Astropreneurs meet Elena Toson, Space Business Development Manager at T4i

The Team

The New Space domain thrives on innovation and T4i is at the heart of it. Focusing on propulsion systems and plasma antennas, T4i’s mission stretches beyond cost-effectiveness and focuses on reliability as well as sustainability. Technology miniaturization is becoming more predominant in various sectors, especially in the New Space, where small satellites are dominating and the race to get to smaller, more efficient, and more reliable satellites is flourishing.
After eight years of research and some technological and economic difficulties, the T4i was finally launched in 2014 as a spin-off from the Space Propulsion Group at the University of Padua. Equipped with people determined to make a difference in the world of small satellites, the T4i team has gained the respect from major companies setting the course of current events. Today, the team is working on various technological innovations, ranging from chemical and electrical propulsions systems to next generation plasma antennas, all while ensuring connectivity can catch up with the thrust T4i delivers.

Astropreneurs: Could you tell us about your product and the long-term vision for the company?

Elena Toson: Currently our activities are focused on electric and chemical propulsion systems for in-space maneuvers and launcher applications. In the specific, we are developing an electric propulsion module called REGULUS to give mobility to micro and mini satellites, and three types of chemical propulsion systems based on highly stabilized hydrogen peroxide. We are working on these propulsion solutions because we’re in a period of deep renovation of the space market, where miniaturized and more economic satellites that are providing great services need to move in space and reach space in a greener and cost-effective way.
And on why we are developing new propulsion technologies, it is because we think that mobility is one of the means for humanity to progress. Let’s just think on how the invention of the first combustion engine revolutionized our world: thanks to mobility technologies we conquered the solid ground, and space. Studying and developing new mobility technologies will give us the chance to send, move, and refuel satellites in orbit, consequently providing on Earth interconnecting services that at the moment are unthinkable. Moreover, new solutions applied in space transportation will open new frontiers of knowledge and will change the way we live and perceive space.

REGULUS electric propulsion module
REGULUS electric propulsion module

Astropreneurs: How would you say your products contribute to the disruption of New Space and the emergence of upcoming mega-constellations?

Elena Toson: Having the chance to re-position the satellite into the right orbit will have a great impact from many points of view: the satellite will be active for a longer time andit will be possible to cut production costs and reduce the quantity of space debris orbiting our planet. In the specific of a constellation, we will have a more efficient formation flight with longer-serving satellites, since it will be possible to control and position the satellite with maneuvers such as formation flying, orbit raising, and decommissioning.

Astropreneurs: How did you realize that there were opportunities in this segment that you can provide solutions for?

Elena Toson: We realized this years ago, in particular in 2006, when the Propulsion Group of the University of Padua, where T4i is coming from, started to work on smart propulsion systems to serve the nano/micro satellites market. From that time, we selected the market of micro satellites as our natural home, because of the lack of viable technology solutions at suitable costs for their in-space mobility and to reach space. After working for more than eight years, we flew our chemical motors two times on an uncrewed vehicle and we are now entering the market with REGULUS.

Astropreneurs: Despite propulsion systems being your main products you are also developing plasma antennas. What made you embrace plasma technology?

Elena Toson: Plasma antennas technology is deriving from the competences that we acquired developing the Radio Frequency Magnetically Enhanced Thruster of REGULUS. After many inputs of interested research institutes and private companies, we decided to dedicate some time and look more deeply into it, understanding that the technology is potentially disruptive and that it can drastically improve the services offered by current antennas in different industrial sectors. That is how we started to work on plasma antennas. Today we developed different prototypes and we are increasing the technology TRL.

Chemical_Hybrid_Propulsion_Motor_Under_Test
Chemical Hybrid Propulsion Motor Under Test

Astropreneurs: T4i started as a research project at the University of Padua in 2006 At what point did you decide to commercialize the technology you were developing and how did you start the company?

Elena Toson: Developing new propulsion technologies requires sweat and tears, not for nothing we are used to say “that’s not rocket science” when we refer to something that can be done. After several years of design, testing, and simulations, we solved all the show stoppers of these development programs and we reached a maturity level that pushed us to create a company and enter the market. T4i was then established in March 2014 by Prof. Daniele Pavarin, other researchers of the group and an entrepreneur.

Astropreneurs: What were the main issues you had during the startup period and how did you overcome them?

Elena Toson: First of all, the capability to turn into a company when you are coming from the university. The mindset change from the working group was not expected and also the need to turn the technologies you developed for years into commercial products. Then the search of the right people to introduce in the company. Luckily, since the beginning we were able to get some institutional and commercial contracts that allowed us to cover people and infrastructure expenses, as well as further technologies developments.

Astropreneurs: The company’s vision is quite unique in that it seeks to establish itself as a sustainable, green, and cost-effective solutions provider. How are these aspects important for business in the 21st Century?

Elena Toson: I think they are essential. It’s not only a matter of costs, we need to work on new technologies meeting also the highest standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability. In order to be successful and long-lasting, a business today shall balance purpose and profits.

Posted by Shafa Aria