10: Natalya Bailey — Propelling the Future

Natalya Bailey, co-founder and CEO of Accion Systems

AMLG: Today I’m excited to welcome Natalia Bailey, founder and CEO of Accion Systems. Accion was founded three years ago — they build liquid ion systems that power the electric propulsion in satellites. It’s a technology that could change the dynamics in space by enabling satellites to maneuver and reposition, extending their lifetime, which is pretty huge, and could be used for a lot of missions including, one day, interplanetary exploration. Welcome Natalya, great to have you here.

NB: Thanks for having me on the show.

AMLG: Let’s jump in. I’d love to hear how you came to found Accion — how did you get where you are now?

NB: My path to founding Accion started with my interest in studying space propulsion and doing research in the field. That brought me to MIT for my PhD in aeronautics and astronautics.

Accion’s thruster chips are smaller than a quarter, but contain hundreds of microscopic emitters that emit beams of ions. An array of 36 chips combined together form a “TILE engine,” which shoots charged atoms (ions) out the back of a satellite to push it forward. One to four TILEs can propel a small satellite weighing from 50 to 200 kilograms.

Actually prior to starting there, I was doing my masters at Duke and tried to start a rocket company, with different technology but similar ideas, and that company kind of imploded. I thought that would be my last go at entrepreneurship and startups, so I went to do my PhD and thought I would end up as a professor or at a research lab. And I started working on this new type of ion engine. We ended up getting a lot of interest from industry. The timing was phenomenal — we were testing proof of concept of this technology just as the whole industry was getting more interested in smaller satellites. There was this huge technology gap as far as propulsion goes and we were working on exactly the thing that could fill that gap. We had some of the big aerospace companies, the Lockheeds and the Boeings of the world, coming to MIT and trying to license the technology or buy systems from MIT. My research advisor remembered that I had tried to start a company once before so he knew I had entrepreneurial leanings and suggested I try again.

In 2012 my lab mate and I decided to spin out, so we formed a placeholder company to grab the IP. Then I defended my PhD and he dropped out, and we officially spun out in 2014 and hit the ground running.

Natalya Bailey holds a 1U CubeSat prototype with four microthruster modules.

AMLG: Were you surprised by all the interest coming from these big companies — the Lockheeds, the Boeings? Did you have to ward them off? Was it tempting to license out all the core tech, or did you feel a huge relief that you knew you’d hit on the right opportunity?

NB: Looking back it feels like a pretty clear sign of product market fit. I think it was Marc Andreessen or Ben Horowitz who said, if the market really wants a technology it will pull it out of a company. So even if the team is inexperienced and moving slowly and there are other challenges, if the market really wants something, that strong force can make it happen. We also still live under the fantastical notion that no one out there can necessarily manufacture these systems better than we can, because they’re non-traditional for aerospace. There aren’t established manufacturing plants or processes at a Lockheed that could make these technologies better than we can. So that was a neat position to be in.

AMLG: It seems crazy that they don’t have this capability. Is it just too niche for them to allocate resources? What’s the advantage of being a startup doing this?

A MEMS chip [source]

NB: The technology itself is very different, and the manufacturing. We leverage MEMs fabrication techniques — the same manufacturing lines that are used to make Intel computer processors — we use those to make our thruster chips. A Lockheed, who wouldn’t traditionally be making computer processors, doesn’t have those capabilities set up.

AMLG: So you found this specific niche that they can’t tackle. For listeners that don’t know what a propulsion system on a satellite does, can you explain why it’s so important?

NB: The main application is for onboard propulsion systems, that’s what we’re working on. That’s different from launching from the surface of the Earth. We deal with when the satellite’s already in space. If you look at the progression of a mission, a satellite is launched into orbit on a big bulky rocket that’s not very precise, so first it will have to reposition itself to get where it actually intended to go. Then over the lifetime of the mission, there are always small disturbances pulling the satellite off of its intended track. It has to correct for those, like gravity and atmospheric drag and other perturbations.

More than 500,000 pieces of space debris orbit the Earth, traveling at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a small piece of debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft. Here is a timelapse showing the accumulation since 1984 [Full video from European Space Agency].

