By Eric Peterson | Mar 15, 2020
Composite spacecraft structures
Industry: Electronics & Aerospace
Products: Composite spacecraft components
Murphey originally saw the fishing industry as his primary market, using high-strength composites for high-performance rods.
He was a champion for high-strength composites at a former job. "I was a government research scientist with the Air Force Research Laboratory, and decided to leave civilian service to work in the commercial sector," he explains. "I tried to do so in the fishing industry in upstate New York, hence the name Opterus, which is the genus name for black basses."
But the target companies didn't bite. "It was too disruptive," he says. "No one could quite adopt it without starting their whole rod development process over from scratch."
Another factor: "I realized there's a lot more money in the aerospace industry than the fishing industry."
The sales cycle was long and high-touch, so Murphey shifted his gaze to the aerospace market circa 2017 with "the same materials and manufacturing processes," he says. "After a couple years in the fishing industry, I took it full circle back to my roots, which is space structures. . . . The whole goal is to be able to move faster and be more innovative than I was as a government civilian."
With the tagline "Big gains for small spacecraft," Opterus now specializes in unfolding, or deployable, structures for small satellites, and has flight heritage with such parts as solar arrays, antennas, hinges, and booms.
"We give small spacecraft the capabilities of big ones by allowing big apertures onto smaller platforms," says Murphey, noting that high-strength composites allow for larger structures. "We've really taken it to the next level and developed a lot of new boom architectures nobody else is making it."
The company's innovation with closed cross-section booms defies the industry standard. The products often have eight times the stiffness with twice the bending strain of an open cross-section counterpart. "We've developed the closed cross-section way to do this where they're just a lot more dimensionally stable, they're a lot stronger and stiffer, they're just better structures," says Murphey.
The growth numbers prove the strategy. Since mid-2019, Opterus has mushroomed from three employees in Murphey's basement to 17 in 10,000 square feet. His forecast is to "double in size again over the next couple of years. Our real goal is to plateau about there."
Customers include "a healthy mix of DoD, NASA, and commercial," says Murphey. "We'd like to have roughly a third of each of those. . . . Government is definitely driving the most sales now."
And Murphey hasn't closed the door on the fishing industry. "We're pursuing some work in that area," he says. "When you go for some work in the aerospace area, you have two or three meetings then you're under contract. In the fishing world, you have 20 meetings and you get under contract."
Challenges: "There are so many challenges," says Murphey. "We're bootstrapped. I'm the owner and we're trying to grow rapidly, so we're always a bit overextended. We're always trying to build the capability to do something before we're actually funded to have that capability."
A $250,000 Advanced Industries grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International and Trade in 2019 "helped us out quite a bit," he adds.
Opportunities: Catching the small satellite wave. As launches trend upwards, Opterus is positioned to supply components to constellations with numerous spacecraft. Murphey says the company is working on robotics to add to its portfolio, and beefing up in-house expertise with machine vision and AI to support R&D.
"Our core technology is also really enabling for small space structures," says Erik Pranckh, Opterus' business development lead, highlighting lunar and Mars missions as another opportunity on the horizon. He points to "large-area deployable solar arrays" as a need there.
Needs: People. Hiring can be an "issue," says Murphey, highlighting needs for manufacturing and aerospace engineers as well as finance talent.