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H3X co-founders Eric Maciolek, Jason Sylvestre and Max Liben
December 4, 2023

Power players: UW-Madison trio’s innovative electric motors land them on Forbes 30 Under 30 list

Written By: Jason Daley

Electric cars and trucks are slowly but surely finding their way onto roads across the world. But when it comes to air travel, electric aviation still has a ways to go. That’s because current electric motors and battery technology don’t come close to matching the power and energy density of old-fashioned, highly polluting combustion jet engines.

But Denver, Colorado-based startup company H3X is moving the world one step closer to electrifying the skies with new lightweight, power-dense electric motors with enough oomph to get a large aircraft like a 737 off the ground. The designs earned its three co-founders, all University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering alums, a spot on the Forbes 2024 30 Under 30 list in the manufacturing and industry category.

The trio includes CEO Jason Sylvestre (BSEE ‘18, MSEE ‘19), CTO Max Liben (BSME ‘18, MSEE ‘20) and president Erik Maciolek (BSME ‘18). Over the past three years, H3X has received over $9 million in investment, including backing from defense superpower Lockheed Martin in early 2023.

Erik Maciolek (left) and Max Liben show off the HPDM 3000, one of the lightweight, efficient motors their company H3X is developing to decarbonize aviation and industry. Submitted photo.

The three engineers met at UW-Madison as part of the Formula SAE team, a student organization that each year builds and races a 1/3-size formula-style race car. During their second year, Max and Jason spun off and started the Formula Electric team. In 2017, they built the first electric all-wheel drive FSAE car in the United States and in 2018, they were the first team to develop an entire custom electric powertrain from scratch. Max designed the motors and Jason built the quad inverter to control them.

That intensive project, says Sylvestre, was a formative experience for them. “It was very similar to starting a company because we had to recruit students to join the team, we had to raise money and connect with sponsors, and then ultimately deliver a product on a very compressed timeframe,” he says. “And we went through a lot of the same type of emotional roller coasters that you go through in a startup.”

Eventually, Sylvestre and Liben earned master’s degrees at UW-Madison, studying with the Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium (WEMPEC), a global leader in developing motor technology. The three knew they wanted to take the cutting-edge skills they acquired at UW-Madison and apply them to decarbonization. The electric car space, they knew, was already saturated with startups. Electric aviation motors, however, still had a lot of room for improvement. After graduation, Sylvestre started a power-electronics consulting business, Liben designed electric powertrains for Tesla, and Maciolek worked on electric powertrains and lithium-ion battery development at several companies. In their spare time, however, the three began developing the designs and business plan for a new aviation motor company.

In 2020, they were accepted into the prestigious Silicon Valley tech incubator Y Combinator, and the three began working on H3X full time, establishing an office in the greater Denver area. Three years later, and their motors are now starting to be delivered to customers.

Sylvestre says there are three areas of innovation that make their motors unique. “One is the novel materials we’re using that no one else is using in motors. Two is new manufacturing processes that we’ve developed in-house to best utilize these materials. And third is novel integration techniques between the electric motor and the inverter,” he says. “This integrated motor drive architecture, where you have the inverter and motor co-packaged in one unit, is the future of electric propulsion. You get rid of a lot of unnecessary mass and component costs.”

By increasing the power density of the motors, it allows airplanes to save weight in the airframe structure because they do not need to carry heavy engines and can use that savings to carry more batteries or fuel. “Based on our internal studies, we’ve found that you can increase narrow-body aircraft range by 120% by using our 12 kW/kg motors versus the conventional 3 kW/kg systems that exist today,” Sylvestre says. “This means that if you have an aircraft with 200 miles range, you can increase that range to 440 miles, which is huge.”

The result is a family of motors H3X calls HPDM. So far, the company has two motor types being tested by customers: The HPDM-30 is a small 33-kilowatt version that can be used for propulsion or power generation in aerospace and defense applications. The 250-kilowatt HPDM-250 is powerful enough to get smaller aircraft aloft and H3X is planning for its first flight with the unit in 2024.

A larger version, the 1.5-megawatt HPDM-1500, should be ready for testing by the end of 2024. That motor can power single-aisle aircraft and can be stacked to provide up to 10 megawatts of power, enough juice for even larger aircraft. These powerful, efficient motors also have applications in large-scale marine, industrial, and defense applications. “Our vision is to become the world’s leading supplier of advanced electric motors by 2030 to help enable decarbonization in a lot of these heavy industries,” says Sylvestre.

Sylvestre say that the company is still deeply connected with UW-Madison and has recruited many of its 23 employees from the Formula SAE team and WEMPEC. “We love UW-Madison; it really set us up well for what we’re doing,” he says. “It’s just a great university with great programs and great students. It lets them be both hands-on as well as entrepreneurial.”

Check out other college alumni who also made the Forbes list.

Featured image caption: H3X co-founders (left to right), Eric Maciolek, Jason Sylvestre and Max Liben. Submitted photo.