February 3, 2024
20 min

FedTech Innovator Podcast: Mike Grace from Longshot Space

Introduction: Welcome to the FedTech Innovator Podcast, where we talk about all things Deep Tech, innovation, entrepreneurship, and R&D. Now let's get started.

Ben: Alright, well, welcome to the FedTech Innovator Podcast. I'm Ben Solomon; I'm the Founder and Managing Partner of FedTech. We are really, really pleased to be with Mike Grace here today as the CEO of Longshot Space. We get to see a lot of cool companies at FedTech, but — man, oh man — this is a cool company. This is one that our staff routinely talks about.

Mike, I've heard about you many times ahead of this — all good things — but maybe just a quick intro. Tell us what you're working on and then, just a little bit of also your personal story, if you don't mind.

Mike: Sure, no problem. Well, first off, thanks a lot for inviting us on. So, I'm Mike Grace; I'm the CEO. My co-founder, Nathan "Nato" Saichek is the CTO, downstairs working on the thing. We're building a novel hypersonic accelerator. This is a big tube that sits on the ground that shoots stuff out of it going really fast that is kind of loosely inspired by actually some superweapons dating back to like World War II.

And the short-term goal of the company — the thing that we want to build — would basically take like payloads of a few hundred kilograms, up to mid- to high- hypersonic speeds. So, you're talking like Mach 5 to Mach 15. And that would be useful.

Ben: Perfect analogy here.

Mike: This is basically a giant potato gun for shooting stuff at hypersonic speeds.

Yeah, that's a perfect analogy. It immediately gets across what we're building up, because our system is actually totally pneumatic. It's entirely driven by compressed air. That's a big feature, because anybody who has ever attempted to fill out an environmental impact statement knows that the second you bring hazmat materials out into somewhere, you make building the thing a lot harder. So, we've worked really hard to sort of — from the ground up — conceptualize and design our system so that it consumes electricity, it uses air as the fluid that does the pushing, and it lets stuff go in that set.

So, the near-term goal is to assist people who want to do technology development for hypersonic systems. That could be: if people want to build thermal protection systems, guidance, propulsion, or whatever, at some point in the development cycle of those systems, you have to actually fly. You must actually show that they work in the actual atmosphere.

And right now, the only way to do that, is to buy pretty powerful rockets, particularly if you're testing something that's like a full system, a big thing, you've got to put it on top of a rocket. Those rockets might cost tens of millions of dollars, even if it's not going to space, they're kind of going to the edge of space. So, you know, we're building a particular gun, we think we could achieve comparable velocities in the atmosphere for $100,000 — something along those lines — and also do it a lot faster.

Right now, there's loads of anxiety with respect to China developing a lot of hypersonics capabilities. Their cost of labor is about a tenth of ours and they're able to build stuff really quickly and really efficiently. And there's some anxiety about effectively losing a hypersonics arms race to them, which would potentially — in one fell swoop — negate the advantage of the United States Navy. So, that's a big anxiety inside of the Department of Defense. It's not just that they want to build a better hypersonic system; they want to build a system for building better hypersonic systems.

Ben: Huge, huge priority.

Mike: Yeah. So, it's a big priority. We just lucked out, actually. That was — I think — the long-term goal. Longshot is very focused on putting stuff into space. What we realized is the thing that we would need to build — the potato gun we would need to build to put a satellite into space — is huge. It's physically massive. The company's called Longshot for a reason. This thing would be kilometers long, which is a feature in some ways; you want to get the maximum force of acceleration down and you do that by basically making the accelerator longer.

However, try and convince somebody to give you money to go out and build a multiple kilometer, gigantic, never-before built thing; it's really hard. So, what we realized is that by going for hypersonic tests, we can build something that's an order of magnitude smaller and serve this really pressing need to DoD.

Ben: Sure.

Mike: So right now — as I'm sitting here speaking to you — we're downstairs banging away on a Mach 5 hypersonic prototype here in Oakland which shoots a safe that we filled with concrete. It's awesome.

Ben: Yeah, I've seen some videos of that.

Mike: That's great. Super fun times.

