Navigating Situations Outside Your Startup’s Control: Altaeros’ Story of Resilience

Greentown Labs member Altaeros deploys its SuperTower—an autonomous, tethered aerostat—to rural areas to bring dependable internet access in a way that’s significantly cheaper and cleaner than standard infrastructure.

But rural connectivity wasn’t always Altaeros’ focus. The startup, which was one of the founding members of Greentown, began by using its aerial platform as an airborne wind turbine.

The story of Altaeros’ shift is what Ben Glass—the company’s CEO, CTO, and co-founder—shared at the first installment of Greentown’s Founder Speaker Series, a platform for members to share their experiences of company resiliency and helpful advice with their fellow startups.

Altaeros’ airborne wind turbine was vying against diesel generators. When the price of oil dropped dramatically in late 2014, Altaeros lost its competitive edge.

“Almost our entire advantage in that market dissolved overnight,” Glass recalled.

In considering its next steps, the team decided to tap into the emerging demand for connectivity, using its airborne platform for a different sector. While there’s no easy time for a startup to pivot, Altaeros was in a particularly tight spot—they’d just raised a round of funding. That meant Glass had to discuss the situation and the company’s plans with its new investors.

“They said, ‘OK, we understand the situation. Show us the data, show us the plan, show us what you think you need to do,’” according to Glass.

Glass said that in many ways, the following six months of walking Altaeros’ investors through their pivot were similar to courting investors in the first place—but “instead of doing it during investor pitch sessions, we were doing it during board meetings.”

Glass offered two pieces of advice for fellow startups. First, don’t shy away from making the tough decisions you have to make, and make them swiftly. Second, know that any trust you hope to garner during a trying time needs to be built on trust you’ve already worked to establish—that’s how you keep your staff and reassure your investors.

Now several years past its pivot, Altaeros has launched the world’s first commercial aerial cell tower, was named one of BostInno’s 50 on Fire in social impact, and—of high importance to Glass and his team—is still having a significant environmental impact. In fact, Glass estimates it may even be larger than if Altaeros had stuck with its original wind turbine.

“The sustainability aspect of our DNA is very much still there,” Glass explained. “I often say we’re an energy efficiency company masquerading as a telecom company. Because by deploying SuperTowers instead of regular towers, we’re able to cut out at least half of the energy consumption in an industry that is oftentimes powered by diesel generators. We’re having potentially an even bigger environmental sustainability impact than we would’ve had with the niche, off-grid energy generation. It was something we could still be super proud about.”

The Founder Speaker Series is part of Greentown Labs’ commitment to support startups as they navigate the impacts of COVID-19. To learn more about these efforts, follow us on Twitter or check out our blog.