The newly launched “Q Station” co-working space and business accelerator in Nob Hill is bustling with activity, although visitors there might not know it.
During a recent tour of the 9,000-square-foot center, which opened last April, only a handful of people were scattered throughout the sprawling facility, working quietly on iPads and laptops.
But, while not visible to visitors, dozens of individuals are now collaborating constantly through Q Station at any given time, linked together in cyberspace through Q Station’s array of business development services that aim to accelerate the growth of space-related companies, and of firms working on “directed energy,” or laser and microwave technology.
In fact, the center’s first accelerator program is well underway, having launched in October with a cohort of six early-stage space companies that now meet monthly online, and in frequent workshops and events between the monthly meetings.
Those meetups are helping unite the cohort teams with a broad range of local support organizations and individuals, said Randy Trask, New Mexico Trade Alliance president and Q Station executive director.
“Our teams cover every aspect of support that the companies need,” Trask told the Journal. “It’s an ‘a la carte’ tool box they can tap into through collective events and individual meetings that offer broad learning opportunities, resources and business connections.”
Q Station is basically a hybrid economic development center to help new and existing companies from New Mexico and elsewhere grow their businesses here, Trask said. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg in local efforts to expand New Mexico’s space-related economy.
Maturing business environment
The Nob Hill center is part of a broad ecosystem that’s now providing comprehensive public and private support to build the state’s nascent commercial space sector into a thriving industry.
That network includes an array of public and private agencies and organizations that have come together in recent years to make New Mexico a national hot spot for space-related development.
New Mexico has long been a key player in the space industry, with local development spurred largely by space-related endeavors at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, at White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico, and at the state’s national laboratories. Those federal entities have helped attract a formidable array of private companies to provide support services, including such large firms as Boeing and Northrop Grumman, plus small and mid-sized homegrown businesses.
Those activities, combined with advanced aerospace programs at the state’s three research universities, have created a huge pool of space-related talent in New Mexico.
And that, in turn, has converted the state into a key national hub for military efforts to modernize the nation’s space-based defense technology, and to build an industrial platform for emerging commercial space endeavors.
Those efforts have gained momentum as the U.S. strives to retain its leadership position in the 21st-century commercial space industry, through which governments and private industry across the globe are working to develop new technology for space exploration and human settlement.
In southern New Mexico, a growing number of companies are now independently creating new commercial space technology and services at Spaceport America, where Virgin Galactic is spearheading the development of space tourism for private individuals.
In contrast, in the Mid-Rio Grande Corridor, industry momentum is generally connected to the newly formed U.S. Space Force. That’s because key defense entities responsible for technology development and readiness, including the Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, and the AFRL-run Space Vehicles Directorate, are located at Kirtland.
Like NASA, which now relies heavily on private companies for products and services, the Space Force and the Air Force have both turned to the private sector to help build the technology needed to modernize the nation’s space defense systems.
To do that, they’ve created novel programs to boost commercial innovation through public-private partnerships, including business accelerators and incubators that help align commercial space development with defense needs, often leading to contracts for companies with promising technologies.
In New Mexico, those efforts have blossomed into a broad ecosystem that includes Q Station and other support programs for companies, with many public and private entities cooperating together on those programs in coordination with the AFRL.
The AFRL itself helped ignite those joint efforts by launching a Space Force Accelerator Program in 2018, which now includes a business development center for space-related companies in Colorado Springs.
In New Mexico, it created an annual Hyperspace Challenge accelerator program for select companies to learn about government needs and explore ways to align their technology development with those missions.
AFRL coordinates the Hyperspace Challenge in cooperation with the ABQid business accelerator run by CNM Ingenuity, which manages all of Central New Mexico Community College’s commercial endeavors. It culminates each fall in a “demo day” where participating companies compete for cash prizes.
Participating firms work directly with government scientists, engineers and mentors to learn about technology needs, design business plans to meet them, and explore funding and contract opportunities, said Space Force Accelerator Program Director Gabe Mounce.
To date, 49 companies have participated. About 70% of them later won contracts, received funding, or built new partnerships.
“It’s all about establishing connections between companies and government stakeholders to accelerate the development of technology through business innovation,” Mounce told the Journal.
This year, the Hyperspace Challenge was expanded to include universities in addition to private companies, allowing 11 university research teams to participate, including one from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro.
That program expansion can allow the Space Force to gain more access to academic research and expertise, while promoting networking among universities and private companies, said AFRL New Mexico’s Technology Engagement Office Director Matt Fetrow.
