Startup Launches Stratospheric Balloons From a Pickup Truck

(Bloomberg) -- In 2017, Andrew Antonio found himself at the center of an ad campaign for the ages. Antonio, then the head of marketing for World View Enterprises, received a phone call from Kentucky Fried Chicken. It wanted to send one of its chicken sandwiches to space.

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As Antonio recounts in the latest episode of Hello World, World View made huge balloons that could soar through the stratosphere, and so Antonio actually took the fast food company’s request seriously. He did, in fact, arrange for a balloon to carry a KFC payload as high as possible in the name of stratospheric advertising.

Ultimately, the Zinger 1 bucket satellite reached 67,143 feet on a livestream hosted by the actor Rob Lowe. Not quite space. But still awesome.

Antonio’s experience at World View taught him that large stratospheric balloons could do interesting things but also that they tended to be too bulky and too expensive and took too long to fill with helium to make them useful for everyday flights. He and his World View colleague Jared Leidich began to wonder whether they could engineer a smaller take on balloons that would be much easier and cheaper to launch. These balloons could be used by companies to photograph the land below and to monitor things like forest fires and other natural disasters where emergency personnel need fresh data fast.

The two men followed their hunch to found Urban Sky, a balloon maker based in Denver. They rethought much of what goes into crafting and launching a balloon and came up with the Microballoon, which can be hoisted up into the sky from the bed of a pickup truck in a few minutes. This thing is reusable and can take photos of large swaths of land at a resolution much higher than satellites.

On Monday, Urban Sky said it has raised $9.75 million in funding from investors including New Legacy Ventures, Lerer Hippeau and Lavrock Ventures to keep chasing its balloon dreams.

Urban Sky fits into a rich tradition of aerospace companies based in Colorado. And this makes sense. It’s a big state with lots of land that’s handy for experiments and is full of adventurous, well-educated people and military-friendly vibes. (It also has a lot of expats from California, but that’s something of a sore point even though they come bearing their fancy tech brains and deep pockets.)

While Los Angeles may be the capital of New Space because of that Elon Musk guy, Colorado runs a close second. Take, for example, Ursa Major Technologies, which is producing rocket engines used by an increasing number of rocket startups. Since this is Hello World, we get to see said rocket engines fire and bask in their wondrous fire and noise.

And, of course, no trip to Colorado would be complete without shooting a biometric smart gun. Yes, I got to play a less handsome and much less fit James Bond and shoot Biofire’s new handgun. The firearm has both a fingerprint sensor and facial recognition technology to ensure that only the right person can discharge the weapon.

Rocket engines, guns, balloons. Oh, and fly fishing, too. That’s good living in Colorado.

Things to Do After Watching the Episode

The episode kicks off at the Buckhorn Exchange, which is a very, very, very taxidermy-forward restaurant in Denver. We visited the restaurant and bar as something of a gag, but, well, the place grew on me. Rocky Mountain oysters (if you know, you know), fried alligator tail, rattlesnake, elk, buffalo tenderloin, it’s all there, staring back at you as you eat. Embrace the Old West, at least for a night.

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