Career chat with Stefan Powell, Co-Founder and CTO at Dawn Aerospace
This is the transcription of a recorded video conversation that we had with Stefan Powell, Co-Founder and CTO at Dawn Aerospace about his career journey into working in tech.
We cover how Stefan became interested in aerospace, how Dawn Aerospace came together and the incredible ambition they have for the company. We also delve into the typical traits and characteristics they typically look for when hiring, given an ever-increasing need for talented people. Enjoy.
Welcome, everyone. Today we are speaking with Stefan Powell, CTO and Co-founder at Dawn Aerospace. I am pretty excited to be talking to you today, Stefan. Instead of me butchering the introduction as to what you guys do. How about you give us an insight as to who you are and what Dawn does?
“..we endeavour to get things to space, manoeuvre them around in space, and eventually also get them back. ”
Oh, yeah,, as you said, I'm Stefan Powell, CTO of Dawn Aerospace and one of five co-founders. Dawn Aerospace, it's a space transportation company, really, which is a very high level way of saying we endeavour to get things to space, maneuver them around in space, and eventually also get them back.
Because it's these three things that we really need to do to make space transportation really frictionless so that we can have this massive sort of explosion in the amount of stuff that we're going to do in space, in the next sort of 10, 20, 30, 40 years’ time.
We see that we're kind of at the start of this internet-like boom, with just crazy amounts of value that we're going to get out of space, just like we get out of the internet now.
That's really hard to see exactly what people are going to do in space, some people are talking about internet from space or other communication stuff, or earth observation stuff, but there's actually about probably 10 other major industries that could be trillion-dollar industries in their own right, all of them are going to need to access space in some way.
We don't know exactly which ones of these are gonna make it are going to be a big deal. But we know that they're all gonna need to get to space, maneuver around in space, and eventually get things back down as well. So that's what Dawn Aerospace does.
Good. So, a space transportation company, it would be way too simple to just say that you're building rocket ships! I'd love to dig into what makes Dawn unique relative to what people might be perhaps a lot more familia with, Rocket Lab. So, what makes Dawn unique in the marketplace?
“We need to be talking about multiple launches a day from basically every major city in the world, in a long term, sustainable way.
We look at this problem very holistically, from this very high-level view of, we need to do all of these three things, it's not just about getting stuff up to space. And we take a very, very long-term view on it. We only want to be working on technology that's gonna make sense. In an industry landscape, that sort of 100 times the scale of what we're talking about now.
So, it's not really okay just to have one launch a week or even one launch a day from one place in the world, it's not really acceptable. We need to be talking about multiple launches a day from basically every major city in the world, in a long term, sustainable way.
That means you can't be throwing away hardware, you can't be inhibiting other users, like other classic rockets do. Because we're working on things under this premise of working towards this really long-term future. We look at things very differently. So, we have to work with technology that is going to be long-term sustainable.
Good stuff. Now, we're going to get into that a bit deeper in a moment. But before we go into that, I'd love to set the stage and maybe rewind a little bit and hear about your upbringing. So, what was Stefan like as a teenager? Was he always dreaming about building space planes and rockets? What were you doing as a teenager?
“That's what I cared about, I just wanted to make things better. ”
Not really. Actually, just probably more about just building new things. I just really loved creating stuff. My dad was an engineer and his dad was a carpenter and he had a shed full of tools and yeah, I got my hands dirty a lot, made all kinds of things from great medieval weaponry to tribute shows and had fun with that sort of stuff.
And yeah, obviously fascination with aircraft and spacecraft, but not more than anyone else. I would have thought, I wasn't exactly a total geek for it or something. But it was really when I went off to university and I wanted to get into sustainable technologies, particularly green energy and that stuff really fascinated me.
I went to a university in the Netherlands that had a good history in that stuff, and some really good courses and stuff on sustainable engineering, and I really enjoyed those. Unfortunately, there wasn't really much practical stuff that I could do, I still had this very practical background of wanting to build stuff with my hands.
But there were local rocket clubs that you could go to, and you could build real stuff and work in a student team and pursue your own ideas about how to make something better. That's what I cared about, I just wanted to make things better.
And so, I did that in the context of rockets. I got to know a lot of other people who could do it as well. And we found this really amazing team that ended up being the basis for drone aerospace. And we built some pretty impressive rockets by student standards, we broke some world records, we launched some really, I mean, looking back, huge rockets.
