Jeffrey Max has spent much of the past three decades investing in and helping high-tech companies grow their size. But his latest project could be his most ambitious yet: At Agile Space Industries, Max is literally (and figuratively) shooting at the moon.
Agile is a leading developer of propulsion engines for spacecraft. Founded in 2009, the company began developing a test site for rocket engines in the south of Colarado, not far from the small town of Durango. It still offers that possibility, but three years ago Agile announced an expansion in design and manufacturing that quickly gained acclaim. In February, the contract for the delivery of 12 engines for a lunar lander for a mission to the South Pole of the moon in 2023 was signed.
Max’s commitment to agile also began in 2018 – mainly thanks to a chance encounter. After retiring 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 the founders of Agile who wanted him to look at the business.
“I realized it was an amazing opportunity,” recalls Max. “It was an amazing business run by brilliant engineers who just didn’t have the experience to take the company to the next level.”
As a seasoned entrepreneur and serial investor, Max knew he could offer this experience. “I’ve been building technology companies for 30 years and I want to emphasize that it takes the entire team to make a company successful,” he reflects. “But there are many ideas, but there is a lack of implementation capacities – and what drives implementation is experience.”
Max agreed to become Chairman and CEO of Agile, taking over the roles in March 2019. Since then, the company has grown from six employees to around 40, with hires being made at all levels of the company. “We have a cadre of executives and engineers who are the best of anyone I’ve worked with throughout my career,” Max says of his colleagues.
The expansion is proceeding rapidly. Agile has just completed the acquisition of Tronix3D – the company will be renamed Agile Additive – and is in the middle of a Series A financing round of 10 million. “It may be unusual for an industry star to start a Series A round, but this is effectively accelerator capital for our entry into manufacturing,” explains Max.
The unique selling point of Agile is the long track record of using 3D printing in the development process – in 2009 the company received the first NASA grant to experiment with the technology. The company’s first work was ceramic materials, but more recently it has acquired the technology to print in metal, including the complex alloys used in space travel.
“It has proven to be revolutionary,” says Max, pondering the contrast between the agile 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 next day,” he says. “Suddenly you are shortening the innovation cycle from months to days, reducing the cost and time frame of delivery and delivering a tailor-made product at standard prices.”
The approach also means that no excess material is built into the designs. “It costs $ 1.2 million to bring a kilo of payload to the moon. So imagine what you can save by getting rid of excess material, ”says Max.
Max got into the space business at an opportune time when private companies began exploring space exploration for a variety of commercial and strategic reasons. A report released by Morgan Stanley last year found the global space industry was worth around $ 350 billion.
Most of the chatter about the sector – at least among non-industry experts – surrounds high-profile companies like SpaceX, founded by Tesla’s Elon Musk, whose focus is on launching rockets into space. But as Max points out, their work is only at the beginning of the missions once they have made it into space – ships need sophisticated propulsion systems to achieve their goals, from landing on other planets to exploring space or cleaning up space junk. “We supply the engines that move these ships,” he explains.
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 aerospace centers of Los Angeles or the engine industry in Alabama.
In fact, Max says the Durango lifestyle has been instrumental in attracting talented people to the business, with the area’s outdoor activities, from skiing and mountain biking to fishing and trekking being a huge draw. “The quality of life here is so enviable,” he emphasizes. “That was extremely interesting for many of our team, especially in the context of the Covid 19 pandemic.”
Agile also offers opportunities to play an active role in the local community. For example, the testing facility is on tribal land and the company is evaluating the possibility of launching a vocational training program to offer the opportunity to Native Americans interested in a career in the sector.
In other words, the stars are agile, no pun intended. And while competition for space propulsion contracts is growing, Max believes the company’s track record speaks for itself. “We have more than a decade of experience and innovation behind us,” he emphasizes.
The acquisition of the company gives the company greater control over its supply chain, and its Series A round represents another potential growth accelerator. Max believes the ingredients are there to take the business to a whole new level, with one Management team strong enough to run a company with several hundred employees.
“We are at the beginning: the space economy is only just beginning,” he says. “But we want to be the world’s leading provider of space propulsion systems.”