"You should recommit to solving problems as energetically as you initially committed to solving them” - VC
Vanessa Clark & William Kowalski are the founders of Atomos Space, a venture backed startup focused on building the future of space mobility and logistics. Atomos is developing orbital transfer vehicles that reduce the cost of access to space by fostering greater ridesharing in launch vehicles which extends the useful life of a satellite. Atomos recently raised $5M led by Cantos Ventures.
Your mission is to create a much more dynamic and sustainable space ecosystem as we know it. What work are you doing to create that?
VANESSA: So our goal at Atomos is to make any orbit accessible. Obviously, there has been a lot of development in launch vehicles, with new launch vehicles coming online and costs dropping, but they’re really only reducing the cost to get satellites into very specific orbits in low Earth orbit. It still remains really expensive to go to some very specific orbits or higher or more energetic orbits. And part of the reason for this is how we do space operations: using a single-use launch vehicle that starts from the ground and has to carry all of its propellant and hardware with it from the beginning is not really a cost-effective solution. Think about a single-use aircraft flying a single passenger at a time. That is the modus operandi for space logistics today. We’re changing this by building and operating what we call orbital transfer vehicles, or OTVs. An OTV is a permanent piece of infrastructure in space. Our systems are launched once and then stay in space. Once the satellite is launched with a launch vehicle, our OTVs rendezvous and capture it and then move it to a higher orbit, just like a connecting flight in the airline industry. So this reduces the cost because we’re reusing systems. Furthermore, it allows cost sharing between multiple satellites, which can ride-share even if the satellites are going to different orbits – in doing so, it also alleviates a lot of the launch bottleneck. Lastly, We’re optimizing our propulsion systems to move just in space, not to get to space – meaning that we in addition to cost savings, we bring new capabilities and enable new types of missions not otherwise possible.
How are your OTV’s able to stay in space longer than a typical vehicle? How is it powered that it doesn’t have to go back and refuel on Earth?
VANESSA: We do have to refuel periodically, and we launch our propellant to space. So, a big part of the innovation that we’re bringing to the forefront is the ability to refuel. But critically, we are fielding the ability to rendezvous and capture payloads once they’re inserted into space. That really isn’t something that’s done at scale today or commercially, so this is definitely groundbreaking in the industry.
What typically happens to a satellite or different vehicles in space once it’s out of fuel?
VANESSA: The primary reason for satellites needing to be replaced is not because they break down; it’s because they run out of propellant. You had another co-founder of a similar company on your show recently, Daniel Faber with Orbit Fab, and they’re looking at refueling satellites. So a satellite that runs out of propellant is typically dead in the water. Even though it doesn’t need the propellant to stay in space, it needs the propellant to continue operations. When a satellite launches to space today, in a lot of cases it launches with a full propellant tank, and then it immediately uses more than 50 percent of that propellant to get to its operational orbit. With our services, we allow them to outsource that. So rather than using their propellants getting to their final destination to start operations, they can save that propellant for prolonged operations or more sustainable operations, such as collision-avoidance maneuvers or more sustainable disposal maneuvers that prevent the buildup of debris.
WILLIAM: People think of space as things just floating around and orbiting the planet. But there are a lot of forces acting on them, and satellites need to be in a very specific place pointing in a very specific direction to work as designed. And as they’re orbiting, the gravity from the moon is affecting them. Even the light from the sun, the solar pressure, is affecting where the satellite is, and it’s pushing it, moving into new directions. So the satellite constantly has to use propellant to make sure it’s staying in place, or the vernacular in the industry is station keeping.
Your backgrounds are very different and unique. What led both of you to co-founding Atomos Space?
VANESSA: My background is aerospace engineering. I worked in launch vehicle propulsion design, then in-space satellite propulsion and mission design, really looking at interplanetary missions. And then I went back into the launch vehicle design. Working in those different sectors, you realize that we’re designing launch vehicles based on what we think satellite manufacturers are going to build and where they want to go in the next few years. Then you hop on the other side of the fence, and as a satellite designer, you’re like, “Oh, what launch vehicles are available? I’m going to design my satellite and my mission around what’s available.” And so the two are coupled in this doom spiral, and the resulting satellites and launch vehicles are mediocre. A couple of companies are looking to break the mold and break out of this rut, like SpaceX with Starship. But I saw that when I was working in the industry years ago and wanted to change it. In 2017 I started to take it seriously and went looking for a co-founder and was introduced to William.
WILLIAM: My background is very different than Vanessa’s. I had a varied professional background as a funeral director for eight years, then transitioned into finance and led investment due diligence for a wealth-management team for a number of years. I always had a passion for space and physics. When I was in high school, I ran my own website on theoretical physics. I’m kind of a guy who will through the night watching videos on YouTube: PBS Spacetime, Silence Asylum . . . I love those types of things. I just professionally went in a different direction. So when Vanessa and I were introduced to each other, she was looking for someone who had more of a business background because space is very capital intensive. It does require a lot of funding, smart use of money, where are we allocating resources. So I said, “I’m still young. It’s a great opportunity. Why not try it and make a foray into something I’ve always had a passion for.”