Ben: One question; I think the audience is going to be really interested. So, can you describe a little bit of the economics and putting stuff in space? You obviously see SpaceX and others get a lot of attention, where's the potential cost-saving that makes your technology so exciting?

Mike: So, I want to say with regards to SpaceX that — in my opinion — they're the only company that matters in space, they're the only company that matters in space. Frankly, anybody who has a business plan by which they say, "I can potentially make billions of dollars in space", must contend with the fact that if they do, Elon Musk is just going to compete with them. I mean, right now, if you were a telecommunications operator looking down the barrel of Starlink, and what that could become in the next five to ten years, you should be shaking in your boots.

So, space launch is both an incredible multiplier to the cost of doing anything in space. Any advantage in space launch means that if your space launches are cheaper, you can build your satellites to be cheaper and more expendable, they become cheaper and it's this virtuous cycle. And the inverse is true; the more expensive launches, the more expensive everything else becomes. What SpaceX is doing is super important and super impressive, and everybody should be pulling them for the future of humanity. If I was competing with them and I was a rocket company, I would be terrified; I've said this for a long time.

Ben: What's different? Is it that the market dynamics have just changed so much? Or what?

Mike: There's kind of a conventional wisdom out there that it's not a good idea to try and compete generally with SpaceX; I don't think that's true. I do think that there's a nuance there, which is that if you are trying to compete in space launch, and you look like SpaceX did 10 years ago, like you're building some kind of equivalent to the Falcon 1 — some small rocket? You've got a serious, serious problem on your hands. You can't compete with SpaceX — the company that they are today — by trying to replicate half the success that they executed on 15 years ago.

It's that they exist. It's that they exist, that they're there, and they have a headstart. If SpaceX had existed 15 years ago, there's no way Elon Musk ever would have been able to start a rocket company, right? There is an incredible physical advantage to a rocket just being bigger, like physical size makes rockets more efficient. So, there was a small entry point where you could make an argument that you could build a small rocket and compete and that was because the market — broadly — in the 1990s, 2000s was so bad. That's gone. That is totally gone.

I think that a lot of launch companies out there — I'm not going to make friends saying this — but I think that companies like Astra, companies like Rocket Lab, to the degree that those companies survive, it will be because their customers, like Department of Defense or people inside of the EU who want there to be a diversity of commercial options. So, they will effectively subsidize those.

In terms of pure cost component? If you're just talking about what's going to be the king of rockets for the next whoever knows how long, it's clearly SpaceX. It's clearly SpaceX. I believe they're gonna get their Super Heavy to work. I think that it's gonna knock everything out of the park; it's gonna be great.

Now, the reason why I think there is a caveat on al this is that rockets are fundamentally really, really hard. And I think that they're not actually the best way of putting stuff into space. Flat out, I don't think they're very good at it. The most efficient rocket ever in the world flown to date, I think that the Saturn V actually still retains the mantle. That might be SLS.

Ben: Really?

Mike: But it was simply because it was the biggest rocket that ever been flown up to then. It had delivered about 1.5% of its total mass to space. So, you build the skyscraper and you get something the size of a couple of school buses into space. That's it.

Fundamentally, if the thing that does all the work, like the rocket is, this is a skyscraper. It's a huge piece of infrastructure both for storing a bunch of cryogenic propellants, and it has to combine them in a very particular way. And it has to fly. And it has to carry the payload. Because it has to it all has to be super light, that makes it super challenging.

If the thing that does the work itself never has to fly, it's very different ballgame from an engineering standpoint. I can solve my engineering problems by adding concrete. That's a completely valid solution for my launch system. That's not true for a rocket; you're never going to fill in the gaps with extra concrete and mild steel. It's not there. The thing that I'm building looks a lot more like and has the engineering margins of a civil engineering project. It's much more like building a bridge than it is like building this extremely exquisite piece of aerospace technology.

Ben: Is there a world where even the types of payloads that your company could be launching will be dramatically different than what SpaceX is launching and what they've developed?

Mike: I'm skeptical that we will ever get the fairing size that SpaceX has. I think of the Super Heavy that they're working on right now. It's had many names past: Super Heavy, Starship, whatever you want to call it. I can't remember what they're calling it right now, but it's got a nine-meter fairing. I don't think we're going to get there, but I do think that we're probably going to have a maximum two-meter fairing size.

