Alumnus and Founder of uShip Takes Next Business Venture to the Skies

January 16, 2020
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matt chasen

Sixteen years after founding uShip and turning it into a successful online platform for shipping large items anywhere in the world, UT alumnus Matt Chasen (B.S. ME 1998, MBA 2004) has shifted his gaze from the roads to the skies to launch LIFT Aircraft, a first-of-its-kind experiential entertainment business that aims to make personal flight accessible and affordable for the masses.

Like uShip, LIFT has benefited from the combination of engineering expertise and business acumen that Chasen acquired during his time on the Forty Acres.

“Though I always planned to focus on business in my career, I knew that the technical proficiencies and problem-solving skills that come with an engineering degree would be incredibly useful,” Chasen said. “I chose mechanical engineering because it gives you broad experience in several disciplines. After graduating, I went to work at Boeing in Seattle for a few years before returning to UT for my MBA.”

It was during that fateful return trip from Seattle to Austin — when Chasen learned that the 9-foot moving van he ordered was unavailable and would be replaced by an unnecessarily large 20-foot truck — that uShip was born. After recalling an experience weeks earlier when he had struggled to find an affordable way to ship furniture, which would have fit perfectly in the unused extra space in his moving truck, Chasen hit upon an idea that he would spend the next few years nurturing into a business while earning his MBA.

“It was a low opportunity cost for me because I was going to be in school for the next two years and didn’t necessarily need to worry about working,” Chasen said. “But, more importantly, UT has a great entrepreneurship curriculum and encouraging professors. I actually used the uShip business planning process as coursework whenever I could, so my education also served as an accelerator.”

Chasen launched uShip in 2003, leveraging internet and mobile technologies to connect customers with large freight to carriers with available truck space. After leading the company to nearly $1 billion in gross sales from over 1 million deliveries across 138 countries — not to mention 100 episodes of television fame over seven seasons of the reality show “Shipping Wars” — Chasen announced that he was stepping down as CEO in late 2016 to begin working on LIFT, a project driven not just by his personal passion for flight but also by his desire to share that thrilling experience with as many people as possible.

“I have always been fascinated with flight. I played with model airplanes as a kid, did an internship at NASA and eventually got my pilot’s license,” Chasen said. “But the only reason I was able to afford and obtain that license was because I worked for Boeing, which subsidized pilot training for employees. That was great for me, but most people don’t have that kind of opportunity. It’s too expensive and time-consuming.”

To make personal flight a possibility for everyone, LIFT has developed its own vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, named Hexa, that utilizes the latest in autonomous technologies to provide a safe and affordable flying experience — with minimal training required.

Resembling a large drone, Hexa’s 18 sets of propellers, motors and batteries allow it to take flight through distributed electric propulsion, meaning the aircraft is controlled simply by varying the speed of the motors — a task that is managed entirely by the aircraft’s flight control computers. Thanks to its triply redundant autopilot computer and ability to fly and land safely with up to six motors disabled, Hexa provides a flight experience that puts both thrill seekers and hesitant fliers at ease.

“In the past, flying has been a high-stress experience that, frankly, wouldn’t be that fun for most people,” Chasen said. “The really disruptive thing that we’re doing with LIFT is that pilots won’t be flying in the traditional sense of a fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter, where you have a yoke and are physically connected to the control surfaces of the aircraft. In the Hexa, you will use a joystick to direct the aircraft, and the computers will worry about stabilizing it and keeping it in the air. It radically simplifies flying.”

Hexa has one seat for a pilot and weighs only 432 pounds, which qualifies it as a Powered Ultralight —like hang gliders and powered parachutes — by the Federal Aviation Administration and therefore does not require a pilot’s license to fly. As a result, LIFT will avoid the regulatory uncertainties surrounding other companies that are creating five-seat, autonomous commercial aircraft. By beating those companies to the market, LIFT will ultimately serve as an introduction to the VTOL aircraft experience for consumers, which will help regulators and users alike grow more comfortable with the aircraft that may define the next wave of transportation.

“LIFT will not only help the general public gain trust and confidence in these aircraft but also help the FAA by providing these aircraft with the usage and safe operating records that will inform certification requirements,” Chasen said. “By not selling these aircraft and instead selling the experience of flying them in controlled environments that we operate across the country, we can bring this technology to market sooner rather than later and help our society take that next step toward commercial VTOL transportation.”

Once the animated sci-fi sitcom “The Jetsons” popularized the idea in the 1960s, our society’s vision of the future has been largely defined by the existence of flying cars. Thanks to LIFT, Chasen may be the one who makes that vision a reality. But, when asked about the significance of this next venture and the technology making it possible, he mostly keeps his feet on the ground.

“Science fiction is happening every day now. We’re close to fully self-driving cars. We’ve detected gravitational waves and the Higgs-Boson. These are extraordinary times,” he said. “Compared to some other things that are happening out there, I actually look at what we’re doing and think it’s quite simple. It’s electric motors and sensors that have been used in drones for years now – we’re just putting it all together.”

That also happens to be the advice he gives to today’s students who are looking to follow in his footsteps as successful entrepreneurs — just put it all together, in a way that no one else has.

“Most of the successful businesses I know were started by people who came across a problem and thought there was a better way to do it. As you’re using products or studying how they work, always be open-minded about different ways to do things,” Chasen said. “You are growing up with all of these remarkable technologies. If you can recognize how to put some of these ingredients together to solve a problem, you’ll find there are limitless opportunities to disrupt.”