Curiosity, confidence, rigor, and humility were all potent elements of a Caltech education for Kevin Noertker (BS '09). They also underpin his current pursuit of bringing electrification to the skies. Noertker's company, Ampaire, is developing hybrid-electric systems to power the future of aviation, enabling zero-emission airplanes that offer real economic and environmental benefits. While Noerkter is working to transform the aviation industry, he remains connected to the Caltech community as a mentor.
This April, Noertker will be featured in an Alumni Fireside Chat presented by the Resnick Sustainability Institute at Caltech. Noertker was previously featured in the Caltech Alumni Association's Techer magazine, and ENGenuity spoke with him to get more insight on how his experience at Caltech EAS continues to shape his career.
ENGenuity: How would you describe your professional contributions?
Kevin Noertker: Exhilarating. I have been able to work on some of the most exciting things I could imagine, and some things that were even beyond imagination at the time I started my career.
Professionally, I'm currently co-founder and CEO of a company named Ampaire, where we're pioneering electrified, sustainable aviation. We're one of the leaders in the world. It's super meaningful, challenging, gratifying work, and I love it. Prior to starting Ampaire, I worked at Northrop Grumman, where I was doing research and development and program management on large aerospace programs and advanced technologies. I started in stealth technology, and then I worked on satellite technologies, too. Before Northrop, when I was a student at Caltech, my research work included working on Mars rovers and sampling missions to moons in the solar system. It was magical work.
ENGenuity: How would you describe Ampaire and its mission?
Noertker: We're an engineering and technology-focused company based in Los Angeles. Ampaire's mission is to be the world's most trusted developer of practical, compelling electric aircraft from short-haul cargo all the way to supersonic passenger transport. Unpacking that a bit, it's about being trusted, practical, and compelling, which to me means working with integrity, pragmatism, humility, and driving a really big impact in the world.
So, how we're going about it is by taking all the great technology that's electrifying ground transportation and applying it into things that fly. Specifically, we're starting with turbo prop airplanes. Those planes fly on combustion engines, burning gasoline, and they're expensive to operate. They're bad for the environment when they do fly. We're re-engining those planes as a first product with hybrid-electric systems. So, think half combustion, half electric. This cuts the fuel by about 50%, which is huge for environmental impact and economics for airlines.
ENGenuity: How has your Caltech education influenced you?
Noertker: Caltech was a tremendously rigorous education, where I was surrounded by some of the smartest people I have ever met and maybe will ever meet. It was the most intellectually dense community that I've ever been in, where every corner you turn, you're bumping into somebody who either has a Nobel prize or will potentially receive one or define an entire industry.
My college education at Caltech was a phenomenal foundation for establishing the confidence in first principles thinking and a rigorous approach to hard problems, and competency in engineering-type disciplines. But it also gave me the humility to recognize that I'm rarely the smartest person in the room, especially at Caltech. I recognize the value and strengths of all of those around me. That perspective really grew while I was a student at Caltech, and ties into the humility that I think it takes to be a great leader. I've taken that foundation and leaned on it as I've grown teams, both when I was at Northrop Grumman and especially as I'm building Ampaire, pulling in amazing people who are brilliant and so much smarter than me. We can all enjoy each other's strengths and cover each other's weaknesses.
Also, Caltech is a relatively small school and a tight-knit community, and there were a huge number of opportunities to get into leadership positions in college. That includes leadership in a student body, or working with administration, or on committees, or in sports. I was able to get comfortable with the idea of leading groups and organizations.
ENGenuity: Is there a class or professor that had the biggest impact on you?
Noertker: It would be hard to pin it down to one. From the humility standpoint, ACM 95 taught by Niles Pierce [Professor of Applied and Computational Mathematics and Bioengineering] just destroyed me. It was so hard, and it taught me immense hard work, but also to appreciate knowledge gained not just for the grade outcome. I think it was the lowest grade I ever received, but I still enjoyed the class.
