The highest flyer: Harriet Green talks Everest, flying cars and building a hi-tech business aged 18 with Gilo Cardozo

Harriet Green
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Cardozo has flown from London to Timbuktu on his own invention

To tell the truth, drones don’t really interest me at all – I like manned aircraft,” says Gilo Cardozo, founder of aviation firm Gilo Industries. He’s not being flippant – he’s got an army of specialist engineers working on engines for unmanned aircraft – but someone so passionate about his work can afford to be slightly choosy.

Cardozo started the first arm of his business, Parajet, aged 18, officially founding it in 2001. “I was always interested in making things, and I loved aircraft. I wanted to make a better personal aircraft, and the best in the industry is a paramotor aircraft, because it’s unregulated. I’d seen one when I was at school and, as soon as I left, I started looking at the standard models.” The young entrepreneur, who set up in his family’s barn, found that the market didn’t offer much that was well made, so there was plenty of room to get going. “Because there are no regulations involved, it’s very easy for anyone with a limited budget to build one. So that’s how it all kicked off.”

Paramotoring, Cardozo keenly explains, is for everyone. A flyer harnesses a motor and propeller pack to their back, with a paragliding wing above to keep them airborne. Training and equipment will set you back around £8,000-10,000 and “you only need three to four days of training in perfect conditions to fly safely – then it’s just about honing your skills. Provided you avoid restricted airspace, you can fly anywhere. I absolutely love it – everybody should be flying around in one.” I ask Cardozo how high a paramotor can be taken. “Usually around 6,000 feet. But then I’ve taken one to 24,000 feet and it was great. Cold, but fantastic.”

Parajet, which provides the parajet technology and equipment to enthusiasts and would-be flyers, is now part of Gilo Industries, the core business of which is making high-spec rotary engines for extreme aviation (like UAVs). The engines are very compact, have a high power to weight ratio and are vibration free, making them ideal for vertical takeoffs. Cardozo has also applied his expertise and technology to racing bikes and his SkyQuad – a flying car, which he flew from London to Timbuktu in 2009. Subsequently, his team has built six SkyQuads for private customers.

Going all the way

The engine business came about almost by accident. In 2007, he developed a special version of the parajet to fly him and fellow adventurer Bear Grylls over Mount Everest. “We had loads of enquiries on the back of that with people wanting similar engines for different applications. That sparked the idea of setting up an engine company. The business grew through applications we weren’t even aware of. The biggest players began coming to us because it was far easier than trying to do it themselves.”

Now, Cardozo has almost 60 employees working out of his Semley (a tiny village near Shaftesbury, Dorset) base. Many have relocated specially – having formerly been with the biggest names in the industry. He met his business partner, Jim Edmondson, at Gillingham train station in 2008. “He recognised me from the Everest film, and we got chatting. He’s turned out to be an absolutely brilliant business partner and has transformed the commercial side of the company. I’d always been looking for someone to come on and run that side of things and free me up to do more development work – to cover the things I’m useless at!”

But growing a startup aviation firm hasn’t always been easy. “We jumped into an industry which is incredibly demanding on specification, quality control and a whole host of other things. A lot of the companies in this industry have been in it for years and have great track records. We promised a lot of great things to clients, and had to ensure we delivered.”

One area where Cardozo has learnt the hard way is intellectual property. “I was running around trying to patent too many things early on and wasted quite a lot of money. Now, I get my head down, get out in the market as quickly as possible and make the money.” For a business like Gilo Industries, IP is a very important thing – predominantly from an investment perspective. “Investors want to know that you have IP behind you – even is it’s just patent pending. That makes our IP portfolio extremely valuable.”

Big horizons

Seeking investment is something Cardozo has a love hate relationship with. Like any SME owner, he’s painfully aware how much time it takes up. Gilo Industries has investors from all round the world – from passionate individuals to family offices. “Raising funds is ultimately a bit of a waste of time, but we have to do it. We could do with far more upfront, like any R&D firm – we know how to spend it and we’ve got a vision.”

This year, Cardozo plans to go for more funding to finance promising new products. In addition to new engine development, there’s one product in particular which Cardozo is especially excited about – but which is being kept closely under wraps. “The products we’re producing are still too limited, so this is an important next stage for us.”

Cardozo’s main driving force is propulsion systems. “If I wasn’t focusing on flying right now, I’d be looking at energy systems – energy and propulsion. There are some really interesting ideas out there.” In terms of what he’s working on now, all he can do is keep eyes and ears open to competition. “The last thing you want to do as a small company is find someone else has beaten you to it.”

Cardozo hasn’t ruled out a part exit for himself in the future – “if it was a way to help the company to grow significantly, and we could find the right people to do it.” But, he adds, he could never exit fully. “It’s too much part of my life, and I love it so much.”