A Fireside Chat with Matija Milenovic from porkchop AB
This week we were fortunate enough to chat with Matija Milenovic, Co-Founder of porkchop AB, and deep dive into the company’s past, present and future plans. porkchop AB is a startup based in Sweden that builds propulsion systems for nanosatellites.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and about porkchop? How did you come up with the name? Why did you choose to get into the development of propulsion systems?
My background is in mechanical and aerospace engineering, in which I hold a bachelor’s and master’s, respectively. My other two co-founders, Victor and Irtiza, have backgrounds in mechatronics, embedded systems and electronics. The three of us make up the founding team, whose first propulsion system will be flying in orbit later this year!
I get the question about our name so much – and I love to answer it every time! Back in the day, engineers at NASA used to make plots that would tell them how much fuel a trip to another planet would take, depending on when they leave Earth and when they arrive at the other planet. By plotting the departure date on the x-axis, and arrival date on the y-axis, they got these funky-looking contour plots, which they decided to name “porkchop plots”. Look it up on Google. Some can be quite clunky and complex, and are frankly a bit of a meme. We wanted to create products and services which are easy to use and which certainly don’t confuse customers, so we decided to adopt the name as a constant reminder of our founding philosophy.
What differentiates porkchop from the other competitors?
What separates us from competitors is having a focus on a very clear vision – we want to enable accessible space exploration for everyone. We have a saying in the team that it should be just as easy to send something to space as it is to send something to Spain. Our first product, porkchop X, is our first step in this direction.
porkchop X is built for PocketQubes, a type of nanosatellite which is the 5 cm-younger brother to CubeSats. We decided to focus on PocketQubes because we felt that they have huge potential, and existing propulsion options for them at the time were simply not good enough, so we felt something had to be done.
In your opinion, what do you think are the greatest pain points or typical mistakes made when building propulsion systems?
A lot of propulsion systems we see on the market, especially for CubeSats, are spin-offs based on research at a university. When it comes to commercialising the technology, many startups try to force it into the market, without a clear benefit for users. It’s no surprise that the CubeSat propulsion market is so crowded – each university has a slightly different technology, but ultimately they all follow the same outdated way of thinking when it comes to implementation.
Our thought process has been to always put user experience first, and to always question why things are the way they are.
The idea of putting a propulsion system inside the structural frame came from understanding that volume inside the nanosatellite is a precious commodity. Who wants to waste a quarter of their payload volume on a propulsion system, when instead they can put in more of what will generate data or revenue for them.
Aside from not taking up any additional payload volume, we also addressed another key issue that a lot of people brought up in initial customer discussions – propulsion systems can be risky. If you use hydrazine gas, which is carcinogenic, you need to send someone out to the launch site to fuel the thruster before it’s sent to space. Even if you use a safer propellant, most of them are liquid or gas. This means you have to have piping and valves, which can leak during the missions and wreak all sorts of havoc. People just didn’t want to deal with this, which is why such a small fraction of nanosatellites today have incorporated a propulsion system into their sat, which is a shame.
Could you shed some light on your most significant challenges regarding propulsion systems? How did you manage to overcome them?
The biggest challenge we overcame, by far, was being able to miniaturise and compress the electronics in porkchop X so that they could fit into such a small volume. We even incorporated a feed-through hole for our first mission at our partner’s request, which was totally insane from an engineering standpoint. It took a lot of nights at the whiteboard and in the lab searching for the optimal solution. We were going a bit insane at one point, but once we had the “a-ha” moment, everything just worked out. We were surprised it’s worked so well in lab tests, and cannot wait to see it in action in orbit. We’re now looking to patent-protect this.
What are some important lessons that you learned over the years developing propulsion systems?
It’s hard. It took us months just to get our first thruster to fire, so it’s important to have determination and patience. We progressed at warp-speed after Irtiza joined, as we could combine everything Victor and I had learned with his talent and skills in embedded systems.
Another lesson is that if you’re creative enough, you can develop propulsion systems on a budget, but at the cost of slow progress. This was important for us in the beginning, since we were balancing porkchop with our master’s studies.