Ben: Maybe explain that a little bit.

Mike: So, that's basically: what is the diameter of the payload you can potentially set? So nine meters — you could just park a couple of cars back-to-back in there, no problem. You could throw a bus into it; it's cool. You take the whole thing that way lengthwise. Our system? That will never be the case. Also, our system — even if we make it really long, we build the thing to like 5, 6, 7, 10 kilometers long — it's never going to be the case that we're going to launch people out of our system.

Ben: Why's that?

Mike: The accelerational forces are too high. So, a rocket accelerates over the height of the entire atmosphere and then out into space. So, it's accelerating over the course of hundreds and hundreds of miles, right? Now, if you cut that in half, the maximum g-forces you would feel for the same amount of acceleration would double, right? So, if you go from accelerating over 400 miles or 200 miles, instead of feeling like two or three G's, you might feel seven or eight G's.

Now, in our system? The thing is: to get to space, it's all about the top speed. It's all about the speed that you get to. So, we have to go to the same speed they're going, but we do it on the ground over the course of a few miles like one or two miles as opposed to hundreds of miles. So, the accelerational forces experienced might be on the order of— for like the eventual launch system we would like to build — a few hundred. You might be talking about 500 G's. For you and I? Not comfortable. But your cell phone, for instance, can survive about 900 G's. So, we think that we get to the point where it's like 500, 600, 400 G's. Most satellites that can survive a vibe table, those vibe tests they put satellites through? They'd be just fine.

There's a really important point here, which is why do this in the first place? Why be interested in chucking stuff into space? Every person you send to the moon, to Mars, or to a Deep Space Colony — for the long term, like if you want to send people to stay — you might end up having to send 100 tons of food, fuel, habitat, tools, equipment, consumables per person to get things started. It's going to be a while before they can live off the land. Early settlers to the New World were not able to live off the land; they relied on constant shipments from Europe. There was literally free food and air here just lying around. There were people they could trade with. If you want to actually establish a long-term human presence on the moon, on Mars, you're going to be sending stuff for a long time. So, for a 100 kilogram human being, you're talking about hundreds of tons of material. It is absolutely critical if we want that to be part of a human future, that the price of sending stuff to space be dirt, dirt cheap.

I think we're probably going to need rockets for the foreseeable future for launch people, right? It's difficult for me to imagine a different way of doing it. There are some things, but I think that's tough. But if we can use a gigantic, air-breathing potato gun to launch stuff into space and drop the price by a couple of orders of magnitude as a result, all of a sudden, the actual material that the colony is built out of becomes affordable. You can actually afford to send people to space. That's what gets me out of bed in the morning. That's why I do launch.

Ben: Taking that thread a little bit. You're literally the quintessential deep tech founders. We love founders at FedTech. Tell me a little bit about just your personal journey. When I looked at your bio, it's like — holy smokes — you've had a lot of different chapters of life. Give a quick walkthrough and then just tell me kind of what you learned in each phase that builds upon each other.

Mike: Sure! So, let's see. I grew up super poor and then I joined the Army because I had no way to pay for school. Also, 9/11 happened, so felt like a good thing to do; it's time. I was a combat engineer. I kind of wish I joined the Air Force in retrospect, but I was a combat engineer and a paratrooper. I went to Afghanistan a couple times. I got out and went to school. I studied economics initially. Bizarrely enough, while I was getting that degree, I — through a series of weird events and a YouTube video I made where talked about my interests in space biology and Mars — I ended up getting an internship at NASA Ames Research Center here in California. I drove across the country in two days and slept on a friend's couch for a summer while doing that. Then, I never went back to North Carolina. I was basically fixed here in Mountain View. I lived in a bunch of co-ops. I actually used to live with the folks who went on to found Planet; I was there when they built their first demo satellite in the garage. It was super cool just being a fly on the wall watching that happen. Robbie, Jesse, and Chris Boshuizen doing that, way back in the day, and now it's a billion dollar company. So, I think that the transition from North Carolina to California is super, super important. I got incredibly lucky in that I was looking for a cheap place to live while I was interning at NASA Ames and I found this house that was packed full of like 11 absolutely extraordinary people.