You also have to budget for collision avoidance. If NASA notifies you that you’re on track to collide with something, you’re responsible for moving out of the way. Then at the end of a lifetime of a satellite you’re also responsible for de-orbiting it. You can’t leave a satellite in orbit indefinitely — that’s called space junk and it’s a hot button topic for us. So that’s one of the most typical missions, but as we start going beyond low-earth orbit, propulsion systems are also useful for transferring orbits, for reaching the moon and Mars and other interplanetary exploration missions.

AMLG: Can you talk about the concrete applications for the first set of satellites that will be using your technology?

An illustration of the microscopic thrusters in an Accion Systems thruster chip.

NB: Ultimately the two main applications are imaging or earth observation and communications. Those are the two main applications commercially that we’ll be addressing. Our initial batch of customers happen to be folks that can tolerate higher risk. We haven’t been launching propulsion systems into space for the past 10 years like some of the more established players would like for their suppliers. So our initial batch of customers are trying to do things like take a small satellite from low-earth orbit to lunar orbit, or trying to demonstrate other novel technology or mission components that haven’t been proven before. So we’re focusing on those higher risk tolerance customers right now.

AMLG: You mentioned interplanetary and Mars — a bunch of people in the industry are complaining that SpaceX’s focus on Mars colonization has pulled attention away from regular rocket launches and supporting the ecosystem of near-earth satellites, and those near-earth satellites are probably most of your customer base. What are your thoughts on that?

NB: Two thoughts on that. First, it’s analogous to Apollo in the sense that when you have an incredible, audacious goal that you set out to achieve, the spin-off technologies and other challenges you have to solve along the way are actually extremely beneficial in other areas not just space. Looking at Apollo, you could argue that some of the returns on that investment were computers in general, and everything else that came out of that program.

AMLG: What did we get specifically out of Apollo in terms of computer advances?

Test engineers showing the design and use of the Apollo Guidance Computer [full video.]

NB: The personal computer was just starting to be thought of around that time, and in a lot of the early Apollo missions everything was done by hand calculations, then later they started to input the punch hole cards into a computer on board. It was right at that transition point to computing, and a lot of money was being funneled into developing it for Apollo. So fans of Apollo say that computers came about because of that program. I think in general, setting big hairy goals for an entire nation to achieve usually ends in a lot of cool spinoff technologies.

The other thing about Mars colonization is, if you think about humankind as a species, if we’re around 300-400 years from now, it’s probably not because we stayed put on Earth. For our long-term preservation, it’s worth starting to explore other planets in the solar system and hopefully eventually beyond that.

AMLG: Where did this interest in exploring other planets come from. You grew up in Oregon right? What was that like and how did you get interested in space?

NB: Growing up in Oregon was great. It was very outdoorsy, I don’t really remember spending any time indoors. I would spend nights outside on my trampoline. In Oregon there’s not a lot of light pollution so I could look at the stars. I would think about aliens and then notice these very solid specks of light moving across the sky and I realized they weren’t airplanes. So I tried to figure out what they could be and realized I was watching the space station. Mostly I wanted to study aliens but my family is quite practical so I decided to combine that with math, which I loved, and ended up in aerospace engineering. I haven’t looked back since.

AMLG: Were you always interested in science? Were your parents interested in science?

NB: Yeah. My dad was a biologist. I was always gathering bugs and studying them and keeping them in tanks in my bedroom until my parents found them. In school I started excelling in math and found that it came easily to me. That combined with the science and alien bit led me to engineering.

AMLG: When you talk about aliens I think of one of my favorite books by Carl Sagan — Contact. I don’t know if you ever watched the movie or read the book, but I picture you like Ellie in that film. She’s this brilliant scientist and stumbles across something big.

NB: I’ve definitely seen it. I’m currently making my way through Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos again.

A quote from Carl Sagan’s 1980s TV Series, “Cosmos”

AMLG: I love the original Cosmos. I’m a huge Carl Sagan fan, I love his voice he’s so inspiring to listen to. Talking about books, I know you’re an avid reader. Did any books in particular influence you or your path to building Accion?