It’s hard enough to build a company focused on the earth let alone a space company. But you’re going after really challenging problems in space. How do you approach really complicated problems?
VANESSA: I can talk about my approach and my philosophy, but William and I are also very different in how we achieve things. I am definitely more of a long-term thinker, for example early in my career, realizing that things were suboptimal and that maybe we should take a clean-slate approach to space logistics. I always start with the end state of mind: what would be optimal if we could spend ten years and a billion dollars building this? And then dial back from there. What is feasible with a more reasonable amount of capital, and what is the perfect end state?
So reverse engineer it?
VANESSA: Exactly. That’s my approach. That’s one thing that we’ve followed as a company. Our first mission, launching in about eighteen months, is a really big step for us as a company and demonstrating our services to customers and then starting commercial services. But every technology on that spacecraft is something that can scale something into something bigger and better or that’s pathfinding to something that we want to accomplish later on. That’s how I approach things. I try to take a blue-sky approach and reverse engineer it. William, however, is much more detail oriented.
WILLIAM: I’m more detail oriented, more let’s-analyze-this-a-little-bit, which is how Vanessa and I balance each other out. Additionally, I take the approach -which is why I think we make a good team -of let’s start at “what is the worst situation that can happen, and how do we protect against that?”
In the entrepreneurial journey, you need a lot of people around you to give you advice and support. In the space industry are people really collaborative where you can seek out help in what you’re building and get advice?
VANESSA: Yes. I think we have a really great group of people around us, who range from chief engineers and CTOs at other space companies to space entrepreneurs who have successfully exited before. One thing that we do in building our network of advisers is look at people we admire and people who’ve accomplished similar things to what we want to accomplish and make sure that they are the people that we spend our time with and that they’re people we’re listening to.
WILLIAM: Yeah, the space industry is small. It’s not tiny, but, generally, a lot of people know each other, and you have a lot of connections to a lot of other companies. I think one of the other interesting things about the industry is that sometimes you have to take advice on the technical side with a very large grain of salt because you do have a lot of people who are like, “Well, I tried this twenty years ago, and I couldn’t get it to work. Therefore, you, young’un, will never be able to get it to work. So why even bother?” Finding the people who have the experience to have done it but are still optimistic about the future is really where we try to focus our adviser brain-space.
You probably have a lot of people who say, “Here are all the reasons that it’s not going to work,” and then you have to stay optimistic and say, “Here are the reasons we believe it will work.”
VANESSA: There’s a piece of advice that I got pretty early in my career. I had a meeting with a manager who was a couple of levels above me, and they disagreed with my ideas and thought what I was attempting would fail. I remember talking to my mentor about it, and she responded, “Oh, about his background -did you know he attempted this twenty years ago and failed?” And so sometimes you have to be able to sort out how much this person is reflecting themselves and trying to justify to themselves why they failed rather than actually giving you relevant criticism. This is why first, if you’re getting advice, you really need to dive in and understand, ok, why are you telling me this. The second thing is looking at that person and listening, a little bit more and a little bit clearer, if they’ve accomplished great things because having successes under their belt definitely gives them a better perspective, and that’s the type of person that I would tend more to listen to than a standard naysayer.
On that same note, what has been some really good advice you’ve received on this journey so far?
VANESSA: Well, my answer was exactly that: how to accept advice because you will get overwhelmed by it. Another thing that I think any startup founder is told really early on is to listen to your customers. Going out and talking early to customers, really deeply understanding their pain points, is critical to the entrepreneurial journey and building a business that’s going to be sustainable.
WILLIAM: I would say two things. One is highly tactical, but the first one is just learning to be comfortable with making definitive decisions as quickly as possible. We just have to say, “All right, this is what we’re going to do, and we’re going to go forward,” and just learn how to do that cycle faster and faster. I never truly appreciated the whole idea of decision fatigue until being in a startup. It’s a real thing, where at the end of the day, at the end of the week, it’s just “I don’t care. Somebody just deliver me food tonight.” And then the second one, from a real tactical experience that we’ve learned a few times, if you’re negotiating something with someone and you’re having trouble getting past legal documents, stop dealing with the attorneys and just get on the phone with the businessperson because usually there is a miscommunication going on somewhere.
Earlier you said that you painted the picture ten years from now of what the grand vision for Atomos Space is — can you describe what that looks like?
VANESSA: Well, our first two systems are launching at the same time in about eighteen months. We’re scaling up the fleet because that’s what we’re building, essentially—a railroad in space. With a ten-year time horizon, we’ll be operating between five and twenty of these systems. Our vision is that, first, primary propulsion and large maneuvers start to be outsourced by satellite operators. And secondly, we want to start to enter new markets and allow our customer base to see that there are more opportunities, orbits that they couldn’t get to or afford to get to before suddenly become open to them for business operations. There are also a couple of really exciting segments that we’re looking forward to enabling. One is a commercial human presence in space. NASA is obviously putting a lot of money into this through their commercial LEO Destinations program. But we’re looking forward to servicing and helping with the affordability of commercial, habited space stations in Earth orbit and beyond. The last thing that we want to enable that’s going to start in ten years is commercial operations beyond Earth’s sphere, and beyond the moon. What can we really do outside of our little blue dot?
