Houghton is the launch pad for Orbion Space Technology, one of the brightest stars in a newly imagined space economy where small satellites are huge game changers.
Research ingenuity and the right timing coalesced to propel Orbion forward following its establishment in 2016, says CEO Lyon (Brad) King, Michigan Tech's Richard and Elizabeth Henes Professor of Space Systems. King leveraged two decades of on-campus research and education to launch the off-campus company and lead the world, and perhaps the solar system, into a new space age.
On campus, King leads Michigan Tech Aerospace, a group engaging students and faculty in education, research, and development focused on spacecraft technology. In Michigan Tech research facilities like Aerospace's Ion Space Propulsion Lab (Isp Lab), the idea for the startup took shape. King and co-founder Jason Sommerville realized they had not only the core technology, but an incredible network of talent in the form of aerospace and Isp Lab alumni to meet an urgent need in the new space economy. "The time was right to start Orbion Space Technology and start calling that talent back home to Michigan to realize the vision," says King.
Orbion now employs more than 40 full-time engineers in its Houghton facility, with seven holding PhD degrees. You'll find Huskies at the helm in several key positions—CTO Sommerville is a 2009 PhD graduate—but the company is more than just an outgrowth of Michigan Tech. "The excitement and technology of Orbion, coupled with broader trends in the global space economy, have attracted A-list players," says King. "We have engineers and rocket scientists from NASA, SpaceX, Aerojet Rocketdyne, MIT, and major aerospace and automotive companies uprooting their families to move to Houghton and dedicate their careers to the Orbion vision."
The number of Tech alumni on the payroll is not a coincidence, says King.
"When we started building the company, the most important resource was talent. We knew exactly which skill sets were vital. Since Jason and I both had a long history with MTU, we had a strong network of colleagues that we aggressively recruited," says King. "We often made the 'Blues Brothers' reference that we were 'getting the band back together.' Everyone at Orbion was recruited sniper-style for a particular strength, and we now have the best team in the world right here in Houghton."
Global Business, Regional Roots
When it comes to attracting top industry talent from elsewhere, the area itself is a drawing card for professionals seeking the great outdoors and a small-town atmosphere on the shores of Lake Superior, says King—a Calumet native who has been known to joke that yes, there is civilization on the north side of the Portage Lake Lift Bridge.
"The balance of quality of life and access to a world-class STEM university are the keys. You don't have to sacrifice anything by locating a high-tech business in the UP. If you have a solid business plan and a good team, you'll compete with anybody."
It's fitting that Orbion's headquarters sit at the foot of the iconic bridge in the former Houghton Powerhouse, a venerable Copper Country landmark transformed into an innovation generator. The building was home to another key player in the company's liftoff: the Michigan Tech Enterprise Corporation (MTEC). Funded by the Michigan Economic Development Commission, MTEC is the northernmost SmartZone in the state.
Here's where the right timing comes in. As King and Sommerville were formulating their idea—to build small engines that push satellites around in space using a manufacturing approach that cuts costs and maintains performance—MTEC SmartZone was on the hunt for marketable technologies at Tech.
"We knew how to do the easy things, like build rockets," says King. "We did not know how to build and grow a company. The mentorship and cheering of the MTEC SmartZone was instrumental in pushing us to go for it. So instead of talking for years about how we should start a company someday, we just jumped. It was time to take a shot."
Orbion's business plan was strengthened by participation in the Tech Talent Transfer Network, composed of state universities including Michigan Tech. The network supports commercialization of products and technologies developed at the institutional level with mentoring programs and other resources. In 2017, Orbion won the $500,000 Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition. In 2019, it won the Michigan Venture Capital Association (MVCA) Up and Coming Company of the Year Award, and in 2021 it won the MVCA Financing of the Year Award. Through three rounds of financing, Orbion has raised over $30 million in capital from regional, state, and national investors.
An Upper Peninsula Success Story
These days, you only need to type "Orbion" into your preferred search engine to get a sense of the company's meteoric rise. Orbion was touted in Forbes Magazine as the propellant for the coming space revolution. Among numerous other accomplishments, in August 2021 the company announced a US Air Force contract for developing high-thrust propulsion that helps small satellites dodge obstacles—or as King puts it in the Space News article, "allows a spacecraft to elegantly step out of the way and avoid the horns of an incoming threat." In the equally delicate arena of funding, in June 2021 TechCrunch reported that the company had raised $20 million in a Series B funding round, enabling Orbion to scale up its production capacity, expanding to meet increased demand.
In his usual understated style, King—the kind of person whose preferred vacation spot is a remote dock somewhere on Lake Superior where he can work on his 70-year-old wooden cabin cruiser, Inevitable—downplays any hype. He's living his dream to build things that go into space. And, he's doing it in the Keweenaw.
"I have always been interested in building things—long before I knew that was called 'engineering,'" King relates in a 2020 Humans of Michigan Tech blog. "I don't recall when I became fascinated with space but it was at a very early age. I have embarrassing photos of me dressed as an astronaut for Halloween and I may still even have an adult-sized astronaut costume somewhere in my closet—not saying."
"The desire to explore space is what drives me. Very early in my studies I realized that the biggest impediment to space exploration is propulsion. Space is just so big it's hard to get anywhere within the lifespan of a human. So I dedicated my professional life to developing new space propulsion technologies."
Orbion is one of only a few companies in the brand-new propulsion system market. Because the Aurora thruster entered the market as the industry began to skyrocket, it's better aligned than the two or three older companies operating prior to the new space economy.
"Early in our fundraising process, prospective investors would ask me to name Orbion's top five competitors and first five customers as a way to test my market knowledge," King says. "My response, at the time, was 'They don't exist yet.' While some investors took that answer as proof that I didn't know the market and so walked away from a deal, others saw the potential that we had with Orbion to make the first splash in a big blue ocean."
Serving the New Space Sector
Small satellites, as diminutive as a shoebox or as big as a dishwasher, have a myriad of uses ranging from communication, defense, monitoring, and observation to high-resolution imagery and mapping. Like their bulkier counterparts, small satellites are launched into space by a large fire-breathing rocket. Unlike big satellites, which sit alone atop a dedicated rocket, small satellites share the ride into space with dozens or hundreds of their counterparts. The analogy is not unlike public transportation: small satellites enjoy a lower-cost ride because they split the fare. But this bus has just one stop—space. And each small satellite still requires its own conveyance to maneuver from the bus stop to its specific destination. With its workhorse design and affordable price, Aurora, Orbion's Hall-effect plasma thruster, is ideally suited to meet this "last mile" requirement, maneuvering satellites to their final orbit.
Learn more about the technology behind Hall-effect thrusters.
Learn more about small satellites and revisit MTU's first student-built satellite launch.
Learn more about how to become an aerospace engineer.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, the University offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.