Magdrive CTO: It’s easy for founders to focus on tech instead of solving problems – Fi5

Magdrive co founder Thomas Clayson

Dr Thomas Clayson is the co-founder and chief technology officer of Magdrive, a UK space tech startup developing next-generation spacecraft propulsion.

Founded in 2019 by Clayson and Mark Stokes, the company is developing the Magdrive Nano, a compact, high-power plasma propulsion system for small spacecraft that combines the high efficiency of electric thrusters with the high thrust of chemical systems.

Magdrive says that its system has over ten times the thrust of similar size electric propulsion systems, with applications including satellite servicing and deep space transport.

The company has attracted £4m in early-stage investments and grants to date. Its latest round was led by Founders Fund, which was an early investor in SpaceX, DeepMind, PayPal, and Facebook. Magdrive was one of 10 global startups selected to join Amazon’s 2022 AWS Space Accelerator.

Based in Harwell, Oxfordshire, the 11-person company is gearing up for the launch of the first Magdrive prototype with Endurosat on a SpaceX Falcon9 later this year.

In this week’s Founder in Five Q&A, the Magdrive CTO explains why equity investment is not always the best option, how to avoid burnout, and which technology he thinks is doomed to fail.

1. Who’s a leader you admire in your industry?

Thomas Clayson: Peter Beck, the founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, is definitely one. He’s one of the best-respected people in the space and rocket industries; he seems to have immense focus and a very practical, clear mindset for achieving ambitious goals. What he’s achieved and built without needing raise huge funds is really inspiring.

I also admire Tory Bruno from United Launch Alliance. He is incredibly knowledgeable and knows every nut and bolt in his rockets.

2. What’s a common mistake that you see founders make?

TC: Poor product fit and poor understanding of customers’ needs. Particularly in our field, it can be easy to focus too much on the technology and solutions they want to implement, rather than how they can actually solve real problems.

Building rockets and propulsions engines is one thing – but if they are not enabling people, organisations or machines to do something new or better, then what is the point?

3. How do you prevent burnout?

TC: It might be a cliché, but you have to appreciate that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

We have done things relatively quickly, but it has still taken us three years to launch something into space.

It’s important that people – founders and their employees alike – keep their weekend and evenings off, use up their holiday, and find time for family. There’s no point in working 100 hours for two months to burn out; you need to be on form for years to build a successful space company.

4. Which hyped-up technology do you think is doomed to fail?

Hyperloop –an ultra-high-speed public transportation system in which passengers travel in autonomous electric pods.

I don’t see how it can scale to the capacity that high-speed rail can.

5. What funding advice would you give to a first-time founder?

Firstly, it’s really important to be patient. A start-up snowballs… things might begin slowly before building momentum and growing at a greater pace. Keep working at it and celebrate every little win, without necessarily assuming you need to raise funding each step of the way – an easy trap when we are surrounded by so many stories of multi-million-pound investment rounds.

More generally, particularly in the space sector, angels and VCs are not the only routes. Grants are an excellent way to raise capital and get across some of the early technology readiness levels (TRLs).

Founder in Five – a UKTN Q&A series with the entrepreneurs behind the UK’s innovative tech startups, scaleups and unicorns – is published every Friday.