Jeffrey Max has spent much of the past three decades investing in hi-tech businesses and helping them to drive scale. But his latest project might be his most ambitious yet: at Agile Space Industries, Max is literally (and figuratively) shooting for the moon.
Agile is a leading developer of propulsion engines for space craft. Founded in 2009 it started life by developing a rocket engine testing site in Southern Colarado, not far from the small city of Durango. It still offers that facility, but three years ago, Agile announced an expansion into design and manufacturing that has very quickly won plaudits; in February, it clinched the contract to supply 12 thrusters for a lunar lander for a 2023 mission to the moon’s South Pole.
Max’s involvement with Agile also began in 2018 – largely thanks to a chance encounter. Having retired to Durango after stints in Chicago and New York, he agreed to host a local science and technology event; there he was approached by one of Agile’s founders, who wanted him to take a look at the business.
“I realised it was an extraordinary opportunity,” Max recalls. “It was an amazing business run by brilliant engineers who just didn’t have the experience required to scale the company to the next level.”
A seasoned entrepreneur and serial investor, Max knew he could provide that experience. “I’ve been building technology companies for 30 years and I would emphasise that it takes the entire team to make a business successful,” he reflects. “But while ideas are plentiful, there is a shortage of execution capacity – and what drives execution is experience.”
Max agreed to become chairman and CEO of Agile, taking on the roles in March 2019. Since then, the business has grown from six members of staff to around 40, with hiring taking place at every level of the organisation. “We have a cadre of leaders and engineers who are the best of anyone I’ve worked with in my entire career,” Max says of his colleagues.
Expansion is continuing at pace. Agile has just completed the acquisition of Tronix3D – the business will be renamed Agile Additive – and is in the middle of a $10m Series A funding round to provide a war chest for further M&A, as well as additional capital to finance investment in its facilities. “It might be unusual for an industry stalwart to launch a Series A round, but this is effectively acceleration capital for our move into manufacturing,” Max explains.
Agile’s unique selling proposition is its long track record of using 3D printing in the development process – in 2009 it won the first ever grant from NASA for experimentation with the technology. The company’s initial work was with ceramic materials, but more recently it has acquired the technology to print in metal, including the complex alloys used in space travel.
“It has proved revolutionary,” says Max, reflecting on the contrast between Agile’s use of 3D and the traditional approach to developing new components, which can take months or even years. “We can finish a design in the morning, send the instructions to the printer in the afternoon, print overnight and test the following day,” he says. “Suddenly, you’re compressing the innovation cycle from months into days, collapsing the cost and timeframe of delivery, and delivering a bespoke product at off-the-shelf prices.”
The approach also means there is no excess material built into designs. “It costs $1.2m to put a kilo of payload on the moon, so imagine what you can save by getting rid of excess,” Max says.
Max got into the space business at an opportune moment, just as private sector businesses began to explore space exploration for a variety of commercial and strategic reasons. A report published by Morgan Stanley last year suggested the global space industry was worth around $350bn – the investment bank expects that to grow to more than $1 trillion by 2040.
Most of the chatter around the sector – at least among non-industry experts – surrounds high-profile ventures such as SpaceX, founded by Tesla’s Elon Musk, whose focus is getting rockets into space. But as Max points out, once missions make it into space, their work is only just beginning – craft need sophisticated propulsion systems to carry out their goals, from landings on other planets to the exploration of deep space, or work to clean up space junk. “We provide the engines that will move these craft around,” he explains.
Still, if Max and the Agile team were the right people and 2018 was the right time, is Durango the right place? After all, a small and relatively inaccessible town in the Rocky mountains is a long way from the traditional centres of the aerospace sector in Los Angeles or the motor engine industry in Alabama.
Actually, says Max, the lifestyle in Durango has been instrumental in attracting talented people to the business, with the area’s outdoor pursuits, from skiing and mountain biking to fishing and trekking providing to be a huge lure. “The quality of life here is so enviable,” he points out. “That’s been hugely interesting to many of our team, and even more so in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Agile also offers opportunities to play an active part in the local community. Its test facility, for example, sits on tribal land and the firm is exploring the possibility of launching a vocational training programme to give opportunities to Native Americans interested in a career in the sector.
In other words, the stars are aligning for Agile, no pun intended. And while there is growing competition for space propulsion contracts, Max believes the company’s track record speaks for itself. “We’ve got more than a decade’s worth of experience and innovation behind us,” he points out.
The company’s acquisition provides it with greater control of its supply chain and its Series A round represents another potential growth accelerant. Max believes the ingredients are in place to take the business to a whole new level, with a leadership team strong enough to manage a company of several hundred employees.
“We’re in the early stages: the space economy is only just lighting up,” he says. “But we intend to be the leading provider of in-space propulsion systems anywhere in the world.”