Electric air taxi startups are at least a few years from picking up their first passengers, but the sector has minted its first billionaire: Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt.
Shares in the Santa Cruz, Calif.-based company, which commenced trading on the New York Stock Exchange on Aug. 11 following a reverse merger, closed 5.8% higher Tuesday at $10.90, giving the company a market capitalization of $6.8 billion, and Bevirt, 47, a fortune worth $1.08 billion given SEC filings that list him as controlling 98.7 million shares.
It’s a heady milestone for Bevirt, who’s been working since 2009 to develop an aircraft that can take off and land vertically like a helicopter in tight urban environments and transition to flying efficiently on wings like an airplane, with the goal of speeding city dwellers over traffic-snarled roads — and ultimately making much of that road network unnecessary. Most of the seminal development work on the aircraft was done secretively at a ranch Bevirt owns among the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains in northern California near where he grew up in an idealistic, back-to-the-land community where his vision would fit in but the sums of money he’s now working with were undreamt of.
Bevirt was raised in a remote area called Last Chance in an off-the-grid community in which members grew their own food, on land that was bought in 1970 by his mother, Paula Fry, his father, Ron Bevirt, and the writer Gurney Norman, the latter two of whom were members of the Merry Pranksters, famed for their acid parties and Magic Bus expeditions in the 1960s. Bevirt is named after the character JoeBen in a novel by Pranksters ringleader Ken Kesey, who he says treated him like a godson.
Bevirt told Forbes last year that he first thought about building a flying machine in the second grade while trudging up the steep 4.5-mile road home after school from where the bus dropped him off along the Pacific Coast Highway. “It was a lonnnnng hill,” laughed Bevirt, “It made me dream about a better way.”
Bevirt, who studied engineering at the University of California at Davis and Stanford University, has a much better shot of pulling off his dream with the $1.1 billion that Joby Aviation raised from its merger with the special purpose acquisition company Reinvent Technology Partners and an accompanying private share sale to institutional investors.
Joby says it’s conducted more than 1,000 remotely piloted test flights of prototypes of its five-seat, battery-powered aircraft, and last month it says it flew one 150 miles on a single charge, the maximum range the company is currently aiming to achieve and the longest flight that any electric air taxi hopeful has claimed to pull off.
Joby now faces the expensive and exacting task of proving the aircraft’s safety to the Federal Aviation Administration, which the company hopes to receive certification from in 2023, and the money-draining undertaking of developing a factory to manufacture thousands of aircraft a year, as well as of building networks of vertiports in its U.S. launch cities, which it has yet to announce.
Joby is getting crucial help on manufacturing from Toyota Motor, which has invested roughly $400 million in the company. Other key pre-public listing backers include Pinterest cofounder Paul Sciarra, who invested in Joby in a 2013 seed round and joined the company as executive chairman (a billionaire already by virtue of Pinterest’s 2019 IPO, his stake in Joby is worth $653.6 million at Tuesday’s closing price), as well as billionaire Jeff Skoll’s Capricorn Investment Group and Intel
In concert with the duo behind Reinvent Technology Partners — LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman and Zynga
Bevirt, Sciarra and all the previous investors in Joby control about 80% of the stock — they and the Reinvent team have lockups on their shares extending over a five-year period in which stock will be freed up in tranches on a yearly basis, with full vesting for Reinvent’s founders coming only when the share price reaches $50, implying over a $30 billion market capitalization.