Naverus, Extra $4M in Tow, Looks to Redesign Flight Paths, Saving Time, Fuel, and Emissions

There’s a saying in sports that if you don’t notice the referees, they’re doing a great job. The same goes for offensive linemen in football, tech support in big companies…and Kent, WA-based Naverus when you’re flying in an airplane. Sure, we in the media notice companies like Naverus when they raise $4 million in venture funding in a tough climate for follow-on financing (announced last Friday). But, truth be told, we’ve had our eye on this interesting aircraft-navigation tech company for a while now.

Naverus was founded in 2003 by a pair of Alaska Airlines pilots, Steve Fulton and Hal Andersen, and former Coinstar CEO Dan Gerrity. The idea was to commercialize an emerging technique known as “required navigation performance” (RNP), which harnesses advanced avionics and GPS technology to guide airplanes’ flight paths on approaches and departures in such a precise way as to do away with ground-based navigation—and what’s more, make flight paths faster and more fuel-efficient, and reduce carbon emissions to boot. The technique was originally developed to help planes take off and land at Juneau International Airport and other remote locations where pilots have to deal with dangerous weather conditions and mountains.

It’s all part of a broader shift in aviation practices called Performance-based Navigation, which uses cutting-edge sensors, communications equipment, and sophisticated flight computers, to work out airplanes’ flight paths—an area that Naverus contributes to across the board. The company has been part of a “fundamental transformation of how air navigation takes place,” says Dottie Hall, chief marketing officer at Naverus. Hall would know; she was a founding vice president of Eclipse Aviation in Albuquerque, NM, and has owned and managed touring operations of vintage airplanes, including her own 1950s-era Lockheed Constellation. And yes, she has her pilot’s license. (Hall was also a very early employee at Microsoft in the late 1970s, but that’s another story.)

To give some idea of the benefits of Naverus’s technology, Hall points out that Southwest Airlines, a flagship customer, saves on the order of one minute per flight using RNP—and that translates into about 155,000 tons of carbon dioxide saved per year. Fuel savings are in the ballpark of 5 percent, which could add up to $1 billion in the total fuel bill of airlines. (According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, improvements in air traffic management and other operations could reduce aviation fuel burn by 8 to 18 percent.) “The economic benefits more than pay for themselves,” Hall says.

Naverus provides the onboard navigation software and flight patch design for airlines and air navigation service providers, as well as consulting, training, and support for pilots, air traffic controllers, and aviation executives. The challenge is introducing new technology into the well-entrenched aviation market, which has lots of slow-moving pieces. Hall says Naverus sold its product directly to airlines for the first few years, but has since found that it works better to also involve air traffic managers, regulators, and, increasingly, foreign governments.

In the past month, Naverus has signed a deal to design advanced navigation procedures for Air China’s Airbus 330 fleet at Lhasa Gongarr airport, as well as Sichuan Airlines, which brings the company’s number of Chinese airline customers to four. Naverus also has airline customers in Australia and Canada, to go along with manufacturing giants Boeing and Airbus. The company is working with the Swedish government to do a national assessment of that country’s airspace and aviation practices. “That’s a growth area in our business,” says Ken Shapero, director of marketing communications for Naverus.

So how does Naverus manage all the moving pieces as it goes about selling its navigation system? “It’s very collaborative,” Hall says. “Our product has to work with flight management systems, air traffic control, and there’s a lot of regulatory oversight.” In part because change comes so slowly in the aviation business, she adds, Naverus has figured out how to get individual organizations, like airlines, to move forward with her company’s RNP product while the broader aviation market goes through its deliberate paces.

Last week’s $4 million funding, led by San Francisco Bay Area firms Foundation Capital and East Peak Partners, follows a $10 million Series C round raised last year from Foundation, East Peak, and JGE Capital. Naverus currently has about 65 employees, and is led by Steve Forte, who succeeded Dan Gerrity as CEO last year. The company is pretty bullish about its business, despite the economy. “The market right now is quite good for us,” Hall says, in that there is lots of pressure in the industry to save money and reduce emissions. “We’re an important piece of an overall solution.”

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