Date posted: 12/02/2021 5 min read

Meet the CA helping taxis fly: Lauren Zwierlein CA

Flying taxi, anyone? Lauren Zwierlein CA, head of finance at Lilium, says it will be a reality in just five years.

In Brief

  • Munich-based start-up Lilium is developing a jet-powered taxi for 300km flights between cities.
  • The Lilium jet could be even more efficient and environmentally friendly than an electric car.
  • Australian CA Lauren Zwierlein became Lilium’s head of finance in 2018.

Stephen Corby

As Lauren Zwierlein CA progressed through a series of interviews with Munich-based start-up Lilium, she was “super sceptical”. The company was developing an electric vertical take-off and landing jet for “regional urban air mobility” – in other words, a jet-powered taxi that could fly across the countryside.

Zwierlein, who had worked for start-ups in San Francisco, thought Lilium sounded fast-paced and technologically advanced, but at the same time the now 34-year-old Australian thought it all sounded a bit fantastical and fictional – like Back to the Future II, German style.

“I had my doubts and I’m in this interview with [Lilium co-founder Patrick Nathen] and I just asked, ‘So, what’s so good about your aircraft anyway?’” Zwierlein recalls.

“The way he explained it to me, I was just completely sold. I just knew – this thing is going to go all the way.”

We have lift-off

Lilium was founded in 2015 by aerospace engineers Patrick Nathen and Daniel Wiegand, along with Sebastian Born, who focuses on construction and testing, and Matthias Meiner, an expert in control engineering and aviation. Since it started, Lilium has raised more than US$350 million in capital. In 2020, the company was valued at US$1 billion.

YouTube videos of its test flights show just how invested each of Lilium’s now more than 500 employees are in the project. In one test from 2019, you can see the tension on every face as this small and strange-looking jet – part spaceship, part giant hair clippers – attempts to lift off, and then takes flight, inspiring much jumping and joy.

“I went from being sceptical to being 100% on board,” says Zwierlein, speaking to Acuity in November 2020. “[Nathen] made me understand the concept and what it meant.

“It’s not just about a flying car. It’s the macro context, and what it could mean for the whole world: reducing the footprint of ground-based infrastructure such as roads and rail corridors, being able to save wildlife habitats by travelling over them, rather than building on them.

“And there was also his passion for the idea. You could feel it. You could feel that energy from him and from everyone who worked there. These people really believe intensely in what they are doing.”

As exciting as NASA

Being able to watch, close up, as it becomes a reality is not unlike being part of the original NASA space program for Zwierlein.

“We have a window in our office that overlooks where the test flights are held and everyone runs over to watch whenever there is one. It’s great, because I end up with a bunch of these incredible engineers around me.

“And not only can you feel the excitement from them, but they can explain to me, while it’s happening, what they’re trying to achieve. That gives you a much deeper understanding.”

While this cutting-edge innovation is thrilling, it’s the ecological, green-friendly goals of the company that truly inspire Zwierlein. Like many of her generation, she is extremely aware of climate-change issues.

“It’s really special to be part of something that’s actually making a difference to the world, in the short and medium term. As an accountant you don’t always get the chance to do that,” she says.

Lauren Zwierlein CAPicture: Lauren Zwierlein CA.

“It’s really special to be part of something that’s actually making a difference to the world, in the short and medium term.”
Lauren Zwierlein CA, Lilium

“With the skills we have, it’s not like being a marine biologist, where obviously your work tends to align with your beliefs and your interests.

“As an accountant, it’s more of a challenge to find work that allows you to use your skills and apply them to something that you really believe in.”

Greener than a Tesla?

The goal is for Lilium’s five-seater electric jets to replace traditional forms of transport for hops between cities. (“It’s more about regional travel, because in inner cities it’s actually more efficient to ride a bike or walk,” says Zwierlein.) Importantly, the vehicle runs on renewable electricity rather than fossil fuels.

The jets have a proposed range of up to 300km. That would get you from Munich in Germany to Zurich in Switzerland. In New Zealand, that’s the distance from Auckland to Whakatane; in Australia, the trip from Sydney to Canberra.

The electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft don’t require the massive infrastructure of airports because they can use a much smaller “vertiport” as a landing pad.

Incredibly, the Lilium jet could be even more efficient and environmentally friendly than an electric car, such as a Tesla.

“Over medium distances, from an energy use perspective, Lilium jets can be better because a Tesla has tyres which create friction with the road, which saps energy,” Zwierlein explains.

“The jet, on the other hand, has wings which provide lift from the air passing under them. This is why normal passenger jets are so efficient in cruising flight. They use very little fuel because the lift created by the wings keeps them up in the air.”

