Rockoons Launch Satellites and Students

A rejuvenated and recently commercialized aerospace industry is creating new opportunities for young startups such as Leo Aerospace.
Leo Aerospace got its start after mechanical engineer Dane Rudy and aerospace and industrial engineers Bryce Prior, Drew Sherman, Abishek Murali, and Mike Hepfer found a shared fascination for aerospace as friends and students at Purdue University.
“We had similar interests—hiking, climbing, and others—and we ended up being partners on a variety of (engineering) design projects and research projects, and realized we were all very aligned in our passion for aerospace, and wanting to contribute in a very tangible way,” Rudy said.
An idea some of the members of the group had—to build launch vehicles for small payloads into low earth orbit—showed a hint of possibility, so, in 2015, they formed Purdue Orbital, which, with funding from the university, enabled them to research and develop the idea into a tangible concept that could maybe even serve a need in the aerospace industry.
“We began to realize well, maybe there’s a company here,” Rudy said. “Maybe there are people who need this service more than we understand.”
They took advantage of Purdue’s entrepreneurial resources—classes taught by industry experts, as well as the Purdue Foundry accelerator and commercialization programs, including LaunchBox (now called FireStarter)—that helped them develop their concept, find and study a potential market.
“(LaunchBox) taught customer discovery—that concept of really understanding—you have this great technology but what does it really do for someone? What do customers really care about that?” Rudy said. “That was really powerful.”
The concept became more defined as a mechanism that could launch small rockets carrying small cargo from high-altitude reusable balloons into orbital flights. These rocket balloons, also called “rockoons,” were originally used by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in the 1950s. As the team developed its concept, it got more attention—and money.
The group won two National Science Foundation I-Corps grants totaling $52,500. This enabled them to investigate carrying microsatellites as cargo by visiting with potential customers, aerospace agencies and leading manufacturers. These small satellites orbit Earth and record ultra-high-resolution imagery that gets sold to numerous industries.
Rudy and his friends learned satellite makers’ only way into orbit was on large rockets made by large companies, causing long delays and high costs. “The rockoon does a really elegant job of solving the problem of launching small payloads into space while remaining efficient and not driving costs up,” Rudy said.
Leo Aerospace was formed in 2017 after most of the team graduated. It raised about $390,000 from pitch and business competitions; venture capital firms connected to two aerospace accelerators Rudy and the other members joined in Australia; a crowdfunding platform; and a local accelerator.
In December 2018, Leo Aerospace successfully launched a small rocket from a reusable balloon in California’s Mojave Desert.
“It was a very momentous push for us to develop this new technology, and prove that this is a really incredible way to solve this problem.” Rudy said.
The team designed and built the rockoon’s platform, integration assembly, balloon automation, ignition, rotational control systems, and other components at a warehouse in Gardena, Calif. in the heart of the aerospace industry. They source the balloons and rocket motors from suppliers.
Their next goal is to raise $8 million in venture capital, Rudy said.
The 23-year-old looks to his mechanical engineering training to deal with the roller coaster situations of entrepreneurship.
“Sometimes it can feel the world is ending and everything is crashing down; but if you take a step back to think about it from an engineering standpoint—‘All right, we have an interesting set of challenges. What do we do? How do we solve it?’” Rudy said. “You just have to put it into context.”
Carol Lawrence is a technology writer.
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