NB: Well I’m a gigantic Harry Potter fan and a lot of things around Accion are named after various aspects of Harry Potter including the name Accion itself.

AMLG: Is that the Accio spell? The beckoning spell?

NB: Yeah exactly. My co-founder and I were g-chatting late one night on a weekend and looking through a glossary of Harry Potter spells trying to name the company. Accio, the summoning spell, if you add an “N” to the end of it, it becomes a concatenation between “accelerate” and “ion” which is what we do. That’s the official story of how we named the company, but really it was from the glossary of spells.

AMLG: I love that double meaning. You can accio the satellite by accelerating the ions. It’s a great name. What other things have you named after Harry Potter words in the company?

NB: We have to do all the testing of our engines in vacuum chambers because we’re trying to replicate the space environment on the ground. Our very first vacuum chamber that we got, we named the Vacuum Chamber of Secrets. We also have a Chrome Cast — this one’s a bit of a stretch — but we called it Legilmens which is the mind reading spell because we’re casting to the thing and it shows on the TV whatever is on our computer. They’re getting worse and worse but we’re still trying.

Natalya Bailey (centre) with labmate and co-founder Louis Perna (left) and MIT lab director Dr. Paulo Lozano (right)

AMLG: Your cofounder sounds like a great person to have in the trenches building a company with you. And you’ve both made this transition from academia to a commercial business. How have you found that transition, what’s been surprising about building a company?

NB: There are a lot of similarities. They’re similar in the way that you want to be looking for talent and people to join your team.

One thing we’re running into that’s different is the style of approaching research and engineering problems. When you’re a grad student setting out to do a PhD, you’re able to try things that might take seven years because you’re doing a PhD and there’s no real set time limit and you’re learning a lot along the way and hoping for some big breakthroughs.

At Accion if we need to solve a problem we have to do it like six months ago. That drives a lot of differences in the way we behave around here. That’s probably been the biggest shock for me, trying to transition out of that grad student researcher mentality into a high quality, reliable production environment mentality. And then on my mind every minute of every day is how much money is left in the bank and how long until we run out of cash.

Natalya Bailey with Bill Swanson of Raytheon (centre)

AMLG: You have some pretty impressive mentors, including Bill Swanson, former head of Raytheon. Has he given you any nuggets of wisdom that you’ve found helpful?

NB: Bill has been phenomenal. One thing that sticks with me; he was an athlete growing up and he draws on his experiences as an athlete and says that he has a framework for making every decision. He doesn’t want to waste time thinking about how to think about decisions. Instead he already knows the metrics or things he wants to evaluate to make a decision. He said it’s like when he was getting ready for a tournament or a match, he didn’t want to think about what he would have to eat for breakfast in the morning, he would just already know and not waste time thinking about superficial things.

When we were considering some strategy decisions and product decisions he’s helped me develop a framework for how to think about it, rather than telling me what to do. I find I have better peace of mind and things run more efficiently when you approach decisions that way.

AMLG: What frameworks do you use? Can you give me a specific example of how you simplify things?

NB: If we’re having a product decision, say we reach some point where there are multiple paths we could take, one question would be, what kind of change would would this lead to? Is it going to require us to redo all of our tooling and tell our customers? Or is it more of a level one kind of change that’s going to be relatively quick and we’ll be back up and running tomorrow?

Another conversation we have often is on evaluating performance. He told me that when he would go into performance reviews or one-on-one meetings with his direct reports he would draw a graph. On the Y axis would be results and on the X axis would be attitude and he would put a dot where he thought the person he was reviewing was and talk about how to move them up and to the right, to higher results and higher attitude.

He would tell me that the worst position to be in is when you have a direct report that delivers on results and is really productive but has a crappy attitude because they’re the hardest to let go, but they’re the biggest drain. We talk a lot about performance and how to manage that.

AMLG: It’s probably the hardest part of the job, managing people. You think you’re getting into it for the business or the product. And it turns out it’s always about the people.

NB: I can’t believe how much it’s been about people and emotions and how to align people to objectives and pride and things like that. It’s been surprising.

