Atomos is a space startup looking to solve old problems—moving things in space—with nuclear power-enabled spacecraft. Astropreneurs sat down with Brandon Seifert, co-founder of Atomos, to learn more about their space startup journey.  

Astropreneurs: What is Atomos?

Brandon Seifert: Atomos is splitting the atom to connect the planets. We are a provider of power technologies and transportation services for commercial, civil, and military space operations. Our plan is to own and operate a small fleet of nuclear power-enabled spacecraft that will provide a number of services including:

  • Earth-orbit and cislunar in-space transportation services
  • Precision placing orbital assets
  • Recovering misplaced satellites and removing dead satellites
  • Opening access to and from lunar orbits

Long term, we want to enable deep space. We see ourselves becoming the transportation logistics provider of the solar system.

Astropreneurs: How did it all begin?

Brandon Seifert: The idea behind Atomos originated in 2013 whilst CEO and co-founder, Vanessa Clark, was working at the German Space Agency (DLR) developing their early nuclear spacecraft architecture. DLR ultimately decided to shelf the program, but Vanessa sought ownership of the intellectual property she developed. She went on to work for a number of space companies in Germany and the US, but always had the idea of commercializing space nuclear technologies in the back of her mind. Fast forwarding to 2017, Vanessa was approached by an independent angel investor who she’d previously met whilst volunteering to grow Europe’s space startup community. With a strategy for a space nuclear startup coming together, Vanessa brought two co-founders, William Kowalski and myself, onboard. We graduated from the Founder Institute accelerator as Star Fellows and began developing key partnerships with other nuclear and space companies.

Astropreneurs: What innovation are you bringing to the space sector?

Brandon Seifert: We’re optimizing scalable in-space transportation as a service using cutting-edge power and propulsion technologies designed specifically for this purpose. Nuclear-electric power and propulsion (NEPP) systems extend spacecraft capabilities to move faster, carry more, and operate longer than spacecraft using other power and propulsion technologies like solar. To reach our target performance and efficiency levels, we need to operate at very high-power levels—orders of magnitude more than what average spacecraft do today. As such, we’re developing a suite of space-rated, durable, long-life subsystem technologies that generate and use high power levels in a variety of forms. Most notably, we’re developing nuclear electric power and propulsion systems in partnership with some of the most successful terrestrial nuclear and electric propulsion companies in the US.

Astropreneurs: At what point did Atomos become your full time job?

Brandon Seifert: At the beginning of this year. We had done a lot of work whilst maintaining our day jobs before we decided to jump in full time. We went through an accelerator program, worked with advisors, and did a lot of homework so that we could jump into the high impact work right away. After the accelerator program we got to the point that we had done as much work as we could possibly do part time, so we quit our jobs and took it forward!

Astropreneurs: Tell us more about your experience in an accelerator program.

Brandon Seifert: We were recommended the Founder Institute accelerator program by our first investor. I would highly recommend going through some kind of accelerator program, especially if you’re a first-time founder. It will help you get the help you need to streamline your business plan and find co-founders. Starting a new company will always take more time, energy and money than you think! It’s something you can prepare for, but it’s totally different when you really jump into things.

Atomos was recently selected as a finalist of the NASA’s iTech program, a collaborative effort that identifies and fosters innovative solutions that aim to solve challenges on Earth that also have the potential to solve some of NASA’s challenges.

Astropreneurs: Tell us about the NASA iTech program! What was your experience of NASA iTech?

Brandon Seifert: NASA opened a new cycle of the iTech initiative with a simple request for a five-page white paper. Over 100 companies applied for the energy cycle we competed in. We had no context for who our competitors could be, exactly what kind of technologies they could be developing, and what maturity level they would be at. When we were told we were one of the 10 finalists, it became real. The final process of pitching globally in front of top program managers, chief technologists, and other leaders within NASA, the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) was as exhilarating as it was beneficial. We didn’t end up walking away as number one, but we did walk away with new supporters and allies within all three of those agencies. The process was incredible.

Atomos pitch at NASA iTech, Credit: Atomos

Astropreneurs: What were the biggest challenges you faced in the early days? And how did you overcome them?

Brandon Seifert: Convincing investors and others that not only was Atomos technically feasible, but that our market existed too, was the biggest challenge. Early space nuclear programs suffered engineering and political difficulties that led to their premature cancellations, and although much has changed in the decades since, many of the preconceptions people possess today are based in that unfortunate past. This is changing now with modern advancements and the commercially-friendly space and nuclear regulatory reform currently underway.
The space market is also changing. There is no shortage of need for the placement of satellites and other assets into orbit, and the ability to physically manage and influence the thousands of satellites that will be launched over the coming years is going to be a very valuable ability. Not many are aware of how well nuclear-enabled spacecraft fit into this market opportunity, and even less are aware of how far space nuclear technologies have developed in the absence of a large, dedicated NASA program. We’ve had to do a lot of education, but in doing so have developed a lot of strong, supportive allies along the way.

Astropreneurs: What resources have you found helpful in your startup journey?

Brandon Seifert: What I’ve found to be the most valuable in our journey is not a slick piece of software, a time-management tool—it’s my cofounders. No matter the scale of your startup, you need a team. Even better: a team of friends. Having people to support and be supported by is massively valuable, and I’d go so far as to say fundamentally necessary. Become close and stay close to your cofounders and make yourself a champion for progress within the industry as much as you can.

The Atomos co-founders, Credit: Atomos

Astropreneurs: Where would you like your company to be in five years’ time? And in ten?

Brandon Seifert: Five years: digesting and implementing lessons learned from a simpler, non-nuclear demonstrator spacecraft we’ve successfully used to rendezvous with and manoeuvre a counterpart spacecraft. We’ll be leveraging that success to generate early revenue for future transportation contracts.
Ten years: we’ll be into the first few years of full-scale nuclear-powered spacecraft operations, actively making the Earth orbital environment a safer place for other companies and agencies to operate in and opening the first commercial interplanetary transportation routes, return flight included.

Astropreneurs: From your perspective, which are the best countries to start a space business?

Brandon Seifert: The United States remains the best country to start a space business in given its stable yet rapidly developing aerospace industry. The sheer number and magnitude of commercial, civil, and military business opportunities for American space companies just can’t be beaten… for now. Europe, the UK, Luxembourg and Japan are quickly building their own robust space economies. With so many new globally-focused space investment funds, the growing access to a variety of different ways to reach orbit, and the world’s ever-mounting reliance on space-based assets, I think this question will soon evolve from “best place to start a space business” into “best place to scale a space business.” 

Posted by Harriet Brettle