An interview with Deepak Atyam, CEO and co-founder of Tri-D Dynamics

Deepak Atyam
Credit: Tri-D Dynamics

Some Astropreneurs members met Deepak Atyam, CEO and cofounder of Tri-D Dynamics, during the International Astronautical Congres (IAC) in Adelaide. He was a speaker at the SpaceGen Entrepreneurs event, where he inspired us all with the personal story behind the creation of his company and how he found the way to success.

Astropreneurs: Hi Deepak! Thanks for accepting to have an interview with us! Could you tell us your story again so that the readers who were not present at IAC can know about it?

Deepak Atyam: Thank you for having me here! It’s a pleasure to be able to share my story which will hopefully inspire other entrepreneurs to tackle the hard problems of making living and working in space a reality.
A childhood trip to the Kennedy Space Center inspired me to pursue the ingenuity of past aerospace engineers’ contributions to flight and propulsion. My parents took my brother and me to the Kennedy Space Center where I was able to witness the landing of the space shuttle Discovery. Feeling the power of the shockwave was an unforgettable experience that has shaped the imagination of a passionate young engineer to understand that nothing was impossible. I was inspired to work for NASA and took advantage of the opportunity to do just that in high school.

My experiences working with NASA were critical for expanding my knowledge and passion for space technology, and gave me an excellent background for my most recent work on additively manufactured liquid rocket engines. I was fortunate to find my passion during high school as I was selected to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which kick-started my serial internship journey with various NASA Centers working on projects such as the Curiosity rover, new photogrammetry techniques, and learning about advanced 3D printing.  After four summers with NASA, I took an opportunity to work as an Associate Propulsion Engineer at a Google Lunar X-Prize team, Moon Express, to assist with rapid prototyping of rocket engines. Seeing opportunities in the private space sector, I concluded my internship journey last summer working on manufacturing Draco and Super Draco engines at SpaceX. This work in the private aerospace industry has only grown my passion for space technologies, since I have seen first-hand how my work could enable future exploration.

I like to see myself as an innovator and a passionate engineer. At UC San Diego (UCSD) for example, I created two rocket clubs with the goals of conducting ground-breaking research, creating a cohesive community of exceptionally passionate individuals, and executing large projects that would inspire future generations of scientists and engineers to lead by example. I have always had a huge interest in aeronautical and aerospace-related engineering activities and to that extent I am elated that the two clubs are receiving an immense amount of support and press.

During my first year at UCSD, I created the Triton Rocket Club (TRC) with the goal of helping engineering students gain hands-on experience through a large-scale project that involved designing, building, and flying a liquid-fueled rocket. Presiding over TRC, I led my team to complete a great amount of work that included the organization’s successful Level 1 National Association of Rocketry certification as well as the creation a liquid injector to fly our rocket. With the culmination of the work I had successfully led my first year at UCSD, all of our members gained experience designing, building, and flying a project that they could have ownership of.

After my interest in rocketry shifted to a more research-oriented focus, I founded and presided over the UCSD chapter of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS@UCSD) club to continue the lineage of liquid propulsion projects, but on a more fundamental level than TRC. Being a first-generation college student only fueled my desire to become someone that will make a positive difference in the world and break out of the status quo. After a summer at NASA Langley, I was able to use the time before school started to volunteer with the propulsion department at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC). Volunteering, learning, and networking with those amazing engineers gave me the opportunity to lead a joint research project with MSFC and SEDS@UCSD to determine the analytical, economical, and experimental feasibility of 3D printing liquid rocket engines.

With the support and mentorship of Dr. Forman Williams, I was able to bring a project that involved designing, printing, and testing our very own liquid-fueled engine that has proved to be a testament to the hard work, collaboration, and passion of myself and my colleagues. Reading through hundreds of pages of text gave us insight to the problems that rocket engineers of the past faced due to a lack in technological advancements and manufacturing capabilities. We perceived an avenue to revolutionize how the rocket industry creates these marvels of propulsion and jumped at the opportunity to demonstrate that additive manufacturing technology can tremendously decrease time, weight, and cost. Our determination and combined efforts have led to the successful testing of the first 3D-printed rocket engine from a university in the world! Our rocket engine’s successful hot-fire test meant more for the industry than we could have imagined. The hot-fire has led to awards that have highlighted our accomplishments and resulted in being selected as a Gordon Fellow in my engineering leadership program. From these developments, I have six patents pending and successfully co-led a Phase 1 NASA STTR to research the feasibility of using 3D printing to innovate a new type of NanoSat launcher. I led SEDS@UCSD to develop a second fully printed engine which culminated in another landmark successful test fire in 2014 and also powered the highest-flying sounding rocket using a fully 3D printed engine in 2016. We wanted to show the capabilities that 3D printing can bring to industry from inception to launch!

Astropreneurs: Do you remember the exact moment you decided to create your own company? Was it something that took long thoughts or was it something that came up naturally?

