The new rocket fuel: Hypernova’s mission to create sustainable propulsion

Jonathan Lun and Zachary Lefevre both won Global Impact Challenges in South Africa and Canada, respectively. As a result, they were invited to Singularity University in Silicon Valley for GSP 2017. At that time, GSP was designed to take promising young leaders and technologists and create the foundations of world-changing companies over the course of one summer. For Jon and Zach, that experience resulted in Hypernova Space Technologies.

Jon is a PhD based in Cape Town who has been studying Hypernova’s technology for the past 10 years, while Zach, based in Toronto, has a background in computer science and serial entrepreneurship. We sat down with them virtually to learn how they came up with the idea for the company, what’s happened since GSP17, and what the future holds for them.

What is Hypernova?

Jon: Every rocket that’s been launched into space so far has used exotic, flammable, toxic, expensive, rare fuels. And if you want to go out and explore space, if you want to settle, create a colony, or create an industry, you’re not going to be able to do that by relying on these kinds of fuel sources. Hypernova is building technology that allows satellites to move around in space using nothing but ordinary metal as fuel.

So essentially what we’re doing is turning what’s abundant, and what we take for granted as not very valuable, and turning it into the backbone of what could be a transport infrastructure for exploring the solar system.

That connects us to a whole host of things. If we can use metal as fuel, we can mine asteroids, we can reuse space junk, we can use that metal to allow us to access other resources that are more valuable, like water. So there are a lot of implications depending on what path we choose and what technology we use to build on.

If we talk about cars and our choice to use fossil fuels, it has a huge impact today, hundreds of years later. If we make the right choices now in space, we can build a much more sustainable future.

Where is the company right now? Where are you with the technology?

Zach: When we set out to build Hypernova, Jon had already been working on the technology for almost 10 years. He had been introduced to it while doing his masters, he had written a PhD thesis on it, and had built prototypes and tested them in vacuum environments. When we came together at SU, it was really about taking this technology that we knew would work and had been proven to work, and packaging it into a commercial format: small enough to fit into a very small satellite, cheap enough to be sold commercially, reliable, and efficient.

A space startup’s trajectory is very different from, say, a software startup; before generating revenue, we need to design physical prototypes, build them, and test them in a space environment – so there’s a longer run up before you can start selling to customers. Since SU, we’ve been continuing to prototype and looking for the right kinds of partners. As of today, we’ve secured our first LOIs to put our propulsion technology on a cubesat that could launch as soon as 18 months from now, and with that commercial commitment, we’ve started raising funds in South Africa and internationally. Amongst other funders, we’re extremely grateful to have secured a grant backed by the South African government toward product development. So we’re right on the cusp of building out a team, and I think the next big milestone after securing funding is going to be the demonstration mission where you see a Hypernova plasma thruster flying on a cubesat in low earth orbit sometime in 2021.

Wow, congratulations on the progress! At a broader level, where do you see the future of the space industry going? How will our human relationship with space change, from your perspective?

Jon: I think in the next 10-20 years we’re going to have a very different industry from today. In fact, it’s changing so fast that how it turns out might surprise most of us.

At the moment, space is already playing a big role in peoples’ lives, and they don’t even know it. I think that trend is going to continue in the sense that space is going to provide services and information and access to the internet, for example, and it will be almost seamless; people won’t even notice. Elon Musk actually said something like that, that when space starts to become boring then you know you’re succeeding because it’s becoming part of everyday life. It won’t be seen as something that’s separate from human activity or the economic engine, it will be intertwined with commerce and what we do to make our lives better and grow as a society.

There will always be companies and people who want to push the boundaries. I think that’s what makes people so attracted to space. So I see space activities growing in many directions: inward to serve the needs of people on earth; inspiring people to work toward something that’s bigger than themselves; and expanding human experience and influence.

Do you think the perspective shift from space becoming boring or common will help alleviate some of the geopolitical challenges we see today?

Jon: Satellites providing global, high-speed internet is going to be quite a big shift for people because if you’re not restricted by accessing internet through cables, that completely disrupts governments’ abilities to monitor and restrict access to information. I think for me that’s the easiest thing to imagine when thinking about space being disruptive, thinking of it as the next level of the internet.

