Orbion Space Technology raises $9.2 million amid rising demand for plasma thrusters for small satellites

Crain's Detroit Business
Crain's Detroit Business
By Annalise Frank
August 28, 2019

A company in Houghton that developed a new plasma thruster to propel satellites into space has raised $9.2 million in an early round of venture capital financing. 

Boston-based venture capital fund Material Impact led the Series A funding round for Orbion Space Technology, the startup announced Wednesday morning in a news release. It also garnered local dollars from Ann Arbor Spark, Invest Detroit, Invest Michigan, Wakestream Ventures out of Grand Rapids and Traverse City-based Boomerang Catapult.

The funding comes with big business on the horizon for Orbion, it said in the release. Last year the company announced it would mass-produce a first-of-its-kind plasma thruster called the Orbion Aurora system for small satellites, and “dozens” of public and private space operations said they would be launching new satellites in need of such propulsion systems. 

Orbion uses lessons learned from the tactical missile industry and brings “modern mass-manufacturing to space technology” to meet increasing demand at lower costs, Orbion CEO Brad King said in the release. 

In other funding, the company in 2017 won a $500,000 prize at the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition in Detroit and raised $1.36 million in a private seed round. 

“We believe Orbion’s thruster technology will propel small satellites into a booming market driven by applications ranging from high-speed mobile communications to high-resolution imaging,” Adam Sharkawy, Material Impact co-founder and managing partner, said in the release. 

Orbion serves small satellites somewhere around 200 pounds. Tinier satellites the size of a shoebox, cubesats (under 3 pounds, according to NASA), are becoming increasingly popular, but Material Impact expects smallsats will see bigger growth in the next five to 10 years, Sharkawy said in the release.

“…The smallsat market is projected to exceed $62 billion by 2030,” he said.

The Ann Arbor-based Renaissance Venture Capital Fund made the connection between Material Impact and Orbion, after Renaissance came to know and invested in Material Impact for its “really interesting focus on material science,” said Christopher Rizik, Renaissance CEO and fund manager.

“We think this is really transformational in a number of ways,” Rizik said. “The technology is transformational … It’s transformational because we have a true space technology company that’s going to be based in Michigan and, importantly, in the Upper Peninsula. You don’t see a lot of (venture capital) going to the Upper Peninsula.” 

Renaissance also helped introduce Bloomscape Inc., a Detroit-based online potted-plant company, to AOL co-founder Steve Case’s Revolution Ventures, which led a $7.5 million Series A funding round for the startup.