Ben: The peninsula is not an easy place to find cheap housing — and around NASA Ames — does not usually go hand-in-hand.

Mike: No, it doesn't. But I was sleeping on a bed in a room with five other beds in it, right? That's how that works. I was the guest room and then somebody moved out later. I got a full time offer position at Ames as a technician. I stayed and I was able to move into a room at the house. A lot of things were just straight-up luck. I met my wife working at NASA Ames, my now wife.

Ben: How long were you at NASA? How many years?

Mike: Actually, I finished my bachelor's degree and my master's while working at Ames. So like another five years?

Ben: Oh, wow. Okay. When did the entrepreneurial bug start to bite you? I'm just curious.

Mike: I'd been nursing a bunch of different startup ideas while I'd been going to school. After my bachelor's degree, I actually went and I worked at Deep Space Industries. I also part-timed at a company called Halcyon Biotech. I kinda bounced between space and biotech a bunch. My master's degree ended up being in molecular biology, because of my interest in biology; I was working at a Space Biosciences lab at NASA Ames.

But I knew that I wanted to start a company. I worked out of Deep Space. Deep Space didn't work out; that company ended up folding up shortly after. I went back to school and got my master's in molecular biology. And then at the end of that, I'm now in my "I've been working, I've been going to school, I've worked at other people's startups." I was in my mid-30s and I was like, "If I'm going to do the founding thing, pull the trigger. I gotta pull the trigger." So I'm incredibly grateful to my wife who stuck it out. She basically supported me through the master's degree and was willing to give me six months of not getting paid. She's incredible. You have to have to have some runway like that if you're going to do a startup.

Ben: I think it's an underappreciated initial investor, right? Our spouses? When we started FedTech, the same way. Yeah, my wife was the first. She invested in her belief that there could be a future.

Mike: Yeah, no, totally true. I owe so much to her in doing all this. And it was brutal, it was certainly brutal. So, I had the incredible timing to basically try and incorporate Longshot just as we were starting to hear about this weird flu thing happening in China, which then evolved very rapidly into the COVID-19 crisis. I was trying to raise pre-seed — I'd say. Friends and family money at a time when nobody was investing. Literally places were just shut.

Ben: The world was ending, yeah.

Mike: Yeah, the world was ending, so it was a really hard time. My original co-founder changed course and I did manage to find somebody who basically put in $30,000, and then we lived off that $30,000. We did work and lived off that $30,000 for a year, just about.

Ben: I always get fascinated by that — that first jump. The batters make it into the water, because we see a lot of founders. It's hard to even know how to structure your time, really. What is the focus, right? Is it raising money? Is product?

Mike: At the very beginning, the company was a pitch deck, right? I was working on a pitch deck. I remember the early versions of it; it was terrible by my current standards. The company is an idea and the company has a pitch deck and the two early products we came up with — products when you're a pre-seed and your concept levels company — are a white paper that went over the technicals that said, "This is the back-of-the-napkin physics of how this thing is we're proposing work, and why we think it can work." And then here's the pitch deck that couches that into the terms of how you would actually approach venture capitals. Those were the things that we basically worked on building up to over the course of many months. They were terrible. I feel like I took a lot longer to get them where they get to be, because I couldn't get meetings with people, right? I think that the quality of feedback that you get from in-person rejection is actually better than what you get off a Zoom call.

Ben: Well, describe that a little bit.

Mike: I must have pitched dozens of people and you just have a polite end and "thank you". Then, you're ghosted and that's it. I didn't have a deep network. I wasn't able to go to parties and talk to people who I knew about this stuff. I was counting on being able to go talk to all the people that I knew would do startup stuff, but that wasn't happening.

Ben: Yeah, it's amazing. I definitely see that, too. Like the feedback you get in person, right? When they really want to show you the door? You feel that more and you kinda know where you need to pivot.

