Natalya Brikner, a 2015 MIT PhD graduate and CEO of Accion Systems, is making propulsion systems for small satellites to keep them in orbit longer and save companies millions of dollars. Accion’s electric propulsion system, with thruster chips the size of a penny, can be fit to softball-sized satellites. Most other propulsion systems are the size of a bus and push much bigger satellites. Accion’s first space launch could be as early as this summer.
Founded in 2014 by Brikner and MIT Space Propulsion Laboratory graduate student Louis Perna, Accion announced $2 million in funding in January. As government-funded launches give way to commercial “ride sharing” for communications and imaging satellites, there’s a growing need to keep small satellites in orbit longer without adding volatile fuels to the payload.
But to get from the lab to outer space, Brikner needed more than the average mentor. She needed exactly the right mentor.
And she found him in Bill Swanson, the former CEO of defense contractor Raytheon. The pair met last summer in the MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator. Swanson, who led Raytheon from 2004 to 2014, served on a mock board of directors for Accion, a key component of the accelerator program, which is managed by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.
For any startup, getting advice and counsel from someone who led one of the world’s largest companies for even a few minutes would be a win. Swanson, who joined Raytheon in 1972, served as CEO during a period that increased the company’s stock price three-fold and nearly eliminated company debt. He counts among his own mentors Raytheon executives who led the company through World War II and provided the systems that guided Apollo 11 to the moon and sent pictures back to Earth.
But Brikner and Swanson’s relationship continued beyond the September 2014 end of the accelerator program. Swanson joined Accion’s advisory board, which includes Steve Isakowitz, President of Virgin Galactic, among others.
Swanson’s counsel during the Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator focused on advising Brikner how to work with a board—setting agendas, giving action items—in addition to industry insight.
Senior Lecturer Bill Aulet, Accion CEO Natalya Brikner, former Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson, and Associate Dean for Innovation Fiona Murray at an MIT Sloan event in February Photo: Landon Carter
“I found I was continuing to ask him questions,” Brikner said. “So we decided to make it more formal. [Bill] has four decades of experience and you can’t fake that. He can call any executive at any company and connect me. On my own, I’d have no idea how to get them to open an email, but Bill just says ‘Here’s their number.’”
For Swanson, aside from seeing the potential in Accion’s propulsion systems, there’s a sense of obligation to advise the next generation of leaders in the space industry.
“They don’t know what’s impossible,” Swanson said. “So they go at it differently. As someone who had a responsibility for 65,000 employees, you want to see that enthusiasm. If you can encourage it, you’re doing something noble. “
Mentor rule 1: Aim high
Kyle Judah, program director for the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, connected Brikner and Swanson. Upon Accion joining the Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator, Judah knew the company’s business plan called for specific industry and technological expertise far beyond sound business advice.
Judah advises startup CEOs to “aim high” when seeking mentors.
“Picture who would be the best fit to give you the guidance you need, and seek them out,” he said. “Too many ask their existing circle, the professor, family.”
Judah said the best mentor relationships are when the person seeking advice keeps an open mind, a willingness to find out what they don’t know that they don’t know.
“A lot of people try and build relationships from a purely transactional nature, ‘I need something from you now,’” he said. “Too many don’t really invest in the exchange of social capital. These relationships are hopefully things that last the rest of life of the company. Natalya, who’s commercializing something from the lab, really bought into that idea.”
Mentor rule 2: Aim for someone who knows the industry
Accion’s propulsion systems produce thrust using electric fields to accelerate ions that leave thrusters through small holes, propelling the spacecraft in the opposite direction. Without propulsion, satellites have a limited life in space—as little as a few weeks—before burning up.
Since the 1990s, the small satellite industry has seen advances in manufacturing through microfabrication and materials, as well as a rise in satellites reaching orbit through commercial “ride shares” to space as government-funded launches decline. Those rideshares prohibit volatile fuels in the payload, so Accion’s electric propulsion systems present a cost-effective solution that meets challenging requirements.
Accion’s satellite propulsion system is tested on a magnetically levitating thrust stand
The technology has promise, and lab tests back it up, but Swanson’s involvement upped the bar on the rigor of tests on the ground before launch. When you add a piece of technology to a truck and it fails, you get a tow truck and see how to fix it, but “once you launch it into space,” Swanson said, “it’s gone.”
“For me, it’s clear they have a great idea, but I can help them think through reliability and the kinds of testing that customers will need to see,” he said.
Also new ground to Brikner are the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which control the import and export of defense-related articles and services. The regulations govern more or less everything that’s shot into space. Brikner was familiar with the regulations in concept, but Swanson lived and breathed compliance with them at Raytheon. Even for a company at Raytheon’s scale, compliance is daunting.
“Already working in the space industry,” Brikner said, “we had a sense that we couldn’t export technology to other countries. We didn’t realize things like someone coming to our lab from another country … they couldn’t even look at it, that would be defined as ‘export.’ Email with technical information can’t be routed through foreign servers. We knew the concept, but didn’t realize all that it entailed.”
Every start up, every new entrepreneur discovers “what you don’t know you don’t know,” Judah said.
“It’s hard,” he said. “I don’t think anyone realizes how hard it really is until they do it. And that’s a key lesson mentors can bring in early. You learn that even for someone like Bill, with all the resources a company like Raytheon can bring to the table, it’s still hard.”
Mentor rule 3: Aim for support. You’ll need it.
The journey can be lonely and few people understand the pressures. Judah said an early discovery among startup CEOs is that their usual support networks of friends and family cannot relate.
“The only other people who can relate are people who have been there before,” Judah said. “CEOs feel unique pressures. You need to find some sort of balance in life so you don’t crack under the pressure of creating an impactful, valuable company.”
Good mentors have been there before. Sometimes it’s enough just to take the call.
“When you’re in charge, you do need someone to talk to,” said Swanson. “I had many nights and early mornings alone in the corner office and I know what it’s like. You may be the only one around.”
For Brikner, that matters.
“Even your closest friends, unless they’ve been there, have a hard time offering more than a sympathetic ear,” Brikner said. “On a daily basis I have questions about being a leader, managing interpersonal relationships, how to think five or ten years into the future, how to motivate people, what our priorities should be, and a million other things.”
“In the beginning, I was cold emailing people, trying to get advice,” she said. “Just knowing Bill will take my call is a source of support in itself, and then when I’ve got him on the phone I benefit from his decades of experience living what I’m trying to learn.”