Building a startup business is intense, and for a number of University of Colorado Boulder aerospace graduates, they would not have it any other way.
The Front Range is a recognized hub for startups and technology firms; earlier this year, the CU system was honored as fifth in the nation for startup creation. With the state’s major aerospace presence, it is no surprise that many startups are aerospace-oriented.
A Startup World
“From our experiences doing research at CU Boulder we developed an appetite for solving difficult problems with uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) and the tools to develop that into a career,” said Jack Elston (ElCompEngr’03, MS’05, AeroEngr MS’07 PhD’11), CEO of Black Swift Technologies.
The company, which he co-founded with Maciej Stachura (AeroEngr PhD'13), began in Elston’s living room. Today, Black Swift designs purpose-built aerial platforms for scientific research in extreme environments — think hurricanes and inside the mouth of volcanoes.
The business is one of a half dozen founded by graduates from the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences over the last 15 years, according to professor and chair Hanspeter Schaub, who notes CU Boulder and the larger Boulder community’s status as entrepreneurial hubs.
“We have classes on engineering management, there is nearby venture capital funding, and faculty have spinoff companies; students see all that,” Schaub said. “There were no startups when I was going through school. At that time, there wasn’t this idea that you could start an aerospace company with two or three people.”
Ishaan Patel (MAeroEngr’18) knows the traditional aerospace path well. He spent time at two longstanding large firms and NASA before co-founding In Orbit Aerospace, which is developing uncrewed reentry vehicles and orbital utility stations to enable lower-cost in-space manufacturing and research infrastructure.
“In Orbit finally gave me an opportunity where I saw all of my research interests integrated into one core vision,” Patel said. “Although running a start-up can feel like a rollercoaster, it’s exciting to be able to work on something I am truly passionate about in the NewSpace economy.”
Education to Business
Kathryn Wingate, an aerospace teaching assistant professor, said the department’s academic program provides tools important for engineers who plan to follow a typical career path or strike out on their own.
“We teach a lot of things people do in startups, like the iterative process and prototyping, and we follow the standard Systems V development lifecycle,” Wingate said. “A startup is a higher risk, but it’s a quicker way to change the industry. If you like the idea of being your own boss and being in control, it’s exciting.”
Bradley Cheetham (MAeroEngr’11) understands that risk and reward as co-founder of Advanced Space.
“Starting a business sounds exciting, almost sexy, but the reality is that it takes so much mental fortitude,” Cheetham said. “We started as a group of three working in a loft in my condo. If you can lean into the hard times and allow yourself to grow with the company, it becomes enjoyable. Being challenged in different ways can be exciting if you are open to the diversity of challenges that arise daily.”
Advanced Space is developing technology to enable sustainable exploration, development and settlement of space. In 2022, it launched the successful CAPSTONE satellite, which is orbiting the Moon.
Cheetham’s partner and fellow Advanced Space co-founder, Dr. Jeff Parker (MAeroEngr’03, PhD’07) said being careful and intentional about growing as a business has helped them go from three people in 2011 to 56 employees today.
“We love what we do, and Advanced Space lets us do it,” Parker said. “We have fully intended this company to be built to be a multi-generational company: something that will outlast anyone here. How often do you get the opportunity to help define interplanetary missions, test out new navigation technologies, and inspire engineers all at the same time?”