When Nehal Gajjar reflects on her childhood in India, she distinctly recalls her fascination with airplanes taking off at a nearby airport. She watched and wondered, spellbound by machines in flight. Her first early desire was to master aerospace systems by becoming a pilot but then this curiosity and determination led to a career dedicated to designing, developing, and improving aerospace technology itself. Nehal knew the best place to realize these dreams was to come to America and so she left her home in India for the United States.
Nehal went on to study engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) and Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. Not surprisingly, she initially focused on jet engine technology, thermal, mechanical and vibrational loads. She also led research teams exploring applications for technology in deep-sea environments.
After launching several startups early in her career, in 2019 Nehal submitted her latest tech startup, iMetalX, for the opportunity to participate in the Hyperspace Challenge when she realized the potential for the company’s work to transition beyond traditional aerospace and into space applications.
Companies selected for the 2019 Hyperspace Challenge were asked to propose solutions to problems associated with the security of the federal government’s small-satellite networks. As space-based networks grow, they explained, traditional human operation and involvement not only becomes cumbersome but renders spacecraft vulnerable to enemy threats. The program outlined U.S. government needs for technologies that could support autonomous, self-organizing distributed satellite networks.
In response, iMetalX developed a controlled digital environment designed to simulate and evaluate the communication, coordination, and data exchange capabilities of specific satellites operating in a mesh topology. (What is a mesh topology you ask? It is a network where every device in the network is connected to every other device. This provides an interconnected and decentralized grouping of machines that allows for multiple paths for data transmission and offers redundancy and increased reliability since data can be rerouted through alternative paths if one connection fails.)
In 2022, under an SBIR Phase 2 contract, iMetalX conducted a tactical demo for the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Special Operations Command. This demo featured an all-domain interoperable gateway which facilitates cross-platform communication between the U.S. and allied forces. Interoperability, in this setting, allows different systems to seamlessly and efficiently interact and share data between disparate networks including multiple unmanned aerial systems.
Today, Nehal’s company is emerging as a leader in space-based military defense systems and is continuing to expand. In 2020, on the heels of its participation in Hyperspace Challenge, iMetalX secured two SBIR Phase 1 contracts, and in 2022, it became one of 124 companies to receive the first round of Orbital Prime Phase 1 contracts with SpaceWERX, the innovation arm of the U.S. Space Force and supported by the Air Force Research Laboratory.
Nehal credits much of the company’s current successes to the lessons learned during Hyperspace Challenge. When asked what advice she would give to peers considering participating in Hyperspace, Nehal, with no hesitation notes, “Don’t think about it. Just do it. It’s probably the best thing you’ll do for your company and your team. For an aerospace engineer to talk one-on-one to somebody from the U.S. Space Force about their needs and get to come up with solutions to meet those needs in real time, it’s like a dream come true.”
Hyperspace Challenge spoke further with Nehal about the evolution of iMetalX and how her experience has shaped how she sees the future of the industry.
HSPC: iMetalX has pivoted its focus over time. How would you describe what you do now?
We are a space technology company focused on providing in-space servicing solutions for governments and businesses. Specifically, our technology enables us to detect, track, and maintain custody of remote space objects and space debris, as well as provide on-orbit servicing for existing assets. By doing this, we can reduce the need for constant launches to replace satellites and also extend the lifespan of satellites. At the same time, we’re improving astronaut safety and reducing the risk posed by lethal non trackable debris. In short, our mission is to make space safer and more accessible for all.
HSPC: What about this current work is the most exciting for you and your team?
We have a unique opportunity to weave sustainability into the fabric of the new space economy as it grows, making it an integral part of how we design, build, operate, and recycle. We are excited to be working in this area. Specifically, we have been engaged with the U.S. Space Force’s SpaceWERX Orbital Prime program and through that program, we are exploring capabilities for in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing, or ISAM, as well working on technologies relating to identifying, approaching, and servicing objects in space. This involves development of algorithms, a space-based sensor network and systems that track and detect space debris to enable safe path planning for satellites, facilitate battlefield space domain awareness, and improved operational intelligence. It’s exciting not only because of the potential impact on the space economy, but also because it feels like we are at a real tipping point for the industry. Sitting in Silicon Valley, there are so many layoffs in the tech industry, but in the space economy, we see a bullishness with growth and opportunities. We, like so many space-focused startups, are hiring (not firing)!
