Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series of stories focusing on high-tech firms in San Luis Obispo County.
Benjamin Schiltgen, Andrew Gibson and Trevor Foster, founders of ESAero Inc., were students in Cal Poly’s aerospace engineering program who decided that after graduation, they would work for themselves.
As members of the Cal Poly Space Systems Club, they built cost-effective, high-end radio aircraft models, with the goal of moving beyond theoretical research to the development of ideas and concepts that could serve the engineering industry.
In their senior year, they also had taken trips to companies that critiqued their aircraft design work to be presented at the annual national American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics competition. Those experiences gave them a “first-hand look at what working life would be like after graduation,” said Schiltgen, vice president of finance. “Needless to say, it added more fuel to the fire in our ambition to create our own job.”
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In 2003, they opened Empirical Systems Aerospace Inc., which provides entrepreneurial concept development, aircraft modifications, military and commercial air vehicle designs, subscale technology demonstrators (aircraft models), niche engineering support and research and development on hybrid propulsion systems for aircraft, which use power architecture similar to a Toyota Prius, for example.
ESAero began in the garage of a rental home in Arroyo Grande, a time when they were fresh out of college, without children, and as Schiltgen put it, “still eating Top Ramen.”
The early years were frustrating, but the company got its first break in 2006 building display models for NASA. More contracts started to trickle in during the years that followed, boosting the company’s portfolio and attracting high-profile organizations and private companies.
The company moved to its current location at the Oceano County Airport in 2005. Since 2007, revenue has grown an average of 40 percent annually.
The company, which is profitable, counts among its clients such firms as Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Program, AeroVironment, Boeing Research and Technology, General Atomics, the Air Force Research Laboratory and NASA. The company’s business trips occur so frequently now that it has bought a share in a small airplane.
“Our demonstrator capabilities combined with our design and analysis has enabled ESAero to provide services from napkin sketch concepts to airborne vehicles, and any combination in between,” said Schiltgen, who noted that its work for NASA has launched it as an industry leader in hybrid propulsion for aircraft. Schiltgen said the technology, which would enable aircraft to generate electricity and run more efficiently, could alter future air travel.
The current state of the economy also has helped to propel the company forward, forcing “large companies to outsource work to smaller, more efficiency and cost-effective businesses to reduce program costs.”
As well, ESAero’s growth can be attributed to its seven employees, most of whom are Cal Poly graduates and who remain passionate about designing, building and researching aircraft, Schiltgen said. In addition, ESAero works with a local consulting firm, Collaboration LLC, relies on a network of experienced, semiretired associates and believes in not growing too fast.
Schiltgen acknowledged that founding a company was a risk, but he said it has been worthwhile.
“We want to see the company continue its steady growth while maintaining happy and enthusiastic employees,” he said. “We want to continue to provide jobs which allow people to live on the Central Coast. We want to continue working on leading-edge technology that allows us to stand out in the aerospace industry, and hopefully witness our research and development be applied to transportation used throughout the world.”