From the Netherlands, we got to go all the way down to the south of Spain with a team of 50 people and launch this huge, 15,000 horsepower, 200-kilogram rocket to Mach 2.5 and over 20 kilometres altitude. It was a really serious endeavour but it was something we spent five years on, and a few hundred thousand euro. And it was all over and like 90 seconds sort of thing. It was like, well, that was cool, but man, it was a lot of work for not a whole lot of time.
And we realised it was also going to take almost the same amount of money in the same amount of time to get back to another rocket on the pad and we just thought there's got to be a better way to do this. That was actually when my brother James came into the fold and the ideation for Dawn Aerospace.
So, I wasn't really Dawn Aerospace at that time, it was just the very early inklings of the company. And he had a background in aviation, particularly in building stuff for helicopters and developing a product in New Zealand and bringing that to the rest of the world.
We realised we could bring these two things together, these really high-performance, high-tech rockets into this operationally flexible, super high-utility aircraft. What if we could bring these two things together to get the performance and the utility in one thing, and that's kind of how we actually arrived at the technology that we're working on indoor air space now.
Interesting. First of all, it sounds like I went to the wrong University! Quite incredible. Just as a side topic quickly. You talk about the years that went into that rocket launch and the amount of money for an incredible project. Did you guys have to self-fundraise for that or how did that all come together?
Yeah. I mean, that was the best thing about those projects. It wasn't just the engineering, we had to go through the fundraising, we had to go to other companies and convince them to let us use their expensive machines and 3D printers.
And so, I said it was 200,000 euro worth, probably 70% of that was just in-kind sponsorship of people making parts for us or letting us use their stuff. It was probably 50- 60 grand or something that we had to pay for, like using launch sites and stuff. So yeah, we had to run the whole thing. It was like running your own business, while studying of course, as well.
Yeah. Amazing. So great practice, I suppose before you kicked into this direction. Now, this is probably quite an ignorant question, so excuse me in advance. But the combination of rockets and planes seems for someone that doesn't know much about it, seems very logical when you explain it. Are other companies around the world doing this, and why is it not more of a normal thing to be doing in terms of people putting stuff up into space?
“Reusable rockets at the moment means that you can fly them again 50-ish days later, after a few million dollars of refurbishment. If that's how reusable a 737 was, people wouldn't call that reusable.”
Yes, and no. It is normal. You obviously are probably aware of the space shuttle in lots of ways it was, yeah, half a rocket half a plane. I would say it was a plane in the sense that it had wings and a landing gear, but otherwise it flew nothing like a plane.
It wasn't something you could land and put more fuel in and fly again. It wasn't something that flew under aircraft regulation. It wasn't something that even had the reliability similar to an aircraft. So yeah, once again, apart from the fact that it had wings and landing gear, it was just another rocket. And so, the cost model behind it also ended up being similar to a rocket and in fact, even worse for other various reasons.
Nobody's looking at this quite to the extreme that we have. We really say this is an aircraft in every way, except for that it has a rocket motor onboard. That's the only thing that makes it a rocket. But it flies from an airport, it flies under aircraft regulation, it is reusable in the same way that you think about aircraft as being reusable.
Reusable rockets at the moment means that you can fly them again 50-ish days later, after a few million dollars of refurbishment. If that's how reusable a 737 was, people wouldn't call that reusable.
Interesting. So, it actually flies from regular domestic airports, presumably not the ones that most planes are going in and out but it can do?
Yeah, exactly. I mean, like, you're not exactly flying out of Oakland International Airport. But yeah, just there's literally thousands of airports around the world that we could fly out of. And they exist, we don't have to go build a spaceport. If we want to fly this thing from the States, I think I've looked it up and there are about 900 registered airports that we could technically fly out of that are not very busy and have long enough runways. Perfect.
Cool. So, the picture that you've got behind you, that is one of your space vehicles that you've developed, presumably?
Yeah, yeah, that's an artist's impression of the Mach Two spaceplane. So that's flying at about 100 kilometres altitude to fall back down to earth.
And then, going back to the ideation phase, having that moment of realisation, alongside your brother that it could be a good combination between his expertise and what you've been doing in the Netherland, what was the jumping off point to forming a company and how sort of did it come together in terms of a confidence that you could actually build something that was unique?
The jumping off point was really where we realised that it wasn't actually going to be too hard to convince people that we could bring these two technologies together.
Because myself and three other founders in the Netherlands had this rocket background. And we knew we could build a rocket engine that operates just the same way as a jet engine or any other engine, you put gas in the tank, and you flick a switch, and it turns on, and you flick the switch off again, that's off again, great.
