Accion TILE thrusters
Accion Systems says its $11 million Series B round will help the company accelerate development of its TILE smallsat electric thruster systems. Credit: Accion Systems

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Space propulsion startup Accion Systems has raised $11 million in a new round of funding designed to allow the company to increase production of its electric thrusters for smallsats.

The Boston-based company said Feb. 4 that Boeing HorizonX Ventures and Shasta Ventures co-led the Series B round. Both companies are returning investors, with Shasta leading Accion’s $7.5 million Series A round in 2016 and Boeing HorizonX making a separate investment in 2018.

The funding will go towards production of its Tiled Ionic Liquid Electrospray (TILE) thrusters for satellites. Those thrusters use an ionized liquid salt, accelerated by electric fields, to produce thrust. The company argues that this technology, originally developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, can provide safe propulsion options for smallsats with greater efficiency than other electric propulsion options.

“At the size of a postage stamp, our propulsion system is re-writing the rules of smallsat navigation and maneuverability,” Natalya Bailey, chief executive of Accion, said in a statement. “We’re excited to ramp up production and offer our clients benefits such as extending mission lifetime, stationkeeping, and deorbiting capabilities.”

The investment brings the total funding raised by Accion to $36 million. That figure, the company says, includes $14 million in awards from the Defense Department and NASA, such as a $3.9 million contract from NASA’s “Tipping Point” space technology program to demonstrate that its thrusters can replace a cold-gas propulsion system on a cubesat. That contract funds a flight test of the technology in 2021 on a cubesat based on the Mars Cube One (MarCO) spacecraft that accompanied the InSight Mars lander mission in 2018.

Accion first flew the TILE thruster system on a student-built cubesat, Irvine 01, launched in November 2018 on a Rocket Lab Electron rocket. The company says it has “a number” of spacecraft scheduled for launch in 2020 that will use those thrusters, including student-built cubesats.

The company has not disclosed any major commercial customers for the thrusters, although Boeing says its interest in using the technology was a reason why it invested in Accion. “Accion’s propulsion system brings new capabilities to satellites, space vehicles and ultimately, our customers,” said Brian Schettler, senior managing director of Boeing HorizonX Ventures. “Our support of Accion supports Boeing’s leadership in adopting next-generation technologies to advance satellite capabilities.”

Accion hopes to tap into the continued growing interest in cubesats and other small satellites. “A new approach to in-space propulsion and smallsat mobility is in order, and I believe Accion has the solution,” said Rob Coneybeer, managing director at Shasta Ventures.

However, many other companies are also working on propulsion technologies. During a workshop at the Smallsat Symposium here Feb. 3, attendees noted both the large number of satellite propulsion systems in development — more than 100, by one count — and the diversity of approaches.

“One thing we’re grappling with is propulsion. There’s so many new kinds of propulsion,” said Sarah Chiles, technology scouting manager for Starburst Accelerator, a business accelerator supporting aerospace companies. “Were trying to understand how that plays out in the market, and where there’s actual demand for it.”

One investor offered a cautionary note about satellite propulsion systems. “From our vantage point, I don’t think people truly understand what the end users want or appreciate what the end users’ timelines are for those needs,” said Mark Watt, partner at Noosphere Venture Partners. “I think we have to be really careful about jumping on things that seem to be hot without truly understanding customers’ needs.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...