PARIS — Seven weeks after Lilium secured fresh funding from an affiliate of its largest investor, Tencent, the startup has disclosed plans to deploy its electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft in Tencent’s home city of Shenzhen, China, just north of Hong Kong.
Germany-based Lilium announced two agreements on the first day of the 2023 Paris Air Show: a memorandum of understanding to open a regional headquarters in the Bao’an District of Shenzhen municipality, and an agreement with Shenzhen Eastern General Aviation Co., Ltd. (Heli-Eastern) to jointly develop eVTOL services across the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area. Lilium said that Heli-Eastern intends to order 100 Lilium Jets.
Tencent recently provided a $100 million top off to Lilium’s rapidly dwindling cash reserves, to be followed by another $75 million if Lilium raises a matching amount from other sources. But Roewe said that Tencent — which has agreed to keep its stake in the eVTOL developer below 20% — didn’t dictate Lilium’s decision to expand its business opportunities in China. Rather, he said, “Tencent is in Shenzhen because this is the city to be and we take Shenzhen as the city to be.”
Often described as “the Silicon Valley of China”, Shenzhen has an active technology sector that enjoys strong government support. When it comes to advanced air mobility, the city is ahead of most of the world: MIT Technology Reviewrecently detailed how “food delivery by drone is just part of daily life” there.
With more than 85 million people in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, the region also represents an enormous potential market for eVTOL services, as does China generally.
“We believe China overall accounts for 25-plus percent of the eVTOL market in the future, so you have to be there,” Roewe said. “And you know, in China, it always takes a bit of a while to build relationships, but when you have got them, it can be extremely fast.”
Roewe, who joined Lilium last year, speaks from some experience. During a nearly 30-year career at Airbus, he served as head of customer services and head of the A320 family program, including time spent overseeing Airbus’s final assembly line in Tianjin.
“The dynamics that we had, the support that we had, it was not comparable to anything else,” he said of his time with Airbus in China. “And even if there’s people who may be suspicious, I have to say I don’t sense it at all, I sense just incredible dynamics, eagerness to modernize and to be at the forefront of technology.”
It is not yet clear what certification standards the Civil Aviation Administration of China would apply to the Lilium Jet, but Roewe said he’s optimistic that the CAAC will choose to accept the European Union Aviation Safety Agency’s Special Condition for VTOL standard. Lilium is targeting initial certification of the Lilium Jet with EASA by the end of 2025, but the timeline for delivering into China “depends on how the authorities get on with each other,” Roewe said.
“It will not be instantaneous — it will not be the next day,” he said. “But … we have given ourselves a target to say ideally, we would be able to deliver in ’26 the first aircraft into China.”
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