Mike: It's weird. I do think in some ways — in COVID and post-COVID — it's easier to get meetings in some ways, because the assumption is they're always going to be online. But then, they mean less at the same time. If you're looking to pitch investors, you can get your hands on them, but it's tough. Initially, for the first six months of the whole thing, we basically pitched the company as a launch company and going for space launch initially. We got absolutely no love on that, and then we pivoted towards hypersonics. And that was extremely fortuitous; we ended up pitching. We also had avoided going down the SBIR route, simply because they're time-consuming; they're their own thing. You can develop a whole skillset of being good at SBIR.

Ben: Oh, yeah.

Mike: And there are companies that do nothing but that. We did not respect those companies and did not want to become one of them. So, we did avoid that for the first six months. Once we switched over to hypersonics, we're like, "Okay, time to go for it." We got very lucky by making some good connections at AFRL, getting an MOU, and managing to secure a Direct to Phase II SBIR.

Ben: Can you explain a little bit just about how? I think that's an awesome program that has not been in existence too long. You guys are an example I think of when government people want to think through smarter ways to leverage the $2 to $3 billion a year that's in the SBIR program. It's like you guys are an example of how that can work well. So tell a little bit about kind of how that worked for you and what you're able to leverage that funding for.

Mike: So, I will say, I don't think that we would have gotten it if we hadn't run into Sam Riehn who runs a company called SBIR Advisors. He is one of a whole ecosystem of former SBIR reviewers who have now metastasized out to the private sector and sell their services for hire. They're owning out there for companies that want to write SBIR. I think we might have been his first customer at SBIR Advisors and he was great. He helped us actually write a grant that could get submitted and help submit it. I think that if we had tried it ourselves, we probably would have just messed the paperwork up. It can be an obtuse, intimidating process if you've never done it. I will say it's worth getting some help. I was really on the on the fence because we had no money so offering up some to get that help felt incredibly painful. We did it. It ended up being the right decision. There's no lick of luck in there, but I would not go back and change anything. We still use them; they're great.

Ben: Just curious, maybe describe what that looked like for you guys to even write the proposal? What was that process like? I meet a lot of technical founders who I try and encourage to pursue SBIR, but they just don't even know where to get started. I feel like they're submitting into a empty black box that there's never been any feedback from.

Mike: I just wanted to say that the most important thing about writing grants is that you as a technical founder —you as a founder of a company — you weren't possessed by this idea. You've got this idea. It's a brain worm. Your family hates that you keep talking about it. It's in you. You have to take your baby — and your baby's the shape of of a cube — and you have to hammer it into a round hole. A round hole is going to be whatever DoD is interested in right now, right? I guarantee you — if you're prepared to be creative about it — there's some way that the thing that you're working on is in fact incredibly important to somebody's mission inside of DoD.

You have to be able to go into long-term strategy documents issued by the Air Force, the Navy, or whomever, and say, "Okay, they're super, super interested in long-term soldier tele-mental health. That's where we are." You have to find the language that they use to describe those priorities and then you have to make your baby fit that language and then give it back to them. You must be able to read and understand what they want before you can write anything. If you just try and write them — the thing that you're interested in, even if it would actually address that need — they won't be able to hear it. They won't look at the paper and they won't read them.

Most of the people who are reviewing these things probably don't even have a technical background in the fields that they're reviewing; there's going to be some Second Lieutenant with a bachelor's in history or something along those lines. You have to be able to write to a lay audience, and you have to be able to couch it in terms — the exact terms and the exact language — the DoD is asking. That is critical. If you can do that, your odds are good, your odds are good. You can look at the basic odds for how many people are awarded grants out of how many apply? A lot of those people aren't following the advice I just gave you. If you do, it's maybe not quite 50/50, but close for a lot of things.

Ben: I heard interesting advice recently. Let's say you're submitting to a certain program. Like you're getting at, right? You can always find where these SBIRs are lining up within the DoD. They have websites. They have public reports. They have strategic plans. Somebody told me recently, "Hey, why not — in those opening paragraphs — put in a quote from whoever the commander of that particular group is and build the story in a way that resonates with people are reading if they want to do their job, if they want to support the mission...

