Colorado Springs, Colorado
Industry: Electronics & Aerospace
Products: High-end signal-processing and space solutions
For CEO Carol Zanmiller, the sky is not the limit -- not when there's all of space to consider.
Zanmiller and her husband, Cosmic Advanced Engineered Solutions (AES) President John Hutchens, have long looked to the final frontier. They've had parallel careers, starting with building and launching commercial satellites for Hughes Space & Communications (since acquired by Boeing), where they honed their engineering skills and their understanding of space and signals. They then developed business skills through working for Booz Allen Hamilton.
Hutchens always wanted his own business; he also wanted to be in his home state of Colorado. Both desires were met with his formation of Cosmic AES in 2001; Zanmiller joined the company two years later.
For the first several years, Hutchens and Zanmiller worked at various government sites; as they added employees, they eventually opened their own offices in Colorado Springs. Several employees, though, still are stationed at government sites.
All of the company's business is in the government/military arena. The interesting thing about working with government contracts, Zanmiller says, is "you start out with a government giving you money, so we've never had to go get capital."
Growth has been steady but controlled. "I've seen other small businesses grow a lot faster than us," Zanmiller says. "But it's kind of nice to manage growth and make sure people have that job security."
The focus from the start, Zanmiller says, has been high-end engineering; Cosmic AES specializes in the design and engineering of high-end signal processing and space control solutions. "Space control is a classified mission area," she explains, "but the basics of it are how does the military protect space and how do they deny space to an enemy."
Rapid prototyping is a key part of Cosmic AES' business, often using existing hardware or software but in a new way. "I can look at what already exists and just do a paradigm shift to do the mission differently," Zanmiller says. "Maybe this warfighter needs to look at this information this way, or they need to get it into this display, and maybe somebody else had a different purpose for that same information. Can you rapid prototype to get them an answer under a million dollars in a year so they know if it's feasible to mature that to an operational system?"
Challenges: The company's engineers face tricky, technical problems, Zanmiller says, "so they can get into rabbit holes. For them, finding the best solution is sometimes more important than delivering a project on schedule or on cost, so that has been one of our biggest challenges."
Another big challenge, she says, "is not getting sucked into the technology and realizing how much we need to go out and do business development." That role typically falls on her; if she tries to use a business developer, "they're like, 'I don't understand your business.'"
Opportunities: Zanmiller is looking at developing more prime contracts -- the company has only one -- while also being part of bigger contracts. "We are waiting for an award that would give us up to 40 new people," she says. Cosmic AES submitted its proposal last year as part of a $1 billion contract over 15 years involving some 1,500 people.
In that proposal, Zanmiller says the company is "the the flea on the tail of the dog" -- but a profitable flea.
Needs: People. "Finding talent is an amazingly hard thing," Zanmiller says. "Finding talent with clearances is even harder."
It follows that Cosmic AES works to grow its own talent through an internship program, working primarily with the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, but with other schools as well. The company typically brings on four interns at the start of the summer -- usually students looking ahead to their senior year -- and keeps them on through the school year. "We have hired a large number of our interns," Zanmiller says.