With world renowned institutions like Caltech and JPL close by, it wouldn’t take rocket science for a space technology company to locate their company in Pasadena. Rex Ridenoure, CEO of Ecliptic Enterprise Corporation, recently sat down with Innovate Pasadena to talk about their start-up story (talk about timing), working with NASA, and how their company has evolved (spoiler alert-they’re celebrating 15 years in business!). Read on to read Rex and Ecliptic’s amazing story, including the best advice he’s ever received.
What is Ecliptic’s story?
Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation was started by a subset of Blast Off Corporation, an early 2000’s Idealab Company. We were a space technology company with a bevy of talent from JPL, media, and the Internet and we were developing the first robotic lander to land on the Moon and rove around near an Apollo landing site.
When the dot-com bubble burst, companies all around us started caving in. In mid-January 2001, we were set to meet with our potential angel investor and the day prior we got word that we were shutting down. Rather than cancel the meeting, we drove to Santa Barbara to meet with him anyways.
Despite the circumstances, the investor was terribly excited by the team of 50 rocket scientists with nothing to do and challenged us to think of a slightly different company: a product-oriented space-technology firm so simple that he could explain it to his grandmother.
After iterating a bit, in three weeks we had an idea our investor liked for onboard video systems for rockets and spacecraft. He then asked us to show him a letter from another CEO who would buy the product. After quickly producing that, he cut an investment check and we opened our doors in Pasadena three weeks later. The whole process took six weeks.
That’s a quick start-up! Tell me more about the onboard video system for rockets and spacecraft.
A few weeks after opening our doors, as we were busy installing carpets, cubicles, and internet cabling we got a call from a company in Colorado who manufactured a similar product to ours. Our only competition in the market was pivoting and wanted to sell off their trademarked RocketCam video system product line.
We went back to our investor, presented the opportunity, and then negotiated to buy the RocketCam line. With the clock at five weeks post-opening, we now had an instant, proven product line with 4 customers, 13 launches, and a trademarked product called RocketCam. We’re kind of like GoPro for space.
On March 1, 2016, our company celebrated 15 years in business!
Every company grows over time. How has Ecliptic Enterprises evolved?
Our goal was to always grow organically by expanding our market, penetrating other markets and/or developing new products. It became clear 6-7 years in that Rocket Cam was not a growth business. We had penetrated the market as far as we could and business leveled up and kept pace, but wasn’t really growing.
We drilled down and looked at a variety of other markets where our technology and products might be compatible: commercial airliners, private jets, police helicopters, body-mounted police camera systems, homeland security applications, marine vehicles, underwater inspection of oil rigs, experimental aircraft, high altitude balloons, unmanned aerial systems, you name it. We couldn’t establish traction within any of those markets as competitors were already well entrenched in all of these areas.
At that point, we went back to our Chairman to show that we had made an extra effort to explore diversification outside the industry but instead wanted to diversify within our own industry. We realized that within the Rocket Cam product family the electronic unit itself used to control our video cameras was pretty sophisticated. Some of our customers wanted to employ just the sequencing, data-handling and communications capabilities of the unit. We had been sitting on a potentially new revenue stream all along.
What are some of the current projects that Ecliptic is working on? How do you see that shaping your future business?
We have downsized our electronic unit to the same size used for small satellites: CubeSats. This has led to new business in the CubeSat arena.
Presently, we are working with The Planetary Society to integrate and test their LightSail CubeSats- two satellites designed for testing solar sailing, which utilizes sunlight to propel spacecraft. We had a successful mission with the first one last year and will launch the next one later this year or in early 2017.
Ecliptic has successfully diversified over the last few years. Now RocketCam is 70% of our business (versus 100% for the first 10 years), CubeSats are 20% and experiment control and data handling is about 10%. We hope that these new categories will be future growth areas.
What are some of Ecliptic’s highlights and notable accomplishments?
Well, we hit an all-time high sales record in 2014! That was pretty fantastic.
When the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry in 2003, the entire space shuttle program stood down for 1.5 years. When the next shuttle launched, Ecliptic’s video system was on-board and caught a chunk of foam breaking off which was surmised to be the reason for the first crash. Ecliptic’s on-board video, and not any of the cameras on the ground, obtained the footage which ultimately helped determine why foam was falling off. On-board Ecliptic video systems became standard on all Shuttles from then on.
Ecliptic has been part of two very successful NASA missions to the Moon. During the 2009 lunar impactor LCROSS mission, our on-board video was watched worldwide as data was collected that supported a long held postulation that there is ice on the Moon. In 2011, we provided a four camera video system on each of the GRAIL spacecraft and returned some 250,000 images, mapping the moon in unprecedented detail.
What is the best advice you ever received?
From the time I was a junior in college, I was totally interested in the space shuttle program with dreams of becoming an astronaut.
I went down to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and managed to secure interviews with a few astronauts to get some career advice. I met with a mission specialist and astronomer who just so happened to put a big wet blanket on my dream.
He told me, “You’re doing it all wrong. Don’t come up with a bunch of boxes to check off. Instead, figure out what you’re really personally interested in and do really well in that area. If that changes, change your trajectory- make your own path, dig deep, and do it well- and everything else will happen.” I never forgot that advice.
Which area of the space industry excites you most?
There are two trends that have long been talked about but are now starting to gain traction and will inevitably change the space industry in the coming years. There is a trend towards smaller and smaller satellites and that is absolutely exploding right now. Hundreds of CubeSats and smallsats are being launched every year, and new businesses are cropping up every month.
Second, is the prospect of reusable rockets. Recently, Space X and Blue Origin returned main stages back to earth without crashing. These demonstrations are the wave of the future for rocketry. It will reduce the cost of launching a satellite into orbit by a factor of 10 or greater and in this business it will change how things play out.
Last but not least, I’m an advocate of the commercial model of privately funded missions to the moon, mars and asteroids. These kinds of missions will probably start happening in the next 5 years. When that happens, the deep space community will commercialize the same way the Internet did in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s.
Ecliptic intends to be part of these commercial projects. It’s somewhat like the California Gold Rush. We are a picks and shovels kind of company; we don’t particularly care what the projects are but we want to be part of them.
Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation is a space avionics and sensor company with a strong customer base in commercial, civil and defense markets. For more information about Ecliptic, please visit eclipticenterprises.com.