The NewSpace era has taken flight over the last decade, starting when SpaceX’s expendable launch system Falcon 1, reached orbit in 2009. This marked the first privately-developed fully liquid-fuelled launch vehicle ever to enter the Earth’s orbit.
SpaceX’ successes catalyzed the establishment of other private space companies, creating a whole new ecosystem of early stage opportunities for venture investors. By 2020, private investment in spacetech hit a record $8.9B, even in the face of a pandemic.
We sat down with Eivind Liland, CEO of spacetech developer and manufacturer Orbital Machines, to find out more about what we can expect from this space in the future.
Spacetech isn’t something we see every day on Seedrs. How did you get into this industry?
The NewSpace era is completely changing the way space is being explored and made available, and I wanted to be part of that. For the first time in history, private companies are able to impact the space industry. So naturally, private investments follow, alongside new volunteer organizations, such as Copenhagen Suborbitals.
I became a fan of Copenhagen Suborbitals’ SPICA project, which plans to send a person to space (and make Denmark the 4th nation in the world to perform a crewed spaceflight). They have previously built and launched pressure-fed rockets that don’t have propellant pumps, but it is questionable if that will suffice to send a person to space. The propellant pump is one of the hardest parts to develop in a rocket.
So, I volunteered for them and suggested that we’d look into the latest battery technology and a possible electric propellant pump. This turned out to not only be possible, but also way simpler, more controllable and safer. For smaller launch vehicles and rockets, such as Spica, this is a perfect match.
When did you first identify a niche in the market?
It became obvious to us that the turbopump was a challenge among all small launch vehicle developers. There are currently over 100 small launch vehicles in development, and they all need affordable and reliable components. Not long afterward, RocketLab’s rocket reached orbit – the first vehicle to do so using an electric pump.
Small satellites are spearheading the NewSpace industry. They’re used for communication, earth observation, climate research, navigation, and more. Teams all over the world are developing small launch vehicles to offer dedicated and flexible smallsat launches. As this is a mainly private industry, cost reduction and risk reduction is more relevant than ever. A launch failure for a small private company has more economical impact than it has for NASA.
The growing small launch vehicle industry represented a new but fast-growing market for suppliers and we decided to seize that opportunity and develop a competitive and affordable electric propellant pump specifically for them. One of the features of an electric pump is that it is much easier to adjust to different types of rocket engines, compared to the traditional turbopump. Our innovation will help this industry to reduce cost and risk, by solving a common pain point in the industry and supplying the same technology to multiple customers. As we will supply the same technology to different customers and exploit the economy of scale, significant cost reduction can be achieved in the industry, allowing it to properly compete with SpaceX’s “ride along” option for small satellites.
How do Orbital Machines provide something better and more efficient than alternatives on the market?
Our technology and business model will reduce cost, risk and developmental time for any company that wants to develop and launch rockets. We have the same parametric design for all pumps, and a common process for development, production, assembly and validation. With continuous improvements to this design and our methods, we will adjust and validate our electrical propellant pump to different pressure and mass flow requirements, and different engine sizes. This outperforms the launch company’s current alternatives, that are primarily internal development projects or tailormade, specialized products.
What are you doing to protect your technology and deter copycats?
Our technology is complex and there are only very few people in the world who know how to produce it. As such, we already have a head start. However, it is important that we move quickly in order to achieve the economies of scale we need to become an irreplaceable piece of the newspace puzzle.
We are in touch with the right people to make sure our IPR strategy is solid.
What has been the process in terms of iterating the propellant pumps to get the design right?
When we founded the company, we collaborated with the Hydropower Laboratory in Trondheim, Norway, who specialize in turbine and pump design and testing.This gave us a headstart on our first prototype by giving us access to new knowledge and a ready-to-go test lab.
We soon learned however, that manufacturing in Berlin and shipping to Norway was not an effective strategy, so we quickly recalibrated and started designing our own testlab in Berlin, side-by-side by the manufacturing facilities. Now, we are able to quickly test our iterations and develop our pump designs quickly using rapid prototyping.
How have you grown your team so far, are you looking to scale it up?
For a long time it was just us three founders working on a daily basis. About six months ago, we started ramping up the team in order to deliver more quickly. We’re about 18 in total now, including consultants and interns working from our headquarter in Trondheim and at our subsidiary in Berlin.
Can you describe the major growth milestones for the business so far?
The recent growth in team size is an obvious one, but that aside, I think it would be signing on our first commercial customer and recording our first customer revenues. We signed our first commercial contract for developing electric propellant pumps for Venture Orbital Systems in the beginning of 2021 and actually just recently delivered the first order. We’re now preparing for a next step contract to take their rocket engine along with our electric propellant pump to a full-scale static-fire test in 2022.
What do you plan on doing with the proceeds from this round?
The proceeds will be used to fund our organisational growth, to keep advancing our ongoing projects and to follow up and implement new customer projects. The scope and speed of these activities will depend on the final amount raised in this campaign.
To maximise profits from the current open market situation and the technology’s abilities/potential, we also aim to start several customer projects simultaneously to establish ourselves as a leading supplier of electric propellant pumps.
What’s one thing you geek out on?
I totally geek out about the idea of being alive at the time when life in the solar system spreads from Earth to other planets and moons.
What’s one thing you’re good at that translated well into running a business?
I think that the only way to learn is by trying and failing, and trying again. That tenacity is what you need in a startup.
What do you think the future of space technology looks like?
Propellant production in space (on the Moon, on Mars, on asteroids) will completely transform the economy of space travel. I think humanity and life will expand from Earth to the solar system in the next few decades, and turn more or less self-sufficient in the process.