Bringing it back to Hypernova, what has it been like to build a company and commercialize a technology from different continents? 

Zach: Distributed teams are definitely not for every company and use case. We’re in a unique position in that we’re in an industry that’s inherently global. Other than maybe in the US, you can’t be a space company without doing business with organizations in multiple countries and continents. So in our case, it’s been incredibly helpful to have a presence in North America and in South Africa. But of course it comes with the same challenges of bridging time zones and finding meeting times.

I think being a distributed team has given us more access to the global space economy, and it has been more important for us to get those signals from different parts of the world to know when the market is going to be ready for this so we can bring it to market in the most successful way.

Jon: SU helped us with a lot of good practical advice on remote working and distributed companies. It doesn’t feel like we’re halfway around the world from each other. Zach and I developed a really close friendship, good understanding and good communication with each other. I think it’s quite a special thing. Managing expectations and having practical strategies in place can go a long way. I’m very grateful for the ways that SU emphasized the importance of—and equipped us—to create a healthy company culture from the start.

How has your relationship with SU helped you on your journey, and what would you like to see out of SU in the future?

Zach: Wherever I go, whether it’s among other founders, at conferences, or with investors, just saying the Singularity University name you’ll immediately find people who think differently, think bigger, are thinking on a global scale. It’s been a really helpful tool, for example connecting with Bob Richards from Moon Express who probably doesn’t have time to take anybody’s call, but as soon as he knew we’re SU alum, coming to meet us was the first thing he did when he was in town. So there’s a lot to be built on and explored there.

As we left SU it was really a small group of people around the world, and we can feel that the effort is to grow that, so you just have more of these big thinkers everywhere you go, and SU is the thing that ties us back together.

Does this technology have any application on earth?

Jon: The technology is already being used on earth. The core technology is based on a process called vacuum arcs, which were used in the vacuum tubes for the very first computers. Vacuum arcs were also used in some of the earliest efforts to create carbon nanotubes. So when people talk about how space technology can benefit people on earth, now it’s the other way around where this technology which has benefited people on earth can now be used in space.

If people want to learn more about how your technology works, are there resources available?

Jon: Most of the information is still buried in academic journals. A more accessible format will come a little bit later, but we encourage anyone who’s interested to visit our website and subscribe to the form there. We’ve made an effort recently to put a bit more of a teaser on the website.

Anything you want to add?

Zach: To build on what Jon was talking about earlier on the future of humanity, most satellites today are pointing at the earth. When we think about the space industry, it still seems really far out there, but ultimately right now the space industry means just a few hundred kilometers above where we stand now. We’ve expanded our human activities just a little bit higher in the sky, but everything is pointed back at the earth. And this is really great when we think about Starlink and providing internet for a billion people who don’t have it. But at Hypernova we also really believe that the future of humanity and space is going to be turning a lot of those satellites around and pointing them out into the solar system and out into the universe.

So my closing thought is that we have a technology that’s going to help the earth by making the satellites that serve us here on earth more useful and safer and less of a space debris risk, but the ultimate vision is to build a permanent presence on the moon and mine asteroids.

Ultimately Hypernova is an infrastructure company. The first things you need before you can have Amazon Prime or DoorDash are roads, electricity and plumbing. That’s what Hypernova is here to do. RIght now SpaceX is getting us off of the earth, but once we’re out in space you’re very limited with what you can do because there aren’t any gas stations between Earth and Mars. So what we want to do is provide the technology that will let us move freely around the universe.

Not so long ago, humans accomplished landing a spacecraft on an asteroid, but that’s because we calculated exactly how much fuel we needed to get there, then we landed and left our spacecraft behind because we didn’t have enough fuel to get it back. There will be a day in the future when we can send spacecraft with the flexibility to travel to multiple destinations on an almost ad-hoc basis because they’re going to be able to use the local resources where they are to power the next leg of their journey.

I think it’s very powerful to remember that, as far off in the distance as the space industry seems for the average person, right now the majority of satellites are pointed down toward the earth and there’s a whole universe to explore when we look outward and recognize the resources, knowledge and opportunities that await us.

You can learn more about Hypernova on their website or LinkedIn page. Jonathan recently posted an update on the company on Linkedin. SU has no existing affiliation with Hypernova.