“The participants can learn from each other,” Fetrow told the Journal. “That can lead to new partnerships and possibly new startup companies.”
AFRL-backed tech hubs
Last year, the AFRL created a new entity, SpaceWERX, to further develop its support programs for space-related companies. That’s now the umbrella organization for Space Force technology innovation, said Mounce, who also serves as SpaceWERX deputy director.
Among other things, SpaceWERX administers the AFRL’s Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, funding for space-related companies seeking technology development grants. And it’s working to create innovation hubs in such key locations as Albuquerque, which led to Q Station’s establishment this year.
The AFRL contracted the NM Trade Alliance to operate Q Station. And the Trade Alliance and its partners – including the city of Albuquerque, the state Economic Development Department and Global Ties ABQ – won a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to support Q Station programs, including management of two accelerator cohorts per year, starting with the first one for space companies that began in October.
Two companies from New Hampshire and South Carolina are participating in the current cohort, along with four from other countries, including Germany, Italy and Singapore. Local firms could be selected for future cohorts, but the inclusion of companies from other states and countries gives the Space Force access to a much broader array of technology innovation, while allowing the Trade Alliance and its partners to bring new businesses and investment into the state, said Trask, the Alliance president.
“By supporting international companies, we’re addressing a niche opportunity that we don’t see happening in most other places,” Trask said. “These are companies that want to expand into the U.S. They need a lot of hand-holding, more so than domestic companies, on how to get set up and do business here.”
The inaugural “Soft Landing” space-tech cohort is specifically designed to ease entrance into New Mexico for out-of-state and foreign companies, providing comprehensive wrap-around services to help them get established here throughout the yearlong accelerator program. The Trade Alliance and its partners provide those services, along with many allied organizations also working to build the local space industry.
New Space NM, for example – an industry association that launched in 2018 – is providing networking and mentoring to connect Q Station companies directly with local resources, and other space-related public and private entities. That group now unites 138 New Mexico-based companies and organizations as active members in a “New Space Alliance” that’s working to build collaborative relations, mutual support and partnerships, said New Space CEO Casey DeRaad.
“We’re working with all six companies in the Q Station cohort to connect them with buyers and suppliers for their technologies,” DeRaad told the Journal. “We’ve met with each one of them, and we’ve already introduced some to large prime contractors and Space Force folks. We hope to organize a private investor showcase next March, where some of the cohort companies can present their technologies.”
The goal is to lay the operational foundations for the Q Station firms to remain in New Mexico and grow their companies here after the accelerator ends, Trask said. In fact, program participants are required to make Q Station their U.S. headquarters, register their business in New Mexico and have at least one employee working at the facility.
The companies receive free workspace there for a year, with a paid university intern assigned to them. And the program includes quarterly field trips to key space-related installations in New Mexico, including a tour of the AFRL at Kirtland, and an outing to Spaceport America and White Sands Missile Range next year.
“The goal is to make them think they shouldn’t leave New Mexico,” Trask said. “The onus is on us to make their experience here so positive and worthwhile that they don’t ever think of going somewhere else.”
The strategy is already working, said Q Station Program and Operations Director Alberto Solis. Equatorial Space Systems – a Singapore-based cohort participant that’s developing hybrid rocket propulsion systems that use a mix of solid and liquid fuels – is planning to move its entire operation to New Mexico.
“They’re in the process now of relocating their company to Albuquerque,” Solis told the Journal. “They want to do a launch next March from Spaceport America.”
Neutron Star Systems, another cohort participant that’s headquartered in Germany, officially incorporated a U.S.-based affiliate company – Neutro Star Systems USA Corp. – on May 31 after participating in the SpaceWERX accelerator program in Colorado early this year. It now plans to make New Mexico the permanent home for its U.S. affiliate, said Neutron Chief Technology Officer Marcus Collier-Wright.
“At Q Station, they’re rolling out the red carpet for us coming to New Mexico,” Collier-Wright told the Journal. “… We plan to set up our operations in New Mexico and stay there.”
The company is developing electric-based propulsion engines to maneuver systems that are already operating in space, which could significantly lower fuel costs and provide a lot more control capabilities for such things as in-orbit servicing of satellites or space-based assembly and manufacturing operations. In the long term, it plans to integrate its technology with nuclear power reactors to create advanced propulsion systems for cargo missions to the moon, Mars and beyond, said Neutron CEO Manuel La Rosa Betancourt.