Mike: The opening line of our award and Phase II SBIR was — I can't remember the exact words — but it was something like, "The price of labor for an aerospace engineer in China is XYZ. If we want to be competitive in hypersonics, we have to develop better, cheaper, faster ways of developing hypersonics or we're gonna get left behind." That was the opening line.

Also, don't bury the lede, explain at the very beginning. These people have read 30 of these this day, right? You have to explain in the simplest, clearest, eighth-grade reading-level way why you and what you're working on is critical to national defense. And it's critical to that particular branch and this particular call, why it's critical; do that upfront.

Ben: Yeah, it's great advice.

Mike: Don't bury the lede. They're not wanting to read. Give them what they want. Give the audience what it wants. Don't bury the lede and you'll do great. You'll do great.

Ben: Yeah, I see a lot of founders also delay that process rate. I always say literally lock yourself in a room for a long weekend, write the proposal, take a shot on goals. Don't wait until it sounds perfect.

Mike: I have advice there, too. It's really hard to hire aerospace engineers. It's super easy to hire a kid who just graduated with a degree in history. You know what people with a degree in history can do? Or a person with a degree in sociology or anthropology can do? They can write.

Ben: I was a history major.

Mike: Yeah. They can write.

Ben: It's all we can do.

Mike: There was a kid from two houses down the street who I knew had just graduated from Santa Clara University nearby, and he had a degree in history. I talked with him a couple of times, he'd like smart dude. Best hire I ever made.

Ben: What did you have him do specifically?

Mike: I started off, I was like, "Hey Brendan, I have no money. But if you want to help me write grants, and we get one, you got a salary, baby." Brendan worked for three months or four months with no pay. I was working for no pay at the time, as well. But, it sucked. Over the course of like the past year and a half, two years, Brendan has been the spackle that has filled in every hole in the company; he's basically runs our operations. I originally got him up to the point of — I can delegate a lot of the writing to him, right? I had to write the first. He watched me write the first one, we handled that. He began to understand how I was positioning.

I would just say that it's a great investment to have somebody with a background who is just a good writer. They can learn how to pitch. Right now, Brendan makes the first draft of all of our pitch decks; he cranks out the first. He works with SBIR Advisors directly. He also pays all of our taxes, does a lot of compliance, runs payroll. Get yourself a dude in the arts and make your life a lot easier running the company.

Ben: Love it. Okay.

Mike: So, I totally recommend that, as well. Don't try and do it yourself.

Ben: Yeah, that's great, Mike. I imagine when you when you sell people on the vision, it's hard to not get people wanting to be a part of it.

Mike: I've had to turn some folks away, which was a startling experience the first time. I was like, "Oh, Jesus, I can't just take everybody."

Ben: Yeah, yeah. Well, I want to get to one thing I always ask founders. To me, starting a company — starting a Deep Tech company — it's this journey and there's the mile markers on the journey that, if you look back are often easy to miss again. Just give the listeners here a little sense of two or three of those mile marker moments where it was good, bad, ugly, whatever it might be. But those moments that you sort of realize and learn something about this process of starting a company.

Mike: Building my first prototype was a fight with my original co-founder because he thought that the order of operations should be getting SBIR, then build a prototype when you have money. The trick was I think he was very raw. If I could go back in time, I would do it over again. The second I built my first prototype, I realized just how important it was to build something, anything. We built that prototype and had an operational with basically just me and Brendan working on it. Super critical — building the first prototype — is incredibly important, and I think it was decisive in getting us our money, our Air Force SBIR.

James joining the company was super critical, my original co-founder. I would not have started if he had not come along. I needed a co-founder.

Then, James quitting. Shortly after we got the Phase II SBIR, he was like, "I gotta go away." He had a one year old and he got a job offer. It was the right decision for him. That was heartbreaking for me in a way, and very demoralizing. On one hand, we got a bunch of money. On the other hand, I was all of a sudden twisting in the wind. I had no technical co-founder.

Ben: That's hard, yeah.

Mike: We did manage to recover from that, but it was tough. It was close thing. From there, it was getting our first investment from Space Fund. Actually, Megan Crawford at Space Fund was the first. The second I nailed down the grant, I basically started making phone calls to all the VCs, who had rejected me, but had been warm. They had liked it, but it wasn't one or whatever excuse they made up they didn't want to they didn't like it.

