Leo Aerospace Journey: Market Validation to FAA Launch Approval
April 02 2019
April 2, 2019, by Purdue Foundry Media Squad
A startup founded out of Purdue University has taken research from a student organization and turned it into a funded aerospace company launching rockets off balloons and into space. Dane Rudy and four other co-founders are in the seed round of funding their company, Leo Aerospace. After a whirlwind journey, starting just four years ago, the 23 and 24-year old’s successfully launched their first test flights in the Mojave Desert early this year.
The team began their journey with guidance from the Purdue Foundry, working on customer discovery and market validation. Then in 2017, they received funding from the national I-Corp program. They used this opportunity to dive deeper into understanding their customers.
Dane Rudy, CEO and Co-Founder, described what it was like to connect with potential customers on a personal level.
“It was very captivating to see all these individuals with all these incredible ideas,” he said. The team wanted to find out how their technology could serve others’ needs, and that soon became apparent. “The big pattern that emerged was launch. It’s so hard to launch,” said Rudy of the results that emerged after 170 interviews.
Armed with all the information they needed, all five co-founders quit their jobs to work fulltime on their new company. To some, this may seem daunting, but that’s not how Rudy described it. For them, making that decision was never very difficult. “I was doing really cool work, and I enjoyed it,” he said.
They immediately began fundraising. There were several challenges to overcome as they pitched to potential investors. The aerospace industry is very capital and time intensive. They had to find the right investors.
“They needed to understand exactly how risky it is,” said Rudy. Nonetheless, they raised $300,000 from friends and family, angels, and venture capital in 2018.
However, with startups, your network is almost more valuable than your working capital. They worked to make connections in the aerospace industry, using Purdue as their launch pad. “Purdue has an incredible reputation in aerospace and that helps a lot,” said Rudy.
Things continued to move quickly as they built a reputation in California. The team decided they wanted to pursue an accelerator program, and in 2018 they were accepted to one in Australia. They packed up their things and moved to the outback for three months. They all shared a tiny, two-bedroom apartment for the duration of the accelerator. The less than glamorous accommodations didn’t stop them from getting every ounce of the experience though.
The accelerator helped them to set very specific goals for how they would spend their time. They reflected frequently to make sure they were hitting everything. This even included balancing personal life. Rudy made sure to mention that even in the fast-paced startup lifestyle it was important for them to take time to see some sights and enjoy Australia. But it was more work than play. The group worked with the Australian Space Agency extensively. This is a new endeavor for the county, so the co-founders were there watching Australians determine what they wanted from a space program. “They want space startups. It was really cool to see all these huge decisions being made on the future of their country,” said Rudy.
As the team collected their findings and headed back to the US, they faced yet another challenge. They had 8 weeks to design, test, and build their first prototype. A question loomed over them. Could they deliver?
They moved into a 2,000 square foot warehouse and got to work. The focused on iteration engineering, tearing down and rebuilding their prototype over and over again. “We literally tore down 3,000 pounds of hardware and rebuilt it 13 days before the test day,” said Rudy. Throughout all of this, it was just the team of five working together. The pressure was mounting, and communication was essential to their success. “Everyone has to be accountable for everything. The culture and the environment has to be so that people are willing to speak up in regard to anything. Everyone has to be involved,” explained Rudy.
After flight testing, Leo Aerospace received approval from the FAA to launch a private vehicle. This led to launches in the Mojave Desert that were very successful. Watching the launches was extremely gratifying for the team.
“I don’t know how to describe it. Pride, but also here’s what you learned and here’s what is next. When a big test like that goes off well it’s really gratifying, but we’re also always looking forward,” said Rudy.
What’s next for Leo Aerospace? Their goal is to reach the edge of space by 2020. They are currently raising money, hiring, and hitting milestones.
Follow the next leg of their journey: Website, Facebook, Twitter