This southeast Ohio startup wants to be the next great Ohio aerospace innovators
For decades, Ohio has been a leader in all things aerospace. From the Wright Brothers to the Apollo missions, tech, talent and innovation from Ohio has led the way. Now, as the country sets its sights on a new era of aerospace innovation outside of our own atmosphere, an Ohio startup has dreams of powering the next generation of flight. Based in Cincinnati suburb Lebanon, Velontra is building an engine capable of hypersonic speeds that could be crucial as a new space race heats up.
“Velontra is a veteran-owned startup focused on developing propulsion systems and airplanes with hypersonic capabilities,” said CEO and co-founder Robert Keane. “Our technology has multiple applications, the most exciting of which is low Earth orbit access. Low Earth orbit, or LEO, is a very exciting new market. This is the area of earth’s orbit where you see SpaceX sending up the Starlink satellites by the thousands. Around the world, we’re increasing our global internet access, autonomy and our need for communications, and we’re using lower satellites that are closer to earth and able to give you higher speeds and fidelity.”
As nations and private corporations around the world continue to launch satellites that power our everyday life, better propulsion tech is key. Velontra is currently focused on building an engine for U.S. Department of Defense customers, but sees an opportunity for applications in a variety of fields. The recent SpaceX launches serve as a demonstration of their goals. Not only do they plan to create more powerful and efficient engines, they want to do it cheaper, unlocking a huge business opportunity.
“Goldman Sachs predicts the space economy market is going to be over a trillion dollars by 2040, but rocket systems are inherently expensive,” Keane said. “SpaceX has gotten launches down to $62 million a launch, which is incredible, but that is still way too pricey. Our propulsion system, which is 10 times more efficient than any current rocket, will provide low Earth orbit access at a cost of below $5 million per launch, which is 10 to 12 times more efficient. This will enable more companies to access low Earth orbit on a more robust and reliable platform. We think it can really expand all the things we can do in space to benefit even more people around the world.”
Keane and Chief Technology Officer Joel Darin have both been in the industry for years, and co-founded Velontra to bring a startup mindset to aerospace. They found the “corporate mire” of larger companies stifling, and wanted to be nimble and forward-thinking, setting their own direction. Between Keane’s background in the military and the duo’s expertise, they fit right in with a long line of aerospace innovators from Ohio.
“We wanted to have control over our own project, and that is something that gets me out of the bed in the morning,” said Keane. “I’m excited that we’re finally doing what we love, aerospace engineering, for us, our company and our partners. But we’re also a warfighter-owned and operated company developing products for fellow warfighters, and that’s a big deal for us. It’s exciting to do that here in Ohio, miles down the road from where Neil Armstrong grew up and the Wright Brothers developed the plane. They’re inspiring us as we bring America into the next phase of aviation.”
But inspiration and history aren’t the only reasons for Velontra to use Ohio as a launch pad. For a company to create game-changing technology that pushes an industry forward, they need a lot of ingredients. And from talent and experience to access and affordability, Velontra finds it all in the Buckeye State.
“Ohio is the birthplace of aviation, and that’s a pretty big deal — it’s awe-inspiring to think that we’re working on the next cutting edge technology here,” said Keane. “But there’s also a good synergy here in Ohio. We’re veteran-owned and focused initially on the DoD customer, so having the Air Force Research Laboratory right up the road at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is a big deal. Historically, there’s a lot of innovation in aviation between the Cincinnati and the Dayton areas, so there’s a lot of access to talent and expertise in aerospace engineering and infrastructure as well as manufacturing.”
If they can fulfill their potential, there’s almost no ceiling to the possibilities of Velontra’s business model. And beyond financial success, its founders believe they can make a real difference by empowering the next wave of tech all over the world, from universal internet access to the ability to clean up space debris in the form of abandoned satellites.
“The space market is huge, and it’s not going anywhere,” said Keane. “We’re not going to get global internet access and suddenly say, ‘You know what? Nevermind.’ We’ve never gone backwards. The satellites are going to be used for autonomous vehicles and work like Tesla is doing, and that’s here to stay. We can provide cheap, rapid-response access to low Earth orbit to replace, refuel or rearm your satellite. That’s a pretty awesome application with some pretty big dollar signs associated with it. It’s great what Virgin Galactic or SpaceX is doing, but there’s not really an end goal other than, ‘Hey, I went to space.’ We’re focused on something tangible and needed that will help humanity.”