Mark Stokes and Dr. Thomas Clayson: Restructuring the spacecraft industry with Magdrive Ltd.
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Inspired by sci-fi movies and realizing the potential in the field to innovate new and better things, Mark Stokes and Dr. Thomas Clayson co-founded Magdrive to open the land of new opportunities.
Mark adds, “Our imagination was so much further ahead, but it all felt doable! When Thomas and I started bouncing ideas off each other at Imperial, we wanted to solve the biggest bottleneck in space-propulsion, to enable an entirely new existence in space.”
Behind the curtains
Being inspired by the Star Trek movies, Thomas understood the potential of the spacecraft industry. He felt that there were a lot of things left to invent, and with the proper technology, they can explore the vast boundaries of space.
He completed his undergraduate and Ph.D. at Imperial in plasma physics. Following his Ph.D., he worked at First Light Fusion, where he helped design and build their flagship fusion research machine, the largest pulsed power machine in Europe. He adds, “My greatest personal achievement is definitely my Ph.D. It was a four-year test of determination, but an amazing experience that shaped me as a person.”
Mark first studied Classics at university, and he was struck by the achievements of people who lived 2000 years ago that still affect the modern-day. While completing his engineering, he realized the gap between the things left to invent and the ones that were invented. With the spirit to transform the industry and mark his presence, he collaborated with Thomas and co-founded Magdrive.
Learning lessons and structuring their way
Both state that they dabbled in a few side hustles in the past whilst working in their main day jobs. However, they learned very quickly that to invent something in transforming, they have to commit all their time and resources to their prime aim.
Thomas worked on the theory of an electrical rocket large enough for manned transport, but he kept facing technological hurdles. With Mark, he found a partner to bounce off ideas.
Mark suggested to dream a little bit smaller first and design a thruster for satellites, which was a perfect industry for them to start with due to its current size and forecasted growth.
Both felt more comfortable with jumping off the deep end, quitting their jobs, and setting up Magdrive. They state, “It has been an incredible 12 months since we incorporated. We’ve managed to secure investment much quicker than anticipated, build a core team and move to a proper lab. We now have all the resources we need to develop a prototype that will work in space!”
Bringing a change in the industry with Magdrive
As satellites are evolving to be smaller and agile, the development of non-chemical propulsion technology to serve them effectively has not kept up.
From a total of 385 small satellites launched in 2019, it is expected that over 6000 will be launched in 2023, including SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper. There will be exponential growth in satellites orbiting the Earth, which leads to the big issue of space junk and collisions. This is escalating the risk of potential collisions.
Even with the collision detector, the system will soon become overwhelmed by the huge increase in traffic, and the number of last-minute collision detections will rise.
Both states, “Current propulsion systems cannot achieve the high thrusts needed for a last-minute avoidance, and doing this often means that a lot of fuel is used up just on avoiding junk. A Magdrive will be able to perform this maneuver, time and time again when needed.”
Magdrive’s miniature thruster burns 100 times hotter than existing rockets that are contained by a unique magnetic field topology that confines a high-density plasma.
Its thrust and efficiency ratios are a technological leap ahead of any other existing electrical thrusters, which opens up the satellite industry to completely new types of space missions that were not possible before without resorting to much larger, expensive, and heavier chemical thrusters.
Mark and Thomas express, “The space industry is a closely-knit group, of which we are already embedded in. We’re continuing to making steps to further integrate with the community’s sphere of influence. This involves building our presence in the community by being visible at events and conferences and building an ongoing relationship with the media and our future customers.”
Life as CTO and CEO for Thomas and Mark
Being the CTO of the company, Thomas oversees the technology development. He states, “As we’ve expanded, this has changed from doing everything myself to instead facilitating and supporting our incredibly talented engineers. A lot of my time is focused on company building, growing the team, securing funding, acquiring equipment, and interacting with future customers.”
As the CEO of the company, Mark has a hold on everything that is not related to technology. He adds, “I make sure we get things done according to our overall roadmap, talking to potential investors, seeking funding through grants, and finding potential customers. I’m also working to raise Magdrive’s profile wherever I can with publications, articles, podcasts. I’m still an engineer at heart, so I like to get back into the technical work when I can!”
Both of them take their employees as a well-knitted team. They allow them to work in their own space and contribute to the vision of the company in the best possible ways. They want this to be the last job for everyone because eventually, no one will know more about the Megdrive than the foundational team who got it into space.
Achieving work-life balance together
Mark and Thomas believe that to achieve new heights and build a transforming technology, they have to invest a lot of time in the work with their team. Still, they understand the need for off-time and motivate each other to take a rest on the weekends.
This off-time allows them to recharge their batteries and take the upcoming challenges with positive energy. With COVID restriction, they work from their home, connect with their teams to get feedback, and help each other with their issues.
Future plans for Magdrive
Both the co-founders state, “Just as the jet engine transformed aviation, Magdrive will be the catalyst for a new space age. Building a presence in the satellite industry is our first phase. Our next phase will be scaling up the technology for much larger manned spacecraft with performances that are comparable to chemical and nuclear thrusters, but without the hazardous drawbacks that chemical and nuclear options have as we are a renewable and electrical solution.”
They are targeting to build a technology that will enable new missions in space that aren’t possible right now with existing propulsion. They aim at transforming space for the benefit of people on Earth.