By Eric Peterson | Nov 25, 2019
Systems and components for small satellites
Industry: Electronics & Aerospace
Products: Systems and components for satellites and aerospace
When Doug Campbell co-founded Roccor with Chief Product Officer William Francis in early 2012, he was on an entrepreneurial hot streak.
Campbell had also founded i2C Solutions and Solid Power, respectively focused on thermal management and battery technology, in the same time frame. Roccor, short for Roll Out Composite Corp., concentrated on innovative applications for high-strength composites.
After i2C came full circle and merged with Roccor in 2016, Campbell moved to full-time CEO at Solid Power in early 2019 as Pearson succeeded him at Roccor.
A U.K. native, Pearson onboarded at Roccor in 2016, when the company was doing about 80 percent R&D and SBIR work and 20 percent commercial. Now that ratio has been flipped on its head to 80 percent commercial and 20 percent R&D.
"There was a lot of consulting work in the early days," says Pearson, who previously worked for Surrey Satellite, Airbus, and other aerospace manufacturers. "A lot of that work has turned into products now."
Most of those products are in high demand for small satellites. "Really at the moment, there's been an explosion in the space industry with small satellites," says Pearson. "There are some things you can't do with a small satellite."
The big three: You can't have a big solar array, you can't have a big antenna, and "[as] things get smaller, it gets harder to project heat in space," he notes. This last alignment was the reason i2C merged with Roccor.
The products also need to balance size, weight, and the ability to withstand the rigors of space with functionality. Roccor's products have been able to hit that narrow intersection, and word has gotten out. "We now work with just about everybody who invests in space," says Pearson.
Roccor's first product, a hinge for a solar array on a small satellite, opened the door for the company to make complete systems. The company has since made a habit of taking on custom projects that evolve into commercial products.
Pearson highlights work for a "big aerospace prime" developing a meter-wide, umbrella-like parabolic communications dish for a small satellite. It had to unfold from a small enclosure in an extraordinarily precise manner: The margin for error was a thousandth of an inch in the extreme conditions of space.
The first such system launched in 2018 after more than two years of R&D and "a big investment for Roccor," says Pearson, and it has since emerged as a product line for the company. "It's become a great springboard," he says. "Once you gain reputation with a couple of these space customers, it's a pretty small community and word gets around pretty quick."
With the merger with i2C, thermal management has also driven growth in the last three years, he adds. "As the spacecraft gets smaller, you get these hotspots, so [you need] the ability to move heat around and deploy radiators so you have more area to project the heat into the space."
Pearson says Roccor's "secret sauce" is non-recurring engineering, as the company's success has been tied to its ability to move from low volumes into mass production to supply more satellites.
Once king in the satellite supply chain, performance now might have dropped to third after schedule and cost. As past launches were sometimes a decade in the making, Pearson notes, "By the time you launch them, the capabilities are obsolete."
The time frame for Roccor is now a year or two from order to launch, and it can be shorter. "That's really fast for DOD," he says.
About 20 engineers are on staff, with 15 in management and office positions and 15 on the manufacturing floor. Roccor manufactures high-strength composites for its products in-house. "That really allows us to come up with the optimal solution."
The company also contracts with local machine houses and testing labs and sources some motors and release mechanisms from Honeybee Robotics in Longmont.
Roccor has expanded from 10,000 square feet to 24,000 since 2016, went through AS9100 certification in 2019 as it upgraded its ERP system.
"It's built for growth," says Pearson. "We're anticipating our backlog is actually going to treble before the end of Q1. That's really good evidence the growth is actually accelerating. It's not slowing down."
Challenges: "It's just managing growth," says Pearson. "We're actually a bootstrapped company. It's 100 percent employee-owned."
While this means the company has a flat organizational structure and "agility," it also means there's no deep-pocketed partner to help fund long-term plays.
Opportunities: Pearson says analysts have projected that 3,000 small satellites could launch by 2025, as compared to "dozens" of traditional satellites in a comparable time frame.
That means Roccor's orders will grow. "Not onesies-twosies," he says. "There could be 10-plus units."
Another noteworthy project that could drive future growth: The NASA Solar Cruiser, with an 18,000-square-foot solar sail that would propel a small spacecraft on an orbit around the Sun.
Pearson says Roccor is working with Ball Aerospace on the sail. "Just trying to come up with a plan of how to test that on the ground is very challenging," he says, noting that the company holds an exclusive license on the solar sail technology, dubbed FURL.
Needs: Talent. Pearson says he expects to hire as many as 20 new employees in 2020. "I think staff is key," he says. Programmers with "a flight-hardware pedigree" as well as mechanical and power systems engineers.
Capital could accelerate building the capacity to meet demand. "We have considered some outside investment," notes Pearson, "but so far we've resisted that. We think we can retain the growth rate we have now and do it in a more efficient manner if we can manage ourselves."