How I Went From Doing Research At MIT To Building A Successful Satellite Company
Tell us your background and about your startup
My name is Natalya Bailey and I’m CEO and co-founder of Accion Systems.
Our company focuses on in-space propulsion using small ion engines. Not the propulsion that gets a rocket into space, but rather the means to navigate once an object is up there. Accion is pioneering scalable electric propulsion technology that we think will completely transform what spacecraft can do in and beyond Earth orbit.
I have been interested in outer space almost as long as I can remember, I used to fall asleep in my backyard on our trampoline tracking the International Space Station. That eventually led me to MIT for my PhD. It was at MIT that I met Prof. Paulo Lozano who had been looking into ion engine technology. Also at MIT, I met my co-founder Louis Perna and, when I graduated, we formed Accion Systems.
How did the idea come about and what was it like getting started?
While Louis and I were at MIT, we were approached by a number of large aerospace companies about our research technology. They were very interested in commercial applications for our technology: small, efficient ion electrospray propulsion. That interest led us to believe there was a market for our research. When we left MIT, we founded Accion in 2014.
Louis and I benefitted quite a bit from a summer accelerator program, Delta V, hosted by MIT. We learned the nuts and bolts of running a business. We also had strong guidance from MIT on questions of intellectual property. The other thing that was very helpful was working with a lawyer that had specific start-up experience, including pricing options specific to our situation.
I’ve always held a strong belief that, for many aspects of the business, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I’ve also continually tried to surround myself with strong mentors, advisors and team members who can guide our development.
Why is the problem you are solving important and how does it help human space exploration?
We are in the midst of a second-generation space race, often referred to as New Space. Instead of governments and giant aerospace companies, New Space is a commercial market that now includes smaller private companies. But while satellites have gotten significantly smaller (dubbed ‘smallsats’), propulsion systems are still large and unwieldy.
"Imagine putting a jet engine on a moped and you can visualize the problem we’re solving!"
Imagine putting a jet engine on a moped and you can visualize the problem we’re solving!
We are building propulsion systems for smallsats that are about the size of a deck of cards. And because our propulsion system is built to scale, they perform like typical ion engines would, but in modular packages that are scalable across satellites from 2 to 200 kg.
Combine this with the fact that, each year, a new record is set for the number of satellites going into orbit. In December 2018, for example, 64 satellites were deployed in a single mission. Without a way to position and navigate these satellites, as someone wrote, “the result is something like thousands of boats adrift at sea”.
In the coming decades, the market for smallsats will surpass that of traditional satellites and those smallsats need propulsion. If smallsats can navigate once in space, they can travel further, stay in space longer, change missions, and de-orbit when their mission is complete.
Our engine will work on almost any satellite and go into orbit on almost any rocket. If New Space is today’s Gold Rush, we want to be its Levi Strauss.
What are some achievements you're proud of?
We now have over 30 people working at Accion and they are some of the smartest, most dedicated people I’ve had the pleasure of working with. For years, I’ve planned on being a scientist but I never imagined myself as a CEO. It’s very gratifying and humbling to think about the team I’ve helped to build.
With the support of Louis and the team at Accion, I’ve been recognized through awards such as MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35, Inc. Magazine’s 30 Under 30, Boston Business Journal’s ‘Women to Watch,’ and Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30. Fast Company honored Accion as one of their Most Innovative Companies in the Space industry in 2019. Accion was named to BostInno’s ‘50 on Fire’ in 2018.
What have been some of your biggest challenges? How did you overcome them?
Our technology is proven, but our company is still very young; particularly by aerospace industry standards. One of our challenges has been bringing a more Silicon Valley mentality to a conservative industry. It has helped a great deal that New Space is also being popularized by the Jeff Bezos’ and Elon Musks of the world, but a small company such as Accion doesn’t have decades of history to support our reputation. We have to prove ourselves every day.
Overcoming objections such as these requires patience and persistence. The more systems we put in orbit, the more value we demonstrate for in-space propulsion, and the more we continue to innovate on the strength and scale of our product, the more those objections will recede.
What are exciting milestones coming up that you're working towards?
We have two main goals for the upcoming year. One is to deliver the next generation of our propulsion system to our customers. We are constantly working to increase the amount of time that our system remains operable and efficient and are working towards 10,000 operational hours.
"Get comfortable with being uncomfortable and know you can always ask for help when you need it."
Secondly, we are looking forward to more of our propulsion systems going into space this year. There’s a great deal we can learn from our work here on Earth, but there’s nothing like data and information from a smallsat in orbit; and no greater satisfaction.
What is your vision for humanity in space long-term?
In the near term, there’s a great deal more we can learn about our own planet by sending more satellites into orbit. The combination of more smallsats and artificial intelligence, for example, is already uncovering new insights about poverty distribution, crop yield potential, global water issues, and more. With luck, New Space can help inform a global fight against climate change.
In the long term, I think the survival of our species is going to require that we have the means to live off-planet. While that may eventually mean other planets, I can also see strong potential in space stations or some combination of both.
What advice do you have for aspiring space entrepreneurs?
We are actively working with high school students who are building satellites, so aspiring space entrepreneurs have opportunities to get involved at a very young age.
My best advice is to dive in and take some chances. One of my favorite quotes is “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” So get comfortable with being uncomfortable and know you can always ask for help when you need it.
Where can people find out more and follow along?
We are always on the lookout for smart, passionate people to join us. If you’re interested in what we do and think you could be a good fit, get in touch.
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