AMLG: On the people side of things — I know you’re quite involved with after-school STEM programs and mentoring younger kids. I want to ask your thoughts on STEM education, and particularly why there are so few women as leaders of technical companies? Why do you think that is?

B: I think it’s mostly a supply problem. Upstream we just still have very few girls interested in STEM fields even at an early age. By the time they’re in their 20s and 30s there are very small numbers of them. Anecdotally from my own experience, my parents never really tinkered with me like they did with my brother. If there was something to be repaired or taken apart or built it was always my brother that got to help out. I found even when I got to college and tried to join the extracurricular science and engineering groups — there was one where we were supposed to build an airplane that would complete a challenge by dropping tennis balls on a target and flying loops around the track. I tried to join the team and they asked if I had ever built anything and I said no, so for the next three years I got to write the report for the competition and didn’t actually touch anything.

The other thing that I think we still haven’t gotten quite right is, when you have programs that are designed for just girls and you have young boys that still aren’t used to seeing girls in their engineering and math and science clubs, when they hit the workforce it’s going to be the same problem. They’re going to think of them differently and pay them less and we still end up with this gap.

AMLG: That’s interesting. None of this segregation stuff, that makes a lot of sense

NB: Yeah it kind of keeps perpetuating the problem.

AMLG: If you could see any new technology in your lifetime what would you most want to see?

NB: I am a big fan of quantum computing. I just like learning and reading about quantum things. I’m excited to see some of those computers come online that can actually do the things that quantum promises. I think we’re close. We can get a few Q-bits working together to do some simple calculations. It feels like we’re standing looking at the brink of a breakthrough.

AMLG: How would that change our world if quantum computing came out in five years? I know for instance with public key cryptography and security systems they’d have to start from scratch. What would the world look like?

NB: Aside from cryptography, the other probabilistic modeling that can be solved with quantum is related to material science and also computational biology. So designing drugs could become a lot easier. That’s a bit outside my field and what I tend to read about but I think it’s very promising.

AMLG: If you could live forever would you?

NB: Yes if my quality of life remained above a certain threshold.

AMLG: So if there’s some guaranteed level of living on the other end when they wake you up. That would be the condition?

NB: Yeah.

AMLG: It’s interesting, when I talk to most people they don’t like the idea of living forever, but when I talk to founders in frontier areas the majority of them say yes, they would at least like the option to live forever.

NB: I’ve actually had that conversation before and a lot of people when you ask them that question, it’s more how it’s framed. They assume that they’re going to be like a loved one that’s passed away, and that they’ll remember their last month of life which was full of suffering and quite miserable and no independence and things like that. I think that’s what comes to mind when people get asked that question. But knowing a lot of the work that’s going on around longevity and that the goal is not to just prolong the last few miserable years of life but instead to spend longer in mid life, then obviously I think most people would say yes, if it was posed that way.

AMLG: Well like most things I guess it’s the way you ask. I will start asking people in a different way and see if I get a different answer. So I read that you’re getting your pilot’s license. Is that true?

NB: My husband is a pilot and flight instructor so I fly with him sometimes and log hours and I’ve been reading the FAA book. But we’ll see if I end up devoting the time to it that it takes. For me it’s about the freedom and adventure and I get that when he flies me around, so we’ll see.

AMLG: That’s awesome. So to wrap up — what do you want your company to look like in five years?

AMLG: In five years I would love to have become a significant market player in small satellite propulsion and maybe even geostationary satellite propulsion. But really we’re looking ahead to doing more of the interplanetary and exploration type missions.

Obviously we’re venture backed so the commercial pitstop on the way to that is important to us. But we want Accion to become the in-space rocket company. Right now there’s a lot of focus on launch and there are actually a lot of cool case studies of startup companies that now everyone knows as household names like Orbital Sciences and Space X. Those folks focus on getting satellites off the ground and into orbit. We want to be, once your satellite is in orbit, Accion takes over and does everything from there. So in five years hopefully well on the way to that.

AMLG: Well you’re off to a great start. It feels like Accion is on its way to becoming a household name! Thanks so much for chatting, really amazing to share your story and excited to see what comes next.

NB: Thanks Alice. Nice talking with you.