Ben: What would you say to reopen the door? Just curious. Like when you when you went back to them?

Mike: I said, "You told me that I should come back to you when I get some government money. And guess what? It's time. Time to invest. Put up or shut up." A lot of investors told us, "You're working on what's clearly going to be a very capital-intensive aerospace project. Why don't you go get some government money and come back?" That was very frustrating in the period before we had decided that we were going to do SBIR at all. So, Megan agreeing to lead the round was super important. Originally, we were just trying to match the three-quarters of $1 million we'd gotten from the Air Force. However, later,  Sam Altman swooped in.  So, three or four months after the round was open — and technically, if you look at the paperwork, open for a defined period of time and then it closes. A couple of weeks before the actual technical closing of a round, we got a call from Sam Altman through an advisor. He's the guy he's doing ChatGPT.

Ben: That's a pretty big name to just swoop in.

Mike: It is. He was like, "Yeah... How about we double the size of that round?"

Ben: Wow.

Mike: I said yes. I'm not gonna argue; I'll take it. So, he gave us another three-quarters of $1 million. So, we got $1.5 [million] from VC and three-quarters of $1 million from the Air Force. We later won some Phase 1's and a couple other little tiny pots, basically bringing that up to $1 million.

Ben: Wow, cool.

Mike: Yeah, that's let us build. We built a Mach 5 prototype out here of a completely novel way of pushing stuff, but hypersonic speeds. It's been thought about before, but it's never been built before; just these guys right here. I think that getting money from Space Fund, getting money from Sam, closing that round.

My new co-founder who's been a friend of mine for pushing 15 years now — Nato Sacha — him quitting Astra to come to this. That was a huge moment as well. As much as it hurt to have James go, it felt good to have Nato Come on. So, that was a super important moment. Yeah, I think those are the big milestones.

Our first actual test fire actually felt a little anticlimactic. There was so much tension around it. Our first test fire was really important and really cool, too. Right now, I'm hoping that in the next two or three weeks, we have another one which is going to be Mach 5. So, we're still inching our way up. Our last shot was at Mach 2.2 and we had to do some adjustments to our electrical systems before we hit Mach 5, which is the technical definition of hypersonic.

Ben: Okay, yeah.

Mike: I want to be a hypersonics company, so we gotta be hypersonic. And I think that's going to happen in the next couple of weeks. So fingers crossed.

Ben: Best of luck. I want to let you get back to whoever was doing the cutting. We should let them get back to finishing that piece; it's not gonna cut itself. So, I always ask — if you were gonna offer a tweet-size piece of advice you have for somebody that's a first-time founder, doing something technical, any piece of advice? If you could sort of boil it down to one thing.

Mike: You can apply for SBIRs while you have a real job. It's not a full-time job. Apply for SBIRs while you're getting paid by somebody else. You get the SBIR? Quit and you have a company on your hands. If you do in that order of operations, you'll save yourself a whole lot of pain, right?

Ben: Yep.

Mike: And you will develop the skill set of writing SBIRs before you actually have to go out there and try living on them.

Ben: Good advice.

Mike: Get somebody else to pay you while you're learning to write SBIRs. The second you get one, you're off to the races.

Ben: I love it. Thanks, Mike. This is great. Well, we'll leave it here. But I wish you guys the absolute best of luck. Thanks for being a part of our discussion today. Yeah, FedTech's 100% behind you guys.

Mike: I do want to say, another important milestone is going to FedTech, of course.

Ben: Oh, thank you. Okay.

Mike: We actually did meet a really important advisor from FedTech, I will say. We met a really important former Raytheon executive — Mark Bigham.

Ben: Absolutely. He's the best.

Mike: He's wonderful. Actually, we had him out here last week. I paid for him to fly up and he spent a day with us. I want to say that he's a super, super important advisor. I think the primary thing that we walked away from FedTech with and that's not nothing.

Ben: Good, glad to hear that. Yep. Mark's marks are the best. Absolutely.

Mike: Ben, thank you so much for this. This was this fun! Let's do it again in like a year or something like that.

Ben: Oh, yeah, anytime.

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