James had a background in aircraft stuff to know that if we could build this thing, and we could certify it and fly in New Zealand, under New Zealand rules, we would be able to bring it to the rest of the world. That this was actually a channel that had some credence behind it, there wasn't just talk.
So, we knew that we could build a demonstrator and we could, really just a model jet, just something really, really simple to show that we can build a rocket powered aircraft that flies exactly the same way as every other aircraft, at really small scale. But we can do that, and show to the world that this is not a crazy idea.
Outstanding. And then how many years ago did you start to build a demo? Was that shortly after you had put the rocket together up in the Netherlands?
Yeah, it was kind of the top management of that team that ended up becoming Dawn Aerospace and that kind of kicked off around 2017, we started putting that together. In late 2018, we kind of got planning together, or to really get the company going and grow beyond us five people.
Cool. And then between then and now, what has happened since you launched your first demo through today? What is the current state of the play and what has happened in between those two periods of time?
“..we have a piece of hardware that we almost never have to rebuild, you just put gas in the tank and flick the switch and away she goes again.”
Yep. So, in terms of one other side of the business that we haven't really talked about at all is the in-space propulsion stuff. So that's the thrusters that we put on satellites, that was also kind of at this very early stage when we started the company in 2018.
That was kind of the output of my master's thesis actually. So, we've taken that right through to commercialisation, that's something that is now actually an ongoing product stream. We've got about three products there that we pretty regularly sell to small satellite operators.
So, these are people that put satellites together, they provide a service to some other customer, maybe it's a communications product, or maybe it's some other space transportation product. They use our rocket motors on their satellites to give themselves maneuverability.
And that's pretty good ongoing revenue. Now we've got a pretty substantial team that is pumping out rocket motors about as fast as we can and selling those. That's a pretty developed part of the business. The other side, yes, the Mach 2 vehicle, that's really come a long way since we started in 2018, where it was really just sort of a back of the envelope drawing.
Now it's a vehicle that really exists on our shop floor. And we're pretty close to testing that, getting it flying. First, we fly it on jet engines and later we'll fly it on full rocket engines. There's also a full rocket engine development around that to use some pretty novel propellants as well, though engine cycles and stuff to be able to once again, bring this rocket performance to aircraft like operability.
It does mean you have to think about things a little bit differently, you have to consider things that otherwise wouldn't be a problem. Because we intend to use this engine 1000’s of times, not once, maybe 10 times. So, there's some other difficulties there. But the upshot is this, once we get over those difficulties, we have a piece of hardware that we almost never have to rebuild, you just put gas in the tank and flick the switch and away she goes again.
Interesting. And in terms of those difficulties or challenges, do any stick out that someone like me could understand that you’re still trying to solve for at the moment?
“..instead of restraining the metals inside the engine, we have to let them breathe, we have to let them expand and contract as they get hot..”
Yeah, like one really interesting one is, now maybe it's a little bit too deep in the weeds, but it's metal fatigue. That's when you cycle things, you cycle these metals over and over again and eventually, it's kind of like a paperclip, you've bent it back and forth enough times, it breaks really easily right.
Rocket engines do exactly the same thing and actually, the Space Shuttle’s main engine is a really good example of this, the inner walls of that engine fatigues so badly that after about 10 or so cycles, they start to get cracks down and you have propellant leaking into the engine where it shouldn't. Many know about it but they know, it's not too big of a problem after 10 cycles.
After 20 or so, it starts to get bad enough that you have to replace the engine. So okay, it has limited reusability. But it works, we have to design that completely out. So instead of restraining the metals inside the engine, we have to let them breathe, we have to let them expand and contract as they get hot.
So, necessitates a totally different design. So, the entire internals on the engine are actually floating to allow them to breathe in and out as they get hot, so that we never have this fatigue.
Interesting. I actually have an acute understanding of that, having snapped my handlebar on my bike the other day, after probably putting too much tension on it over time. So yeah a good example and I appreciate you sort of, in some ways dumbing it down.
It's really fascinating, and I'm sure those types of conversations could go on forever. Also, the propulsion systems that you've built to power other people's satellites, am I right to say that you're actually selling those on your website? Almost like a click-and-collect type operation?
“..one big problem we saw with aerospace procurement in general is that it's just so hard to actually go out and buy something, when really this thing should almost be a commodity, this isn't that complicated.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we have been actually. You can add them to cart and sell them by credit card if you want. To be honest, I mean, we don't actually expect anyone to use that because it's a ridiculous notion.