“Q Station offers us a way to articulate this vision by facilitating connections to key players in the New Mexico ecosystem, which offers the unique combination of leading know-how on nuclear engineering, and a strong government presence,” Betancourt told the Journal in an email. “… Our main hope is to build a team of pioneer engineers in New Mexico that can help us realize this vision.”
Neutron also participated in this year’s Hyperspace Challenge, winning a third-place $10,000 prize at the Dec. 3 demo day. That provided immense company recognition among potential government customers, advancing its commercial prospects, while reinforcing its plan to operate in New Mexico, Collier-Wright said.
“One government contractor already got in touch with us as a result,” he said.
Unite & Ignite Launchpad
Q Station is generally geared toward startups and early-stage companies that need a lot of accelerator and incubator assistance. But later-stage firms that are nearing production, or already making products and generating some revenue, need an advanced level of support to fully transition from research and development into manufacturing, and then to scale their operations through revenue-generating contracts with government and commercial customers.
To assist those firms, AFRL and New Space NM have partnered to create the Unite & Ignite Launchpad, which will include two incubator facilities, or innovation hubs, next to Kirtland and the Albuquerque International Sunport. New Space received a five-year, $11 million AFRL contract last spring to build out and operate those facilities.
New Space inaugurated the first hub this summer, although it’s still putting the final touches in place for that 8,700-square-foot facility, located just north of the Sunport.
Apart from open collaborative spaces, offices and conference rooms, it will include high-tech equipment for small satellite manufacture, and for building, testing and evaluating space technology components and products. It will also include a clean room, New Space CEO DeRaad said.
It’s designated as an open, “unclassified” lab space where companies can do hardware demonstrations.
“It’s not for startups, but for next-level companies whose business concepts are already developed with initial technology prototypes, but who need infrastructure and direct customer connections to attract investment, and get to a higher level of technology and business readiness to scale up,” DeRaad said. “It’s for rapid prototyping and direct connections with stakeholders to ‘unite’ companies with suppliers, customers and others, and ‘ignite’ new technology development.”
A second, 15,000-square-foot innovation hub will be located at the forthcoming MaxQ mixed-use complex that Thunderbird Kirtland Development LLC is now building on the north side of the Air Force base to house space-related companies and other businesses. MaxQ could eventually concentrate dozens of high-tech firms together in office, laboratory, retail and manufacturing facilities on 70 acres of Kirtland property, stretching from Carlisle to Truman on the south side of Gibson.
New Space expects to open its MaxQ-based facility by year-end 2022, offering similar business development and networking services as its first hub near the Sunport, but with the addition of secure management protocols and space for tenants to work on classified projects, DeRaad said.
“A lot of mid-level firms are already planning to lease space there, plus one large, established company,” DeRaad said.
Taken together, the Hyperspace Challenge, Q Station and Unite & Ignite offer a full suite of accelerator and incubator programs and services for space-related companies at all stages to launch and grow their businesses here, Trask said. Hyperspace and Q Station are geared more to startups and firms in the early stages of building space products and services.
Hyperspace, which is mostly conducted online, provides broad outreach to attract local, national and international companies, and connect them with resources and potential customers. Q Station, in contrast, offers a permanent, physical hub with longer-term wraparound services to help firms get fully established in New Mexico.
Unite & Ignite helps businesses transition to the next level, from research and development to manufacturing operations.
“New Mexico has a huge research and development base in place that has attracted many companies here, but it’s hard for private companies to move from R&D contracts into manufacturing operations and jobs,” Trask said. “We see a real opportunity now to grow it all to that next level.”
The full-circle ecosystem unites public and private entities together across the board, from defense and other government agencies to educational institutions, private companies, economic development organizations and industry associations. And, in that sense, New Mexico is spearheading a “whole of government” approach – which is emerging at the national level to retain U.S. leadership in the global space industry – but, in this case, at the state level.
It’s also opened the gates that traditionally separate defense and other government agencies from civic and business organizations, allowing personnel from AFRL and other Kirtland-based entities to come out from behind the fence to collaborate directly with local industry and community groups, Trask said.
For now, the pandemic is still forcing most local programs and events to take place online, which conceals to some extent the bustling activities already underway at, for example, Q Station. But as coronavirus restrictions ease, Q Station will launch more open-group activities, including technology workshops, regular networking events, and such things as fireside chats with space-related experts, Trask said.