MBA Student Powers Up Space Technology with Kickstarter Campaign and New Start-up Venture

Shannon Beeman
December 17, 2013

Simon Halpern, BSE ’03, MSE ’04, MBA ’14, has had his sights set on an entrepreneurial career in space technology since he was a youngster. Now he is closer than ever to reaching his lifelong goal.

This fall, Halpern managed the launch of a $50,000 Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign to support the building, testing and flying of the new CAT engine, a specialized rocket propulsion system being developed at the University of Michigan’s Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory, or PEPL, to power small, low-cost spacecraft, or CubeSats, around outer space. Concurrently, Halpern created a new business venture focused on the commercial satellite space. His business model for the Motor City Rocket Shop revolves around the designing, building and sales of CubeSats and satellite equipment as well as the collection and marketing of data about space weather patterns, transportation and asteroid trajectories.

“We’re at an important inflection point as a country and a society where ordinary individuals are starting to contribute to scientific and commercial space technologies − something that in the past was the closely held purview of a few governments,” Halpern says. “As we start to democratize access to space and unlock the possibilities of space research and exploration, it will prove empowering to ‘citizen explorers’ who have an opportunity to fund space projects and even conduct their own space experiments.”

Right now, all systems are go for both of Halpern’s endeavors. The Kickstarter campaign for CAT, launched Nov. 25, has far exceeded its $50,000 fundraising goal, attracting pledges from 900 backers of nearly $70,000, with more than a week remaining until it ends on Dec. 20. U-M Aerospace Engineering faculty members Ben Longmier and James Cutler are overseeing the development and testing of prototypes of the CubeSat Ambipolar Thruster (CAT) at PEPL. They will use the additional crowdfunding to accelerate research, purchase more sophisticated equipment and put CAT into Earth orbit on a CubeSat. “This thruster engine is revolutionary because it is solar-powered, uses unpressurized water as a fuel and is highly efficient,” Halpern explains. “It will only work in space, so it will be carried up by a rocket or launched from the International Space Station.” The ultimate aim of the R&D project is make space exploration more affordable by propelling miniaturized equipment to new locations beyond Earth at a cost far below that of conventional satellites, he adds.

Halpern also has started the countdown to the launch of the Motor City Rocket Shop. In early December, he pitched his business concept at round one of the Michigan Business Challenge and passed with flying colors. His next step is to assemble a multidisciplinary team to continue building the company and then prepare for round two of the MBC, with coaching assistance from the Zell Lurie Institute.

Halpern’s two U-M degrees in aerospace engineering and space systems engineering and his eight years as a space systems engineer at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems − where he worked on NASA, NOAA and U.S. Department of Defense satellite contracts – provided the technical underpinnings for his current entrepreneurial activities. However, Halpern acknowledges he lacked in-the-trenches business experience. That changed during a self-sourced summer internship at NanoSatisfi, a San Francisco company that offers affordable access to space through its open-source satellites. As a business-development intern, Halpern leveraged knowledge and skills from his first year at the Ross School of Business to build the business case for collecting and marketing data from space. He also participated in preparing two CubeSats for transport to the International Space Station in August for their inaugural launch on Nov. 19.

“The Gani internship allowed me to hone my business decision-making skills and execute on those decisions in a real company where I had significant impact on the trajectory of a start-up business’s growth and development,” Halpern explains.

Would he ever like to travel into space some day? You bet, Halpern says, adding: “It requires an amazing amount of engineering discipline to put things into space, and I appreciate the difficulty of it and the beauty of the results we get from people who have been there.”