Orbital Arc’s founder envisions roundtrip flights to Mars with new innovation

Orbital Arc's founder envisions roundtrip flights to Mars with new innovation

Orbital Arc’s founder envisions roundtrip flights to Mars with new innovation Orbital Arc is one of 10 companies in cohort three of Techstars: Industries of the Future Accelerator. “So, how did you get into the Space industry?” For Orbital Arc Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Jonathan Huffman , this question is constant, and his answer is always the same: “Circuitously.” At Orbital Arc, Huffman is bringing to market a disruptive new ion thruster propulsion technology that promises to carry us through space more cheaply and efficiently. But space deep-tech start-ups are not what springs to mind upon a review of his background; Huffman is a master of the pivot, of following his curiosity wherever it leads and learning as he goes. “In college, I wanted to be an author, a screenwriter, and a playwright.” Huffman spent his undergraduate years earning a dual bachelor’s degree in English and Theater Performance at a small liberal arts college in Indiana. “My only stint as a professional actor was three months at the Red Barn Summer Theater between my junior and senior years,” Huffman recalls.  “But, the skillset was still incredibly valuable – it taught me to be comfortable in front of people, and how to speak so people will listen.” Huffman’s first leap into curiosity came after graduation when he moved fourteen time zones east to teach English in South Korea. He spent three years overseas, honing his leadership and teaching skills while learning to communicate across cultures to the toughest audience he’s ever had: Middle schoolers. “Kids will tell you exactly what they think. If you don’t keep them engaged, or make things too complex, they’ll say ‘Boring!’ and try to get out their phones or chat with their neighbors. You learn quick to keep it interesting and to keep it at their level,” he said. The second pivot came three years later, with Huffman’s first startup: Blue Shoe Games . Moving back from Korea, Jonathan launched the creative card game company with his college roommate in Raleigh, North Carolina. The two of them created German-style cooperative and strategy games for families and parties. Huffman engineered an efficient manufacturing system that was able to design, print, and produce the games in the kitchen of his apartment. The duo had it all figured out, except for one problem… neither one of them knew how to market the product. “We knew how to make games, but didn’t know how to sell games,” Huffman said. “We brought on a Chief Marketing Officer to help, but he was worse at it than we were. So, we eventually ran out of money and shut down. But I loved the startup experience and I thought to myself that if marketing was the problem, then I’ve got to go learn marketing. So, I did.” Huffman’s third pivot brought him back to the classroom, where he earned an MBA at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Kenan-Flagler with a concentration in marketing. Typical of his habit of pursuing his curiosities, he also ended up with concentrations in entrepreneurship, management consulting, and sustainability. Full of newfound knowledge, he joined his second start-up company as the seventh full-time hire at CREO Inc. CREO provides management consulting for life science and healthcare companies that are developing innovative solutions for human health. “When I started, the company was five partners, a secretary, and me as the first project-staff resource. So, I worked on everything from financial modeling to laboratory operations, to cybersecurity. I got to see the ins and outs of how businesses run,” Huffman said. Huffman was a key part of growing the company for six years. CREO saw 10 times growth in that period, and made the Inc 5000 list every year since it became eligible; it was recently acquired in a private equity transaction. However, a passion for space and writing led to yet another outlet for his curiosity and a fourth shift in his life. “I’ve always been a space nerd since I was a kid, and I’ve never really stopped writing. So, in 2018 I wrote a short story about time travel on Quora.” The story garnered over 120,000 views, among them the CEO of a videogame company called Pixelmatic . “He reached out, said he read my story and wanted me to work on his next game, a sci-fi game called Infinite Fleet . So, I started moonlighting as a world-builder,” Huffman said. Among the tasks of a world-builder, it turned out, was the design of space propulsion systems for giant aircraft-carrier-sized robots that the players fly into simulated space battles. And, aircraft carriers are heavy. “There’s no existing engine system that could move something that big without the spaceship being 95 percent fuel. You’d shoot it once and it would explode; not a great game. So, I started researching how you could move something that big and heavy efficiently, and the answer is probably with fusion reactors and ion thrusters,” he said. An ion thruster is similar to a rocket engine in that it provides thrust for spacecraft, but that’s about where the similarity ends. When SpaceX launches a rocket, it is 96 percent fuel by mass, and uses up all its fuel in a few minutes, producing incredible power from a barely contained chemical combustion reaction. Ion thrusters instead use electricity for their power, making ions by stripping the electrons from a fuel gas, and then using an electric field to accelerate the ions and produce thrust, Huffman explained. Using electricity instead of chemistry makes ion engines 6 to 10 times as fuel efficient as rocket engines, but it has limits. Ion thrusters can only be used in a vacuum, so they are only good for spacecraft already in space. And, they are very, very weak, Huffman shared. “Ion thrusters today can only use a few milligrams of fuel each second, and the thrust is like the pressure you feel if you lay a quarter on the back of your hand – very small. But the efficiency is incredible. So, for the game, I started reading up on why they are so weak, trying to learn if they could be made stronger,” he said. This research led to Jonathan’s fifth pivot, and Orbital Arc was born. “I got a bit obsessed,” Huffman admits. “I spent about a year and a half of nights and weekends reading people’s PhD theses and research papers and basically taught myself plasma physics. My wife must have thought I was crazy. And then, one day, the math worked.” The nights and weekends of research paid off.  Orbital Arc’s new ion thruster RIOT Drive is named after the scaled-up version of the technology portrayed in the video game. But, far from science fiction, Huffman believes we have the technology to build it today.  If successful, the result will be a flexible, scalable engine that offers much better power efficiency, lower mass, and higher ion throughput than anything on the market today. Furthermore, he is tapping into a new fuel source. Instead of innovating with the industry standard, Xenon, he uses Sulfur Hexafluoride, which is non-toxic, non-corrosive, and has a higher molecular weight, offering better performance. It also cuts fuel costs by more than 99 percent. “Other electric thrusters can’t use SF 6 . The way they make ions breaks apart the molecules, and then you get Fluorine, which is really nasty – it would melt their engines.  But we can ionize the fuel without breaking molecular bonds, which allows us to use better fuels. This isn’t really even new; mass spectrometers in biotech labs have been using this ionization process since the 1980s.  It’s just that we now finally have the technology to do it at scale,” he said. For Huffman, scaling up is the goal of the entire venture. “Our design offers immediate improvements in power and mass and fuel cost, so it is good for satellites today. But the real goal is ion throughput – The math suggests we can run at 1000x the throughput of other comparably sized electric thrusters. Right now, nobody has a power supply in space that can really use this capability,” he said. “But stick a RIOT Drive to a nuclear reactor and you can fly round trips to Mars with human passengers without refueling; you can fly people to Neptune and back. You can spread civilization across the solar system.” Huffman is developing his flagship innovation in the Techstars: Industries of the Future Accelerator in Knoxville. He was one of 10 technology start-ups selected for the program. Currently, he is utilizing lab space in Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Center for Nanophase Materials Science to turn his math into reality. He hopes the Accelerator will be a launching point for his company to make strides in research. Techstars Demo Day, where Huffman will pitch his company, is set for 4 to 8 p.m. EDT June 6 at Regas Square, 333 West Depot Avenue, and the public is invited. To register, click here.