Innovation Transfer & Entrepreneurship
Two UC San Diego Aerospace Engineering Students Set Out to Speed up Spacecraft and Hardware Design
After working for SpaceX, Moon Express, the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and leading the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) chapter at UC San Diego, Darren Charrier and Faris Hamdi experienced the pain points of many engineers firsthand - that the design process for complex hardware was far too inefficient for the 21st century. They set out to create a platform to remove this inefficiency by centralizing calculations and analyses without forcing engineers to change their normal engineering and analysis tools. We sat down with CEO & co-founder Darren and Business Development Director Colby Tunick to learn more about one of UC San Diego’s up and coming startups, Voyager.
Colby and Faris (far right) with the Voyager team.
Tell us about how Voyager came to be.
Our journey started off with the NASA Cube Quest challenge where we designed a satellite to go around the moon. Faris and I led the UCSD SEDS team at the time and were one of the top teams in the nation. The two of us have been working together on large technical projects such as satellites and rockets for the past 4 years. Professionally, Faris has worked on building autonomous underwater robots for the Scripps Institute of Oceanography while I’ve had the opportunity to work at SpaceX and Moon Express working on rocket engines to power vehicles to the Moon and Mars.
One of the challenges we experienced time and again was that the process of designing complex hardware, such as spacecraft, is extremely inefficient. It requires a lot of highly specialized people – mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, software engineers, etc. Each one has their own set of software tools they use, which don’t talk with each other or integrate well together, placing engineers into silos. This forces engineers to rely on emails and meeting to communicate their design changes to each other which slows down the entire design process. We realized there was a need for a software platform that connected tools and teams, and that allowed engineers to design big and bold hardware faster. So, we set upon creating a solution to make creating complex hardware more efficient. We want to make it easier to take an idea and bring it to reality and to reduce time spent communicating design decisions across a large team.
What product or service have you developed?
We’ve built Voyager, a software platform that streamlines the design process for creating complex hardware. Voyager takes the most commonly used software packages that hardware engineers already use and puts them all in one place. Users can connect analyses across these software so that variables dynamically update across an entire team’s calculations, removing a huge amount of inefficiency.
Currently, when you’re going through the design process, you go through multiple iterations. Imagine that your boss comes in while you’re designing a spacecraft and asks what happens if you use battery X instead of battery Y? This sets off a frantic process to figure out how the battery change affects your solar panel choice, power usage, and all of the other connected systems of the spacecraft that rely on the battery in question. Figuring this seemingly straightforward trade-off requires that you send a lot of emails, hold meetings with all the relevant parties, and then finally get to an answer – clearly, not an efficient process.
Voyager allows you to figure out the answer in real-time because it updates variables dynamically and shows how changes propagate across your entire system. So, when your boss comes and asks about battery X over battery Y, our software will calculate the answer immediately and your boss can decide right away, rather than waiting for responses from multiple engineering departments which could take weeks.
We aim to cut the design time of hardware in half. We are excited to have just released the Beta version of Voyager, and we’re already working with 10 companies that range from large satellite manufacturers, defense firms, to universities and other hardware manufacturers, such as a major jet engine producer. We have had first revenue and sold our first product! To get to this point, we conducted over 100 different customer interviews, allowing us insight into engineering pain points which ultimately lets us build a better product. By talking to so many potential customers, we were able to refine our software platform so that we have a more customer-centric and valuable product as a result.
How is Voyager different from project management software?
We really focus on the interconnected analysis portion of the hardware design process; most other project management tools are most concerned with traceability for quality-assurance. Voyager is concerned with the calculations behind the design. When you’re designing something, there’s math behind it. You’re taking physics and using mathematical equations to drive your design decisions. If you change which battery you planned to use, your electrical engineer has to check with all of the other engineers whose parts interface with the battery, and they have to re-do their calculations, give those to the electrical engineer, and then you get an answer as to the effects of a battery change – clearly an inefficient process. Other software only allow storing your equations in one place, not giving engineers insights into how their physics integrate together. Our software connects all the different subsystem dependencies and re-runs each engineer’s calculations and simulations automatically.
Which kind of engineers would be interested in Voyager and why?
Engineers within the space, aerospace and defense industry working on designing brand new projects are going to get good use out of our software. Specifically, at the enterprise level, those that interface with proposals or do RFPs are key for us because they see the inefficiency problem the most often.
Basic roadmap and what does the future hold?
We just released our Beta and are gaining initial traction. We need to add in a few other integrations to touch the lives of more engineers, such as FEA models, 3D modeling, and artificial intelligence to give engineers better insights into their own designs. We’ll also be releasing 1.0 in the near future. We’re going to raise a Seed round to support building out some of these key features of our platform and are looking for investors.
Biggest challenges thus far and how you overcame them?
The hardware industry had a huge amount of innovation in the 20th century, then the pace of advancement lessened in the last 40 years. The culture is slow to adapt and more traditional – there’s a cultural barrier we have to jump over. That being said, the slower, conservative culture is changing; the space industry is looking at a 5x increase in satellites being launched over the next 10 years, and they are struggling to keep up. Given our target users, we designed software that is easy and simple to use; we continually get positive feedback about our intuitive UI and easy integration of our software into pre-existing workflows.
Key partners? Awards?
We have a strategic partnership with Amazon Web Services which is really important because we can access their Gov-Cloud, a secure ITAR compliant server that’s key for our customer base. We’ve gone through LightSpeed Innovations (an aerospace accelerator program) and the NEX3 incubator program. We’ve won pitch competitions at the Wharton School of Business, ISDC 2018 in LA, and Satellite 2018 in D.C. to name a few.
What resources within the UC system have been beneficial to you and why?
Oh my gosh, where do I even start?! We’re in a startup incubator at UCSD called ‘The Basement.’ The Basement has been a phenomenal resource. We’ve had the opportunity to really flesh out our idea. They gave us resources, patience, and guidance. I’ve had the support to fail fast and fail often and figure out our current business model that adds value to people and that works. We don’t have to worry about paying rent, electricity, and we always had a place to go. Beyond that, the Basement has given us access to local San Diego angel investors, advisors, and mentors. And I’ve made so many great connections through the university specific to our industry and folks there are supportive of UCSD. We’ve also had phenomenal press from the UCSD as well.
UCSD was instrumental before we even started Voyager. Faris and I led the UCSD SEDS chapter to be the first student group to develop a rocket with a 3D-printed engine, and we wouldn’t have had those opportunities if UCSD wasn’t behind us.
Do you have any patents, IP, or funding?
We raised a friends-and-family round of about $100K which has helped us build out the Beta version of our software and get our first paid customers, and now it’s time for a solid Seed round. We’re looking for investors who have a relevant background to our company and can support our goal of making it faster and easier to engineer the future.
What advice would you give to fellow entrepreneurs?
The biggest thing that’s not apparent when you start…a lot of entrepreneurs tend to create a product before seeking validation. That’s a backward way of doing it. Before you build the product, go speak to as many people as you can. Customer research and customer discovery – 100 people, 10 per week for 10 weeks, and refine your questions each time. Really figure out where their pain point is. The most common reason companies fail is not finding product-market fit. So get it right. I’d also say pull the student card! You’ll almost always get a response of yes if you ask someone in the industry for help.
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