Lauren Zwierlein’s journey across the world

Zwierlein isn’t an aeronautical engineer, as much as she might sound like one. Her role, since September 2018, as Lilium’s head of finance is a “broad brief”, she says.

She runs functions including treasury, financial reporting and accounting, business partnering, and financial planning and analysis, “plus some extra goodies like insurance management and supporting investor relations and capital raising”.

The skills Zwierlein learned as a chartered accountant – she gained her accreditation at Pitcher Partners after graduating from Melbourne’s Deakin University in 2006 – are enabling her to adapt to Lilium’s constantly changing environment.

Lilium, she says, employs the very best people from around the world. And everyone is encouraged to speak in just one language, English.

“The key thing I’ve found, being in a start-up with really high growth, is being able to adapt to different situations and to quickly acquire knowledge of a lot of things. The CA Program allows you to get into an issue and make connections and be effective very quickly,” she says.

“As part of the CA Program, they make you do all these different modules, and there’s a really strong technical component. But you also learn to cope, even when you’re not given a full set of facts. You learn how to figure things out for yourself, and you have the confidence to make judgement calls.

“At a start-up, no two days are the same and there are always new challenges that never have been encountered before. There is no regional air mobility market at the moment, so you can’t look at a precedent of the way things have been done.

“You have to be comfortable sitting with uncertainty and figuring out how to approach those new challenges every day.”

“You have to be comfortable sitting with uncertainty and figuring out how to approach those new challenges every day.”
Lauren Zwierlein CA, Lilium

Telling the story behind the numbers

When she first joined Lilium, Zwierlein was reporting to the chief commercial officer. Having previously only reported to partners and CFOs, she had to find a way to communicate financial information in a way that was going to be interesting and meaningful to a commercial person, which was hugely challenging, she says.

Burnout is also a danger because, if you’re the sort of person who wants to be involved in everything, there’s so much going on at once that it can swallow every hour in the day.

“You have to have the discipline to let go of things, but what’s going on is all so fascinating, so that’s hard,” she says.

Co-founders Sebastian Born, Patrick Nathen, Daniel Wiegand and Mathias Meiner with the Lilium jet.Picture: Co-founders Sebastian Born, Patrick Nathen, Daniel Wiegand and Mathias Meiner with the Lilium jet.

An unexpected downside of start-ups

Working in Germany means that getting 30 days of paid leave a year, as Zwierlein does at Lilium, is pretty much standard. So is taking off most of the peak summer month of August. With so much of Europe on her doorstep, her lifelong wanderlust is easily and regularly fed.

Or at least it was until the pandemic hit last year and forced her to stay away from the office.

“People in our region, Bavaria, are being encouraged to work from home if possible and, obviously, it’s totally possible to work from home as an accountant,” she sighs.

Working at a company that is moving at such an incredible speed towards an uncertain future sounds either highly energising or utterly exhausting, depending on your point of view, but Zwierlein says it’s actually both things, simultaneously.

As she explains to her new recruits – in 2020, her team grew from six people to 20 – most jobs have a learning curve that lasts about six months. After that first half-year, you usually get to the point where you’re feeling confident in your role. But that’s not how things work at a start-up such as Lilium.

“I remember on my first day here, the company’s first-ever employee, a woman called Jeannette who was leading HR, told me that what you’re doing today is completely different from what you’ll be doing in six months’ time. And what you do six months after that will be different again,” she recalls.

“And that’s so true. Your role changes: suddenly you’re dealing with deep subject matter experts, you’re managing large teams and complex projects.

“Maintaining that trajectory daily is difficult – you need to rest sometimes – but it’s incredibly rewarding at the same time.

“It’s like being on a rocket ship and I feel really lucky because I’m getting incredible opportunities and working with some amazing people. We are reaping the benefits of being able to recruit people who are the very best in their fields, from all over the world.”

“It’s like being on a rocket ship and I feel really lucky because I’m getting incredible opportunities and working with some amazing people.”
Lauren Zwierlein CA, Lilium

Flying taxis will be here by 2025

So how soon will Lilium’s jets be taking to the sky and proving the sceptics, of whom Zwierlein is no longer one, wrong?

“We’re talking about 2025, being in operation, and that’s not just one jet doing a single shuttle route, but actually having meaningful operations up and running,” she says.

“Yes, that is very soon. But things are happening very fast, both here in Europe and in Florida, where we announced a new launch site just last week [November 2020].”

A future in which we all take to the skies may sound like science fiction, but for Zwierlein and her colleagues it’s a reality that gets closer every single working day.

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