Deepak Atyam: The idea of creating a company was definitely a natural occurrence. While the founding of the legal entity took long thoughts, we were naturally led to the idea of commercializing our technology throughout the progression of our academic and professional growth.

After seeing the possibilities of bringing this technology to market, we decided to pursue entrepreneurial avenues with additively manufactured rocket engines. Understanding that this would be arguably one of largest decisions in our professional career, we applied and were admitted to the UCSD Moxie Center for Entrepreneurship to receive mentorship and assistance on how to move forward with the endeavour. After winning dozens of pitch competitions and taking entrepreneurial courses, we used the momentum gained from these opportunities to start our own NewSpace company, Tri-D Dynamics (TDD), which focuses on mass producing low cost liquid rocket engines to supply the expendable smallsat launch vehicle and even larger reusable launch vehicle markets that are rapidly growing. We already have our first paying customers and seven letters of intent for our proprietary manufacturing technology. Alex Finch and I co-founded TDD concurrently when we started graduate school at Purdue University in 2015 and went to grad school for the same reasons why I went to go to IAC: learn from experienced industry executives, expand our network, and most importantly find new employees and customers!

Astropreneurs: 3D printing rocket engines will undoubtedly have an impact in the fabrication of rockets. How do you envision the future with this technology?

Deepak Atyam: I believe we were the 5th entity in the world to have printed and tested a liquid rocket engine. To our knowledge, our first engine, “Tri-D” was the largest one ever produced. Tri-D pushed the boundaries of what printing technology can do and we were able to understand some of the limitations by commercial technology at the time of production. Although we were met with certain manufacturing limitations, our eyes were opened up to the possibility of creating these extremely complex systems in a matter of days rather than years. In addition to drastically reducing production time, cost and manpower also followed suit by being reduced immensely. The reduction in production time, cost, and manpower showed us that 3D printing was the start of the next industrial revolution.

As undergraduate students at UCSD we had no idea that we were going to be on the cutting edge of 3D printing technology with rocket engines. I can now clearly see 3D printers being integrated into R&D facilities with most aerospace primes and even into production buildings for flight ready components. It truly is an amazing future where we can “almost” press a button and have a fully formed part created in front of your eyes!

Astropreneurs: How is your relationship to your cofounder Alex? They say sometimes you spend more time with your cofounder than with your partner. Would you agree?

Deepak Atyam: Our relationship has definitely grown stronger over the years we’ve been “stuck” together. We both have Type-A personalities, so our opinions always have strong weight in discussions. While we have had our ups and downs, we have always stayed together because we really enjoy working together and have a mutual interest in making humans a space fairing race in addition to working on really cool cutting-edge technology.
Regarding the second statement, you should really ask his girlfriend who gets more of Alex’s time. I think she’ll tell you that I win by a landslide. We definitely do spend a lot of time together, but are happy to do so in order to grow this company to a commercial success!

Astropreneurs: What are the next steps you plan to take? Can you give us a teaser of any exciting developments?

Deepak Atyam: We are currently in the midst of finishing our first development contract to supply an engine to a SmallSat launch vehicle customer! We are looking to use and develop a new additive process which can create thrust chambers and nozzles much faster than current 3D printers on the market. As our company grows, we will always be prioritizing developing new technology to advance the state of the art.

Astropreneurs: What were/are the parts that you find most difficult of being an astropreneur? And the most rewarding?

Deepak Atyam: We always used to talk about “how amazing it would be to actually build rockets/rocket engines as a job”, while we were students at UC San Diego. We created an amazing community and family of passionate, high performing, and driven individuals to do the impossible. It was so much fun as students to push ourselves to our limits while advancing the whole industry in some ways.
This industry is one of the hardest to create a startup in. Capital is not invested in space as readily as the consumer tech industry, which makes growing quickly a problem. Space is not easy and failure is almost certain in the life cycle of any space startup. Assessing the risks of creating a startup in this industry is necessary to stay focused and driven on a singular mission. One of the most difficult parts of being in this field is having the right mentors, advisors, and support to keep you on the right path. We are lucky to have such phenomenal mentors and advisors that believe in our success! I am rewarded every day to be working with some of my best friends while trying to tackle some of the hardest problems there are in the space community. It’s a joy to have an opportunity to make a difference.

Astropreneurs: Any advice for other space entrepreneurs?

Deepak Atyam: It doesn’t matter how old you are, you can make a difference in the space industry and help us become a space fairing race! We are at the cusp of having humans live, work, vacation, and explore the mysteries of our solar system. Nothing is impossible, said from a first generation Indian American. With the odds stacked against you, never give up in realizing your dream. You just have to believe that you will be an enabling factor to make a difference. Ad astra per aspera!

Astropreneurs: Thank you so much for answering our questions and for the inspiration. Best of luck in your endeavors!

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Posted by Marta Lebron