared statement.
Aspen brings needed avionics expertise to the table.
“We help fill out the group’s vertical integration by providing the avionics for everything, including sensors, electronics and manufacturing and supply-chain capabilities,” Uczekaj said. “Most industry players just bring one or two things to the market. The AIRO group is unique in the range of things it offers through vertical integration.”
The next step is raising funds by going public, something made easier by the recent surge in initial public offerings through special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs. Those are shell companies created by investors and listed on a stock exchange to later merge with a real company like the AIRO Group that wants to go public.
The AIRO Group has hired private investment banking firm Stephens Inc. to explore a SPAC-based business agreement.
“The emerging SPAC environment provides opportunities for the AIRO Group to raise capital to go to the next level,” Uczekaj said.
Aspen’s merger with AIRO is positioning the company on the “leading edge” of the global drone revolution, said Birk of Sun Mountain Capital.
“The AIRO Group has a very exciting future ahead of it,” Birk said. “It’s targeting some of the highest growth sectors in the aerospace industry, and Aspen will be an integral part of that.”
Kevin Robinson-Avila covers technology, energy, venture capital and utilities for the Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.