Technology

Early Tesla investor DBL Partners leads $70 million investment in logistics firm Airspace

Matt Mawson | Corbis Documentary | Getty Images

Time-critical logistics start-up Airspace, which originally broke into the market handling shipments for emergency situations including organ transplants and life-saving medications, has nearly doubled its funding in a new round of venture capital led by DBL Partners, an impact investing firm that was an early investor in Tesla. The $70 million funding round — which also included new investors Telstra Ventures and HarbourVest, as well as existing investors Scale Ventures, Defy Ventures, Qualcomm Ventures and Prologis Ventures — brings Airspace’s total funding to $138 million.

The investment is an indication of the rapid growth of logistics start-ups in the pandemic years as global supply chain issues lead to new opportunities for disruptive business models. With DBL Partners, which focuses on “double bottom line” investing, coming on board, it also raises the profile of sustainability within the business model of logistics companies and throughout the global supply chain.

Airspace noted in a release that many of its largest customers are increasingly focused on carbon-neutrality.   

“Airspace is unique in its ability to provide complete transparency into the carbon footprint of time-critical deliveries, enabling customers to optimize routes with the least possible environmental impact,” Ira Ehrenpreis, founder and managing partner at DBL Partners, said in a press release.

Ehrenpreis is on the Tesla board of directors, and DBL has invested in several solar energy companies (including SolarCity, now part of Tesla), as well as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and previous CNBC Disruptor 50 companies, such as Apeel Sciences, which is focused on food system waste.

Joel Hwang, principal of HarbourVest, also received a seat on Airspace’s board.

Airspace uses AI and machine learning to optimize delivery opportunities around the world, and it provides real-time data — as many as 16,000 “touch points” — on shipments.

The company, which was founded in 2016 and has offices in Carlsbad, California, Dallas, Stockholm and Amsterdam, reported growth of 110% last year and said it is on pace to match that growth this year.

“With supply chain disruptions continuing to impact countries worldwide, no time in history has time-critical shipping & logistics been so essential to ensuring these complex and sensitive shipments reach their destinations on-time,” Nick Bulcao, co-founder and CEO at Airspace, stated in the release.

Airspace, which ranked No. 39 on the CNBC Disruptor 50, is one of ten companies from the logistics sector to make the annual list, the most of any sector in 2022 as the global supply chain crisis raised the profile of disruptive start-ups taking technology-enabled approaches to the global shipping problems, and growth led to increased attention from investors.

Several of the top logistics start-ups featured on the CNBC Disruptor 50 have made sustainability issues a key business focus within what is an often inefficient and carbon-intensive transport sector.

Between 15% to 40% of carbon emissions from truckloads can be eliminated through more efficient shipments, according to Flock Freight, which was the first freight company to be awarded B Corp. status, which requires companies to run business models designed to balance purpose and profits. Flock Freight has focused on removing “empty space” in trucking, with many truckloads only 60% to 70% full when they hit the roads, which is both inefficient as a logistics approach and needless as far as climate impact.

Airspace has noted that many commercial planes take off with low capacity utilization in cargo holds, one of the data points it can track and take advantage of in sourcing alternative transport options for customers.

Flexport, the No. 1 Disruptor this year, recently received a $900 million round of venture capital and has seen its annual revenue grow by billions during the supply chain crisis — it is on pace for over $5 billion in revenue this year.

“Historically, if you just needed shipments on a regular cadence it was good enough to move over ocean or road or rail, but with all of these disruptions, folks that used to move over ocean have shifted a lot to air freight,” said Airspace chief operating officer Ben Kozy in a recent interview.

Suppliers and shippers have shifted their mentality about relying on a single mode of transport.

“The global supply chain that has just taken a beating from the pandemic and labor shortages and growth in consumer demand for products,” Kozy said. “All of this has removed the relative certainty of logistics, taken it away and suppliers are scrambling for new mediums for transport,” he added.

The funding will be used to increase Airspace’s focus on Europe and Asia, as well as focus on clients in new sectors where time-sensitive deliveries are critical including semiconductors, autos and clean tech. Europe accounts for more than 10% of revenue, up from 1.5% in 2020, according to Airspace, and the company now operates in 134 countries.

“Our goal is to be able to ship the most packages to any destination, regardless of size,” Bulcao said in the release.

To date, Airspace has completed over one million shipments.

The global auto industry has been hit by multiple chip shortages in the past two years requiring waves of temporary plant shutdowns at major automakers. Earlier this month, Ford said the chip shortages plaguing the industry are persisting and the automaker being forced to prioritize ship supplies for the most in-demand models.

While its roots are in the medical market, Kozy told CNBC that as Airspace grows it is allowing more customers to define what is “critical” to their business. The inherent need to move organs for transplant fast is a business model that can now be applied to an automaker’s plant being down due to parts that have not arrived. “Critical is the time limit it needs to be delivered,” Kozy said.

Recently, Airspace has also found a market in items as diverse as high-end caskets, high-end aprons and hot tubs.

“Our model enables us to move quickly, in under 24 hours, once the customer has made the decision,” Kozy said.

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