I also enjoyed all of Joel Burdick's [Richard L. and Dorothy M. Hayman Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering] robotics classes and Richard Murray's [Thomas E. and Doris Everhart Professor of Control and Dynamical Systems and Bioengineering, BS '85] controls class. Those were the foundation of my robotics background and a lot of my interests.
ENGenuity: What aspect of Caltech do you hope always remains?
Noertker: I think Caltech offers an aspirational and inspirational look into the future. That ties into the research that we do as an institute. It's not just about understanding what is, but it's about uncovering what we don't yet understand. And there's a level of intellectual humility and immense competency that comes alongside that research into the unknown. I think that is at the core of the education at Caltech. It is the opportunity to allow Caltech students to participate in that kind of research, and it brings a level of intellectual curiosity to every action and activity.
ENGenuity: What advice would you give to the next generation of Caltech alumni?
Noertker: First, get involved. Every alum should benefit from the support of all the rest of the alums. We are a small community relative to others, but a very strong community as far as the potential we have. I feel as if the alumni community's potential has remained untapped, and that if we could better utilize the broader alumni base, we could feel more supported, enhance and strengthen Caltech's brand, but also enhance and support the success that our alums see in their lives after Caltech. That then transitions to being involved with, for example, mentoring students. I'm sure every one of us had a mentor or a conversation with somebody who inspired us, and each of us has that opportunity, and I would say, obligation, to pay it forward to those new generations of alums and students.
ENGenuity: What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?
Noertker: The most satisfaction from my work is the knowledge that I am doing something that is changing the world in a positive way and maximizing my potential to contribute to that change. I've always looked at my career choices and how I spend my time with three key criteria. I'm always looking for the most meaningful, challenging, and visible work. Meaningfulness being the impact that you create; challenging meaning you're maxing out your potential and capabilities and growing; and visible because it has a broader impact and leads to additional opportunities thereafter.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite story you've recently encountered?
Noertker: I recently read a sci-fi book by Andy Weir, the same author as The Martian, called Project Hail Mary. Project Hail Mary is a nerd's delight, as was The Martian, but it went deeper than most literature would go into the actions, psychology, and internal thoughts of somebody in a tremendously challenging, existentially motivated situation. But what I loved most about that story was the exploration of how to communicate with an alien species, and how to build that type of communication from scratch. That was fascinating.
The second story that I want to highlight is "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. Similarly, it also addresses the question of communication and perception of causality in the world around us. It is an interesting exploration of how we perceive things, and how that affects how we communicate with an alien species—fascinating things that I wouldn't catch on a day to day.
ENGenuity: What is your favorite destination?
Noertker: There is a bridge that extends over a lake in Lucerne, Switzerland. It's a dark wooden bridge with a few little stops along the way. I could sit and think, meditate, clear my head, and enjoy this peaceful environment forever on that bridge. I've only been there once, and I was only in that spot for maybe five minutes, but it was wonderful.
ENGenuity: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Noertker: This ties to core motivations as a human being, and it ties to the feeling that I have an opportunity in life, for however long I'm here, to do some something meaningful, to contribute in a way that will resonate beyond the time that I'm here, to have impacts that are enduring, and to use all these moments in ways that create enduring impact. That's the fire in the belly that gets you out of bed. Though I don't particularly like waking up early, the days on which I wake up early are generally because I have a reason to, and those are often the most productive and enjoyable days that I have.
ENGenuity: What keeps you up at night?
Noertker: My brain spins with all sorts of thoughts. This is literally what keeps me up at night, the rehashing of actions, activities, and conversations that I've had, the nuisance of having hard conversations and arguments in my head before they ever even happen in real life. That probably comes from the strong emotion that I feel toward the actions and what it takes to succeed. My mind will get spun up in these things and it's difficult to calm it. The way I calm my mind is through meditation. Guided sleep meditations generally help me offset that relentless spinning in my mind and give me a bit of peace for the hours that I'm sleeping.