Of course, they're gonna come and talk to us first. But one big problem we saw with aerospace procurement in general is that it's just so hard to actually go out and buy something, when really this thing should almost be a commodity, this isn't that complicated.
That's something that should be simple enough that you can just stick it on your satellite and it'll work, at least that's how we want it to be. So, we also want to make procurement simple so that if they need it, it's available, they can go buy it and they'll have it. It doesn't have to be harder than that. So, this is supposed to be an embodiment of that.
Interesting, and then sort of looking into the future, as the business model that you will be essentially just a transportation company that is taking payloads up into space on behalf of other people, or will you be actually selling the space plans or space vehicles and propulsion systems is a hardware company?
No, we envision that eventually people will want to have mobility as a whole. So definitely, that's already done for space launch. You don't typically buy the rocket, you buy the service to get to space. At the moment, that's not the case in space itself.
People typically buy the rocket and stick it on their satellite, but we see that eventually transitioning. There's a whole other swath of products that will eventually come around. Some other companies are already looking into it, into providing mobility as a service, but eventually it'll transition to that.
Interesting. Now, you currently split between Christchurch and the Netherlands, what does that currently look like? And how does that sort of start to evolve as you expand and grow?
Yeah, so currently, it's about 50% between Christchurch, New Zealand and Delft, the Netherlands. So, 50/50. We see that continuing to grow pretty much the same, maybe it'll be back and forth a little bit depending on exactly which projects go ahead.
But the Netherlands is really important for us just because it's such a knowledge hub, there's just so much experience in Europe and so many amazing assets and capability there, hypersonic wind tunnels, or expertise in space, environment and radiation.
And just the depth of organisations like DLR, which is essentially German NASA, that we can draw on, including all of the different funding schemes and customers are there. There's many, many good reasons for us to be in the Netherlands, not to mention a really close relationship with bioenergy, University of Delft.
In saying that, New Zealand plays a very key role in having open skies, having a very forward-thinking regulatory system, and allowing us to do a bunch of stuff that would be really difficult to do in Europe, around flight testing, and really early stage R&D. So, each of these two countries play a pretty key role in our development and how we operate. And so, we'll continue to be hiring in both.
It's interesting and answered the follow up questions that I had as to what the strategic advantage was for New Zealand, which you've already answered there. I mentioned it's really difficult to find people to sort of support what you're doing. Is that correct? Particularly in New Zealand where this is an industry that is just emerging?
Yeah, it definitely is. We often find that we end up hiring people that kind of have roughly the right skills and then we do a lot of on the job training or training for our specific niche. The closer we can get to the people that we actually need, the better, for sure.
And so, does that involve getting people coming out of certain fields of engineering within universities, and maybe a combination of overseas talent? Where do you typically find people from?
Yeah, we have hired a reasonable amount directly from New Zealand, but also quite a few from overseas as well. We typically find people who have come straight out of university projects to be very, very good. So, like, I'm familiar with, like UCM type racing car projects and stuff, people that have had a lot of real-world experience where they have to build their own projects, they have to be their own CEOs in lots of ways.
We find these people to be excellent. But at the same time, we also draw on a lot of more experienced people who had more classic experience in industry, that's really bringing a lot of these different experiences together, that's really important for us.
Interesting. Now, we touched upon this a little bit, but talking about the future and perhaps getting the crystal-ball out and looking five years into the future. What would you hope Dawn Aerospace would look like in five year’s time?
Yeah, in five year’s time, I hope that we're doing a lot more in terms of getting stuff to space and should be pretty well established and moving stuff around in space. So that's selling a myriad of products to people who actually build satellites to give the satellites mobility.
So, it's full propulsion systems, that's maybe even our own satellites, moving stuff around in space. That's certainly rocket motors as we currently do. And in terms of getting things to space, we hope to have the successor to the Mach 2 in early stages of testing, being able to show that we actually have something that can do truly reusable flights to and from space.
Cool. Regarding sustainability and making sure that things are reusable and can be done more regularly. Is that quite unique relative to others in the market and are you seeing others pop up? So, they're saying that it is something that is a different idea that you're working steadily towards?
“Space is not going to become a big deal if we don't do this in a way that is properly sustainable. And that's actually our biggest fear is that nobody actually gets there.”
Yeah, I think we're one of the few that's been so bold as to say that it's really a necessity, it's not just a nice to have, this is not just something that we're saying to, I don't know, pander to the green crowd or something like that. This is something that we're saying because we think we need it as a business, we need it as an industry.
