As Natalya Brikner worked her way through a PhD at MIT’s Space Propulsion Laboratory, she assumed she’d go on to become a professor in the field. She grew up in a small town in northwest Oregon watching the stars and thinking about the aliens among them. Studying rocket propulsion represented a practical application.
But then a project she was working on with a labmate caught the attention of the rocket industry. They created the first working prototype that made use of a propulsion technology for tiny satellites. In 2014, Brikner and Louis Perna founded Accion to commercialize the technology. They demonstrated it in space for the first time one year ago this month.
Brikner and Perna never became professors, but today Brikner—now CEO of Accion—is lining up the first commercial orders for the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup’s propulsion systems. Some potential customers are interested in communications, which can include satellites that provide broadband Internet from low-Earth orbit. There are also eager prospects in the military space.
The dime-sized rocket engines contain a propellant in which charged particles accelerate to enormous speeds to create thrust, which would lend tiny satellites commonly used to collect images and other data from Earth the useful skill of repositioning themselves. The technology could someday be scaled up, too, allowing it to power larger satellites.
Compared to her time as a PhD student, Brikner now does very little research. She spends about 20 percent of her time brainstorming product ideas for proposals and hunting for “technological whitespace” in satellites and other fields, which she describes as extraordinarily fun. During the rest of her time, she’s charged with leading a growing company.
Along the way, Brikner, 29, has built a fanbase. Perna says Brikner has always stood out for her ability to be aware and analytical in the moment. She’s confident, with a pragmatic fearlessness.
“Natalya has always been and continues to be decisive,” Perna says. “She knows her preferences and doesn’t waste time on things that aren’t worthwhile.”
Brikner describes herself as hands-off, but still focused on personal and company growth. She likes to push people outside their comfort zones; she makes her employees learn skills and then present them at company seminars to further spread their knowledge.
Brikner says she’s never been afraid to ask for help. There were always advisors during her studies, plus students and entrepreneurs a few years ahead of her, who were willing to help her or back her up. She credits her coach and mentor Anna Rowley—a psychology consultant with a background at large tech companies—with helping her to settle into her role at Accion and keep her team motivated. She also received business and management advice from retired Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson.
“I’ve found that people are usually extremely willing to help as long as you reach out and admit that you need it,” Brikner says. “People are very generous with their time.”
She started paying that back in high school, when she began dedicating a few hours a week to mentorship. Today she offers her services as a mentor to younger companies. She’s also focused on after-school STEM programs; Brikner says she is exposed to “sexism, and ageism, and other -isms every day,” and does her best to fix them by exposing both boys and girls to the sciences early. She also chooses mentors and advisors who support her values.
Accion isn’t Brikner’s first startup. As a graduate student she founded Asteria, which aimed to provide dedicated launches for small satellites based on a micro chemical rocket technology. Brikner says the founding team was a bit sloppy in its creation and decided to close the company before it raised any funds due to its shaky foundation. However, she believes the ideas behind the company still have merit and could someday be used by Accion.
Accion hopes to demonstrate the final version of its thrusters next year. After that, Brikner foresees them helping to dramatically cut the cost of building a satellite. Groups of farmers should soon be able to afford buying time on satellites that they can use to monitor the state of their fields, for instance. Or developing countries without space programs could launch satellites without great expense.
Accion is chasing down its goals with the help of 11 patents and $9.5 million in venture funding, plus a $3 million order from the Department of Defense. But it’s also stepping into the satellite industry at a time when other technologies are progressing rapidly. Mobile phones have pushed imaging and sensing technology to be smaller and smaller, making tiny satellites possible.
“We’re right on the cusp of what will become this huge growth in the small satellite sector,” Brikner says. “What we’re really focusing on is … making our customers’ satellites actually cheap enough to manufacture and launch so they can serve all these other exciting sectors that are popping up."