HSPC: You referred to your work as “technology as a service” in an earlier conversation with Hyperspace Challenge. What did you mean by that?
Coming from India, I recognize and appreciate what we have in the United States. So, I want to protect that. There’s so much we have here that we – and the world – cannot afford to lose. It may sound simple or cliché to those born in the United States, but I enjoy the freedoms here. The US is a place where we don’t have to fit into a box. We can pursue our curiosity, do meaningful work, learn from failures, grow, play and recharge with infrastructure to support each part of our life. I can go mountain biking, I go sailing, I race sailboats, I get to work on really important deep tech aerospace technologies and help our war fighters. So, I think we have to protect it all, not take those freedoms for granted. That’s what I mean by technology as a service.
HSPC: What was the most valuable part of participating in the Hyperspace Challenge?
What I see with a lot of events and accelerators is that they are one and done. You attend online webinars, go for four days on-site, you make all these connections, you do all this work, you’re bombarded with information, and then those relationships die off. Whereas at Hyperspace, they shop around the teams to help them connect with influential people. They were actually helping us make connections, have conversations, extract information, and curate at a completely different level that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. In the early interactions with Hyperspace in 2019, we developed two white papers that led directly to two funded projects that we have been able to execute and build upon for our current space efforts.
HSPC: Can you share an example of a key mentorship experience or guidance provided by the Hyperspace Challenge that significantly impacted your company’s trajectory?
We had the opportunity to work directly with Air Force Research Lab scientists. This significantly impacted our startup’s trajectory and helped refine our technology roadmap. The insights and expertise helped us identify untapped market segments and tailor our approach to better address customer needs, leading to increased traction and accelerated growth, especially with federal government agencies.
HSPC: What current contracts can you trace back to your Hyperspace experience?
All of them. We gained commercial traction right after that event. So, I would say that everything we’ve done since 2019 is in large part due to our Hyperspace Challenge experience. If it weren’t for that we wouldn’t have applied for a AFWERX SBIR Phase 1 & 2 contract; that award pushed us to seek out further government funding and in 2022 we won 2 Orbital Prime contracts with the U.S. Space Force and 2 more with AFWERX. We would not have had the opportunities that have opened up to us with end users like the Marines, Space Force, the Air Force, USSOCOM and the Department of Energy without Hyperspace. The program is a solid catalyst for anybody that’s innovating in the space economy right now.
HSPC: What is the number one issue that the space industry collectively – government, commercial, academic – needs to address in order to have a viable future in space?
Techno-economic modeling for the space systems and operations would help all stakeholders in the new space economy align and appropriately weigh their efforts and investments. This would reduce risk for small and large companies while providing customers a metrics driven assessment for desired capabilities. Secondly, in order to bridge the gap between capabilities desired today for sustainable space and the maturity of the commercial ISAM, patient capital is indeed required. This could come from deeper public-private types of partnerships. VCs are always seeking high growth and high speed. This results in churn in startups, their teams, their focus and objectives. Bureaucracy in federal agencies acquisition systems, VCs speed and growth and advanced capabilities without strong commercial market readiness generates dislocations that innovators are unable to jump through.
There needs to be more sustainable funding available for companies. With more attention given to this, I think we would see a lot more innovation that is actually being generated from small businesses to the benefit of both the Space Force’s guardians as well as the commercial sector.
On the government side specifically, the Department of Defense certainly recognizes that small businesses are innovative when it comes to defense applications. However, we have a long way to go between how small businesses can really engage meaningfully with the Department of Defense and serve the end user’s needs faster, better, and cheaper. There’s still a lot of bureaucracy. The Hyperspace Challenge helped us break through some of that.