Our first vacuum chamber wasn’t a fancy one from the university or a research lab – we bought it and a pump on Amazon for peanuts. It’s allowed us to rapidly iterate on our designs and move faster than anyone (including us) expected. We still use it sometimes just to get preliminary data.
Which project are you most proud of? Why is it important?
porkchop X will always be in my heart. That thing is an absolute beast when it comes to both performance and function. With 4 main thrusters and 4 redundant ones, you can be sure that it’ll get the job done, be it dual-axis attitude control, lifetime extension, or speeding up de-orbit times. And with all this, it doesn’t take up any payload volume? It’s a really wonderful product that we’re truly proud of.
That being said, I’m most proud of what we have not yet released. We’re working on extremely ambitious projects which have the potential to dramatically reduce the cost of getting from A to B in space.
What do you see in the future of the space market and where does porkchop fit in this?
We think that the need for mobility in space is about to explode. Coupled with dropping launch prices, there’s going to be a lot of opportunities for incumbent companies to re-shape how we move things around in space. We’re at the cusp of a transportation revolution not seen since the days of Tsiolkovsy and Goddard.
Another big bet we’re making is that more and more universities will start embracing PocketQubes. It’s kind of a no-brainer from an education standpoint, since it provides the same educational value as CubeSats in terms of learning how to make and operate a spacecraft.
I would have killed for a course where we get to build and operate a satellite in my master’s, so we want to make it a reality for those who come after us. Top tier universities such as TU Delft and Carnegie Mellon University are joining the movement, so we think it’s only a matter of time before it blows up in campuses and schools around the world.
What is porkchop planning for the future? Any exciting developments you would like to share?
I can confirm we’re working on something related to what I said above. Given our limited resources, we’re starting small, testing hypotheses, speaking to customers and building on that. We’re also looking to add a CTO who is an industry veteran, and who ideally has some experience in autonomous systems for satellites. 2021 will be an extremely important year for us.
How can our readers support you?
A better question would be “how can you support our readers?”. We want to see more folks making PocketQubes, and are happy to help get people started.
There are huge benefits in switching from CubeSats to PocketQubes, if you can make your payload small enough. You could deploy an entire constellation of PocketQubes around the globe for the same price as launching one or two CubeSats, which is really attractive for anyone who wants full global coverage. It’s also an incredible way of educating students, since they can design, build, launch and operate their PocketQube in a much shorter timeframe.
If you believe in a world where it should be possible to send people and cargo to any destination in the solar system, you already support us. We’re on a mission to connect all the planets in the solar system the same way airports are today. We’re always on the lookout for brilliant and talented people, so we’d love to hear from you if our vision is a reality you want to live in.
Who else is on your team at porkchop? Perhaps, you could share some information about your colleagues and investors.
As I mentioned above, my two co-founders Irtiza and Victor complete the founding trio. We met while studying at KTH. The three of us come from three different continents, but when you have a shared vision, it’s easy to unite any number of people from anywhere on the planet. On top of this, we have Simon, who is a great advisor to have on board. He has a PhD in microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), and has worked with propulsion systems for CubeSats, so his wisdom has been vital for us.
We’re also supported by KTH, who invested in us a few months ago. Being backed by the university is a really great feeling, and shows their faith in our team and vision. We’re also part of the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Centre in Sweden – another incredible asset who has been helping us out massively.
What advice would you give to young, enthusiastic space entrepreneurs that want to join the space industry?
If you’re young and want to try setting up a company, just do it. You have nothing to lose, and so much to gain. It also shows incentive, which will set you apart from others, if you decide you’d prefer a stable job instead. Our ideal hires would be those who have an entrepreneurial mindset.
My mentality at the start was that even if we fail, we will learn so much, and this knowledge will outweigh everything else. Frankly, I’ve learned more during my time at porkchop than in my entire 5 years of university – it’s a whole other ballgame.
You’re only young once, you have no major responsibilities, just do it.
If you want to learn more about porkchop AB, check out their new and updated website.