Brisbane startup Herik Labs is on a mission to make the space industry kinder to planet Earth through reduced carbon emissions from launches, courtesy of intellectual property its founders hope will allow for the scalable and affordable 3D printed manufacturing of rocket engines powered by green hydrogen.
"Living on Mars is not what I think about when I think about space," said Herik Labs co-founder Simone Wilson at the University of Queensland (UQ) Ventures annual ilab Accelerator Pitch Night last week, where her company won both the Judge's and People's Choice awards.
"I think about the thousands of satellites that we rely on every day to pay with our bank cards, improve crop yields, and even get directions to the Tivoli," she said, in reference to the venue in Brisbane's Fortitude Valley.
Wilson highlighted the space industry was looking at a tenfold increase in the number of launches every 20 years with a projected value of $1.4 trillion globally by 2030.
"Rockets are the future of transport, but we're making an old mistake," said Wilson, a mechanical and aerospace engineer.
"Over 95 per cent of launches use polluting engines - they can emit more CO2 in a couple of minutes than a car in a couple of centuries."
She said the main reason for this proliferation of more toxic engines was the cost differential, which is nearly "600 times cheaper" than existing renewable energy-powered, first-stage engine models in the market.
It is a problem that sparked the initial idea for the company's co-founder Toby van den Herik, after whom the startup is named.
"He actually approached an honours thesis supervisor at UQ and said, 'I want to investigate this novel rocket engine, can you supervise me?'," Wilson told Business News Australia.
"He got partway through it and thought this was really promising with great results, so he decided to put a team together that he thought he'd need."
The four co-founders, also including Jason Storey and Isaiah Stook, all knew each other from university as engineering students and had worked on projects together over the years. Wilson said Storey was brought in as an "an incredibly strong electrical and software engineer", while Stook is a mechatronics engineer with financial experience having worked in technical sales for National Australia Bank (ASX: NAB).
The business was entirely bootstrapped until the founders secured $10,000 from the ilab Accelerator program, and they will soon be looking to raise funds in the lead-up to a hardware test for the technology.
"We’ve got supercomputers that we’re using to do software analyses and design on computers, but the hardware test is going to be the expensive part," Wilson explained.
"It's looking at about $150,000 to test our IP part of the engine, which is the core part that underpins everything.
"From there I can’t tell you an MVP (minimum viable product) of the engine, because it would depend on the size; we’d ideally like to develop it with somebody who would like to use that engine so it could be a pilot program with them, and it'd be made for their thrust requirements."
Herik Labs is actively seeking partners, but last night Wilson announced the company had reached its first deal with another startup, Aquila, as an expression of interest (EOI) should the technology be proven.
"It was amazing reading about another space company that shares the same values of sustainability that we do, so that made it a really conversation," Wilson said.
"We caught up for a coffee, and we just bonded over how beneficial space can be for improving life on Earth, but if we keep using it at the rate that we're using it and how it's going to grow, you can't scale that with the launchers that we currently use. So it was a no brainer for them.
"Our engine is reusable and powered by renewables - oxygen and green hydrogen. When these combust, the exhaust is clean. Our proprietary design removes 85 per cent of parts, which doesn't just make it affordable, but also rapidly manufacturable and reliable."
Whilst jumping into the world of entrepreneurship has meant sacrificing a salary and the security of a full-time job, Wilson said she had become "obsessed" with the project.
"I've never learned so much in my life - you can move so quickly. You can make a lot more mistakes, but you learn from them," she said.
"I don’t think I could ever go back to being in a big organisation, because whilst I enjoy the work and I've always worked with great teams, it's just incredible how empowering it can feel when you know that you’re solely driving it forward, and you have to be across everything; you have to wear all of the hats at the same time.
"I just love the challenge and I’m loving the community of entrepreneurs that I’ve met. We’re all a bit crazy and I wouldn’t change it for the world."
Head of entrepreneurship at UQ, Nimrod Klayman, was impressed by the quality of the businesses and pitches on the night.
“It is great to see the broader Queensland startup network coming together to celebrate and support these up-and-coming business founders,” Klayman said.
“The atmosphere was electric and these founders now join a community of 300-plus past program participants who continue to innovate in their fields.”
Since UQ took over the ilab program from the Queensland Government in 2012, more than 230 startups have gone through its accelerator and incubator programs. Notable alumni include hearing tech company Audeara (ASX: AUA), deployment automation software group Octopus Deploy, and gut microbiome life sciences company Microba. Andrew Barnes, co-founder of Go1, also went through the accelerator with another startup before starting the edtech unicorn to-be.
Get our daily business news
Sign up to our free email news updates.
Help us deliver quality journalism to you.
As a free and independent news site providing daily updates
during a period of unprecedented challenges for businesses everywhere
we call on your support