Agile Space Industries, Durango’s designer, manufacturer and tester of thrusters – small, propulsion guidance engines that steer spacecraft after they leave Earth’s atmosphere – has purchased a Pennsylvania 3D manufacturing company.
Agile CEO Jeff Max said acquisition of Tronix3D, which is now called Agile Additive, will enhance Agile’s manufacturing capabilities.
Agile has pioneered the use of 3D printing, called additive manufacturing, with metals in making its custom thrusters for spacecraft.
“This really gives us scalability,” Max said. “If we’re working on two programs right now, and two more come in next week, we’ll have the capacity to do that production.”
Besides acquiring Tronix3D of Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, in late May, Agile Space is in the midst of a private stock offering seeking to raise up to $10 million for investments.
Agile has also opened an administrative office at 1514 Main Ave. in Durango, formerly The Wine Shop.
In February, Agile won the contract to supply the 12 thrusters that will be used on the first Griffin Lunar Lander.
Griffin Mission One is slated to carry the VIPER, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, to the South Pole of the moon.
The Griffin Lunar Lander vehicle will also be used as the delivery mechanism for other remote moon landings, and they, too, will be using Agile thrusters.
Besides adding manufacturing capacity, the acquisition of the Pennsylvania 3D manufacturer increases Agile’s control over the manufacturing quality of its thrusters.
Tronix3D was selected for acquisition because it was Agile’s top contractor both in terms of quality and in responsiveness. Before Tronix3D’s acquisition, Agile was contracting much of its 3D printing for its thrusters.
“We have thrusters that are going on a NASA mission,” Max said. “The payload we’re delivering to the moon is a half-a-billion dollar payload. It’s important that these thrusters work, and that the quality is 100%. By owning the manufacturing process, we’re able to ensure that quality.”
Agile has not disclosed the purchase price of Tronix3D, which will remain in Pennsylvania. Agile Additive has seven employees and they will be added to Agile’s existing team of 33 employees in Durango.
By the end of the year, Max said, he expects Agile will have 60 employees.
Additional equipment and machinery will be added to Agile Additive’s Pennsylvania operation, financed by Agile’s current Series A stock offering. Some of that industrial capacity for Agile Additive also might be located in Durango, Max said.
Another attraction of Tronix3D was that it held a range of government manufacturing certifications, and that positions Agile Additive as a government supplier of parts for both the aerospace and defense industries.
Having in-house 3D manufacturing capacities will allow the Pennsylvania arm of Agile to concentrate on aerospace applications, like working with heat-resistant metals and metal alloys important for rockets and thrusters.
“There are certain metals and certain alloys that are unique to aerospace right now, because they can withstand high temperatures. And so this just furthers and deepens our expertise,” Max said.
Besides improving manufacturing quality and capacities, increasingly more sophisticated 3D printing techniques, processes and designs developed through Agile Additive will create patent opportunities, giving Agile another revenue stream.
“We’re actually developing proprietary processes. So we’re actually, as a company, inventing techniques for working with these exotic metals. Because this industry of 3D printing with metal is so new, it’s trailblazing stuff,” Max said.
Last week, patent experts and attorneys were in Durango working with Agile’s designers and engineers to capture and begin the patenting process of innovative techniques, processes and designs the firm’s developed while making custom thrusters like the ones that will be used on the Griffin Lunar Lander.
“Typically, what will happen is you get innovative people, they work on their thing, and then they go home,” Max said. “What we’re training them to do is as they create new and innovative techniques, new and innovative designs, new and innovative processes, we’re capturing those and putting them into our patent portfolio.”
Max said everything from new manufacturing techniques to designs used in 3D metal printing might be applicable to other industries such as transportation, medical equipment, miniaturized nuclear power or others.
“We want to get all of the innovation we’ve been developing in key areas out and on the table so we can prioritize them, articulate them, protect them and move forward with them,” Max said. “The licensing side of the business holds tremendous potential for us.”
Adding manufacturing capacities for Agile Additive as well as growth of Agile’s existing Durango design and testing operations will be financed by a $10 million Series A funding round now underway.
Max said he has raised $800 million in venture capital for technology companies over a 30-year career, and he was used to traveling from his Hesperus home to work with companies on the West and East coasts.
But a chance encounter with Daudi Barnes, Agile’s founder, president and chief technology officer, in 2018 convinced him of Agile’s growth potential – especially in an era when space technology development has shifted to the private sector.
Cory Finney, fund manager for the Greater Colorado Venture Fund, said Agile’s development in Durango brings in a workforce knowledgeable in new industry for the region, and that increases the likelihood that other aerospace firms might establish a presence here.
Areas of Durango are located in a Colorado opportunity zone, which offers investors federal tax credits aimed at encouraging long-term private investments in designated low-income areas.
Often, these opportunity zone investments are usually tied to simple real estate speculation, but Finney said Agile is fairly unique in offering an investment in a high-tech aerospace firm.
“A lot of the opportunity zone investments we’ve seen across Colorado have typically been real estate focused,” he said. “For investors to have an option to take advantage of opportunity zone tax credits in a growth company, instead of a real estate opportunity is very unique.”
Perhaps the best thing about Agile is simply the inspiration it offers.
“What’s really important is that the Agile team has shown you can recruit world-class talent to Durango, Colorado, and that enhances our region,” Max said. “It makes others likely to invest here just because they’re building an amazing product here with an amazing team. They’ve shown you can do it, and now it’s a matter of how big they can scale.”
Max said the $10 million now being sought by Agile will likely be fulfilled almost entirely with Southwest Colorado investors.
“It was interesting to me to find that there was such a local pool of capital out there focused on investing in these kinds of companies,” Max said.
The Southwest Colorado Accelerator Program, which Agile has participated in, was an early player that helped establish a local investor ecosystem, and now that ecosystem is growing, Max said.
“Ten years ago, you would mention Durango, and investors would scratch their heads,” he said. “Now, we have a pool of capital that’s looking for bona fide, legitimate businesses out here that they can help underwrite.”