Space is not going to become a big deal if we don't do this in a way that is properly sustainable. And that's actually our biggest fear is that nobody actually gets there. Nobody figures out how to make this sustainable and therefore scalable to the extent that we need.
Interesting. So just on that point, if no one manages to achieve that, you're saying that just over time it will cost too much money and there's too much wastage. What does the end result look like if you don't manage to achieve that?
“It's kind of like, if you never got fibre internet, if you're just stuck on dial up right now, what would you be limited to?”
It just means that the huge opportunity of space will never quite be realised. It's kind of like, if you never got fibre internet, if you're just stuck on dial up right now, what would you be limited to? If you never knew fibre, Okay, maybe you wouldn't be worried so much.
But look at all the amazing things that fibre Internet has enabled these days, you couldn't even dream of this 20 years ago. That's what we think space is like now. I think if somebody does figure out how to do truly scalable and sustainable and cost-effective access to space, the things that amazingly creative people will come up with to utilise that amazing piece of infrastructure it'll blow your mind.
Incredible. This undoubtedly is going to spawn a lot more industry around it. In New Zealand, have you started to see the green shoots of that already? Or at least a lot more people are talking about it within New Zealand?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, space really only started being a thing in New Zealand sort of a decade ago. And you could argue where we're a green shoot of that and there's more coming left, right and centre for sure. There's a bunch of space startups in New Zealand, now it's turning into a thriving ecosystem.
It's really cool to hear. Now, for you, you said that you’re growing considerably at the moment, I think you said around about 10 to 11 people that you're actively trying to hire outside from the direct qualifications that are probably necessary for a lot of the technical roles that you have. What are the key traits and attributes that you look for when people do apply?
We really look for people that have strong integrity, that are really motivated by a deep sense of purpose, I would say. This is really a long haul, this company, we're not about a sprint for the next 2, 3, 4 or five years. This is a mission that we're working towards, it's gonna take probably a couple of decades to really get to that final goal.
So, we want people who are really motivated to get there, they really need to believe in the vision that we're selling. Aside from that, we do need top people in terms of skills, knowledge and experience to be able to do these things because they are genuinely hard.
Interesting. And then I suppose from a why standpoint, for someone that could be interested that's reading this, what do you love about working at Dawn and why should anyone else get so excited about what you do?
“..we truly believe we are going to make a real difference in the world. And that's why we get out of bed every day.”
Maybe I'm biased. But I think this is an amazing adventure. Well, my dream and the dream of the other founders of the company to be able to work on this stuff and make a real difference. And we truly believe we are going to make a real difference in the world. And that's why we get out of bed every day.
Good stuff. Now you're sort of early childhood of making stuff and then eventually this is just kind of naturally progressed into, we'll not naturally, you've had to make some very deliberate decisions to go move to the other side of the world.
But if you were thinking about speaking to the younger version of yourself or anyone else that is starting to consider the career journey, has there been any really good career advice that you've received, or anything else that you would share for other people that are thinking about what they might want to be doing next?
She told me not to let school get in the way of my education.
There's actually one that my mum, I'll steal from her piece of advice that she gave me. Actually, in arguing and trying to get me out of school to be able to go travel the world with them, in this case around the states. They didn't want to let me get out of school, for I think it was like six weeks or something that, I needed to get out of school.
She told me not to let school get in the way of my education. So, that doesn't necessarily mean that school is a bad idea to stop your education but it's a recognition that school is only a part of your education, and that everything else you do in your life plays a huge role in teaching you how to build a business or how to follow your dreams or your passions or whatever.
School is a foundation for that. But everything else is also a major contributor.
It's incredible advice from mum! We've had a couple of people that have had some real nuggets of wisdom from the mothers as well, so that's certainly one to add to the list. It's not the only place you should be learning. And I suppose that must be what you look for a lot of the time when people are applying. What are they doing outside of those traditional education institutions, terms of their own projects and what have you?
Absolutely, showing initiative is so important.
Good stuff. Hey, we're gonna leave it there for today. But I can't thank you enough for taking the time to chat with us. I think what you guys are doing is beyond incredible and just super exciting to hear from someone that is so deeply involved in terms of the ideation right through to where you are today.
So, I know everyone else that gets a chance to listen to this will greatly appreciate it. And yeah, we really do. Thank you for your time.
Yeah, thanks, Greg. It's been great to talk.