LOS ANGELES (TheStreet) -- If you're looking for a get-funded-quick scheme, starting an airplane company probably isn't your best bet.
"It is difficult because of all the bad examples of failed airplane companies," says Kirk Hawkins, a former F-16 pilot who founded
last year with sports product entrepreneur Steen Strand. "Most people look for examples of proof of how things get played out. It's a hard sell to convince them that this one will succeed, when the majority does not."
Still, the Los Angeles-based company already has received two rounds of funding, based largely on the idea that a recent Federal Aviation Administration regulation will make it easier for time-strapped adventurers to become plane-buying hobbyists.
A rendering of ICON Aircraft's A5, which will cost $139,000.
The FAA in 2004 created a new category called "light-sport aircraft," one- to two-seat planes that weigh no more than 1,430 pounds and fly no faster than 140 miles per hour. The rules that apply to recreational planes are far less stringent than those of traditional transportation aircraft. To receive a sports pilot certificate, newbie pilots must only undergo 15 hours of training and five hours of solo flight. Maintenance and manufacturing requirements are also looser than those of other aircraft. The rule caters to those who have "an emotional interest in flying, rather than just wondering, how can I get to Grandma's house faster?" says Hawkins, the company's CEO.
"Pilots are an identifiable culture," says Strand, ICON's co-founder and chief operating officer. "When you think about bringing innovation into a category, you have to navigate that."
Strand met Hawkins at Stanford University, where Strand received a master's degree in product design, following investment banking stints at
and the hedge fund
Fletcher Asset Management
. "I kind of decided I wanted to work with stuff," Strand says. Prior to joining ICON, he invented the Freebord, a skateboard with an extra set of wheels that make it slide like a snowboard.
ICON's first plane, the A5, is designed to inspire recreational awe. Its wings are retractable, its cockpit looks and feels like the interior of a sports car, and it's amphibious. It can be towed on the open road by a pickup truck or SUV.
The first A5 won't be available before 2011, but ICON already has accepted deposits on 450 planes, and 35% of those buyers have never flown before. A typical deposit is $5,000 toward a total estimated price of $139,000, which could rise with inflation. Options such as a parachute and automatic rather than manual wing-fold will cost extra. But buyers who want to receive one of the first 100 available planes can go with the luxurious "ICON 100" option -- a deposit of $100,000 on a fixed price of $135,000 per plane.
The team is already conceptualizing future models, including an electric plane, but for now they're focused on the A5. ICON plans to ramp up production in the coming years, but the initial year is not likely to yield more than 50 planes. Hawkins says that a long lead time was a tough initial sell for investors, who are used to the idea that a bunch of computer code can result in millions of software licenses.
"The success of the software and technology world has in some sense spoiled the investment community because it's created an anomaly of expectations in terms of how long it takes to get a product up and running," Hawkins says. "Not every business is like software, and when it comes to real products, it's a different story."
-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston
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