Nagel and Bridenstine
Rick Nagel, managing partner of Acorn Growth Companies, with former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, now a senior adviser for the company. Credit: Acorn

WASHINGTON — Less than a week after leaving the agency, former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is joining a private equity firm that invests in the aerospace and defense industries.

Acorn Growth Companies, a private equity firm based in Oklahoma City, said Jan. 25 that it had hired Bridenstine as a senior adviser, assisting the company as it makes investments into companies in the aerospace, defense and intelligence sectors and supporting the firm’s current portfolio.

“My goal is to really look at some of the opportunities in front of Acorn as far as the companies that have the best value, the highest growth opportunities, and be a part of helping shape the portfolio,” Bridenstine said in an interview, “and also be a part of some of the operating companies that are currently in Acorn’s portfolio to optimize the returns and grow those companies.”

Bridenstine, in interviews in his final days as NASA administrator, didn’t announce his future plans once his tenure at the agency ended Jan. 20. Asked if he wanted to be involved in the space industry in some way, he said, “We’ll have to see.”

In the interview after joining Acorn, he said the job was a good fit for his background, which includes a master’s in business administration, as well as his experience at NASA. “I’ve been interested in finance and investments for a while,” he said, and noted Acorn’s work in sectors at least adjacent to space. “It was a really good fit based on those things.”

Another factor, he added, is that the job is based in Oklahoma. Bridenstine lives in Tulsa, and he mentioned as he was leaving NASA that he was looking forward to spending more time with his family there.

For Acorn, hiring Bridenstine allows the firm to tap his expertise as it ramps up a new fund, Acorn Aerospace & Defense Fund V. “Jim has a great track record,” said Rick Nagel, managing partner of Acorn, in an interview. “He brings the perspective of the entire federal space strategy.”

Acorn has not invested to date in companies that primarily do business in the space industry. Nagel said it has invested in companies that have been “tier 3” suppliers to larger contractors, but is now keeping an eye on more prominent firms. “The companies that are emerging today, that are making money in the space industry, look different today than they did 10 years ago,” he said. “Some have established a real business model, are making money, filling a niche.”

Nagel said that, unlike venture capital firms that make more speculative investments in early-stage startups, Acorn invests in more mature companies that are making money but need funding to expand their businesses. “Space is now, for us, becoming mature enough for private equity,” he said. “That’s only going to continue, thanks to the efforts of Administrator Bridenstine, working hard to make sure that the commercialization of space was a reality.”

Nagel declined to state the size of the new fund, citing Securities and Exchange Commission regulations amid ongoing fundraising activity. The company currently has $650 million under management from other investments, and expected that the new fund to split its investments evening among aerospace, defense and intelligence companies. “Space could run across any of those,” he said.

Bridenstine said there are no conflicts of interest that would restrict his work at Acorn, with the exception of a “cooling-off period” where he can’t represent Acorn to NASA. “At this time, Acorn doesn’t really have a lot of business, if any, with NASA directly,” he said.

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...