As you’re growing Atomos, you’ve got a lot of different responsibilities. You probably have very different approaches to your week. How do you tackle the week?
VANESSA: We’re a little more agile with how we approach each week. There are two tools that we really use a lot. One is a kanban board. It will be set up our priorities for a week, what we’re doing today, what’s on hold, what’s completed, and it’s actually a whiteboard with sticky notes on it. It’s very visual, and it’s also very satisfying when you peel one sticky off from the “Doing” column to the “Completed” column. The other tool that I use is making sure that I’m spending my time correctly - we do a lot of time tracking. As a CEO, I have four big buckets of things that I should be doing that are high leverage that keep the company moving, and I make sure that I spread my time appropriately amongst those four.
WILLIAM: For me as the COO, my day-to-day is a little bit more tactical. I like to say I’m one of the firefighters of the company. So it’s generally figuring out solutions to more immediate problems: paying this person, making sure we’re getting money here, where did this really expensive piece of space hardware that we just bought go, is it currently stuck in customs? . . . I manage a lot of my day through my email. I have a very systematized way, and they’re in certain folders. I’ve written a lot of my own code, so I can just do it from my keyboard and things get moved. This email has to get done tomorrow, and this one is this week, and I’ll write emails to myself: “Do this thing tomorrow,” or “Here are things I have to do in the morning.” And that was more of a learning from my previous job in finance because we were heavily email dependent. We used a lot of email. I developed muscle memory, and that’s how I keep track of my day-to-day.
Vanessa, you said you track your time because you really want to be spending a lot of time in certain areas. What are those areas?
VANESSA: So as CEO, there are really four. I have to add the caveat that right now I’m also spending quite a bit of time being the program manager, which is my background, and also doing commercial business development. So those aside, I have four priorities as CEO -
One is setting the vision. This doesn’t take that much time but articulating it and reinforcing it does.
Second thing is building and retaining a great team. This is not just one-on-ones with team members, and this is not just hiring. This is also thinking a lot about the culture and how we can reinforce good behaviors.
The third thing that falls on my plate this year is making sure we have money. William obviously supports this a lot, but fundraising is time consuming for a pre-profitable company, so that’s what we’re really spending 75 percent of our time on right now.
Then the last thing that I do as CEO is a little bit of pathfinding, so experimentation, going out, talking to customers, getting feedback, talking to investors, getting feedback, talking to William and the engineering team, and trying new operations. So, I’m pathfinding everything from revenue and market segments to how we actually build and operate our systems.
Outside of nine-to-five, one thing that I’m really trying to work on is to learn the skills to be the CEO that our future company needs. As we raise more money, as we realize more services, we’ll become a lot bigger than our current headcount, and I want to make sure that I’m equipped to manage a company of that size.
Do either of you have a favorite book?
VANESSA: The book that we recommend to everyone is The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz.
WILLIAM: I have a different one. This was a book that I was just very surprised at how much I liked it, and it was a phenomenal leadership book, which was Call Sign Chaos, General Mattis’s biography. I thought it was phenomenal.
What makes it so good?
WILLIAM: I never really knew his perspective on things and how he led when he was a four-star in the marines, and I think a lot of the stuff he tried to instill is analogous to what we’re trying to do. So, some of the things he talks about are, you know, how they recruited for attitude, not aptitude. People can learn how to do certain skills, but they have to be the right person and have the right mindset to really be doing the things that you want to be doing.
Do you have a favorite quote?
VANESSA: One thing that I struggle with is that I tend to be a people pleaser, and so I picked a quote that I look back to constantly to remind myself that I can’t always do that. It’s a George Bernard Shaw quote:
“The reasonable person adapts themselves to the world; the unreasonable one persists to adapt the world to themselves. Therefore, all progress depends on unreasonable people.”
So I go back to that and remember: You know what? Sometimes I have to be unreasonable. I can’t make everyone happy. I’m going to disagree with a lot of people, but I have to do that to enact change.
Any parting advice for other founders?
VANESSA: One thing I was reminded of over the past couple of weeks, which were particularly tough, and that’s you should recommit to solving problems as energetically as you initially committed to solving them. So that energy that made you leave your day job, go out without health insurance or without much savings or network, that energy and that attitude you have to come back to and recommit to the problem that you’re solving frequently because it’s a marathon. It’s going to take a lot of effort to get there. Remember to pause and recommit.
WILLIAM: I think it’s a common saying, but I think it’s really important, and it’s something we’ve done quite a few times at Atomos: you have to be in love with the problem, not the solution. We have pivoted on some underlying technologies a number of times because we are focused on in-space transportation. We started with a specific technology, but that has adapted as the company has grown, and usually, companies that don’t make it very far in the early days don’t make it because they are a solution looking for a problem.