Reuben Sorensen is excited to be here. The timing could be better, since COVID-19 has his team working from home, but he’s still bounding through 2020 at the speed of light, a fitting thing for a satellite technology company.

Sorensen is back in Ann Arbor with the company he co-founded, R2 Space, and they’re settling quickly into relationships with U-M, the local business community, and organizations in the state of Michigan. As they do so, Sorensen says a big portion of R2 Space is centered around how they can give back to Michigan.

 

Connecting with his roots

A triple U-M alum with a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering, Sorensen spent a decade building technology prototypes in a variety of security environments for Seal Team Six. That’s where his love for radar was born: he developed radar technology to give early warnings to potential threats posed to Navy SEALs. This disruptive technology changed the battlefield forever – and saved countless lives.

He took that experience to a high level technical role in the Pentagon, using commercial technology applications to solve difficult national security system challenges. There Sorensen met his future business partner and close friend, Ryan Farris. Sparks flew between the dynamic duo.  As a team they redefined innovation inside the Pentagon. That experience gave him exposure to commercial space and satellite technology, and the wheels started turning.

Sorensen and Farris launched R2 Space in June 2018, leveraging their proximity to the DC area from their Arlington, VA location. But it just wasn’t right.

“I had a mentor at U-M who’s mantra about work was ‘learn, earn and return’. It was time to return,” Sorensen says. So he did. 

He and Farris created the business case for moving the company to Michigan. “This was a great opportunity to give back. We started working with the state of Michigan through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC)  to help support a grant in conjunction with SPARK. After that, I was connected to Nick Miller at U-M’s Business Engagement Center. From there, everything fell nicely into place.”

 

Members of R2 Space’s Technology Team: (left to right) Chris Coleman, PhD, Chief Product Officer; Mark Ricoy, PhD, Chief Scientist, Antonie Bielek, RADAR System Engineer, and Jeff Pennings, Chief Technology Officer.

Room to grow

They relocated in Sept 2019 to the historic Argus Building with fewer than five full time employees, quickly scaled up to 30 employees, and are growing rapidly. Re-designing the building to fit their manufacturing needs, R2 Space has dedicated areas for satellite testing and a clean room that can house a couple of satellites at a time. Their goal is to produce eight satellites a year. It is a fitting home for them, as the Argus Building began as a camera manufacturing facility over 100 years ago.

R2 Space’s headquarters in Ann Arbor’s historic Argus Building.

Sorensen shares, “We’re focused on prototyping and ultimately want to scale up and have massive production. As we’re establishing the company, we’re establishing a strong team to handle all aspects of design, build, launch for satellites. We’re making great progress.”

Not the only one to leave U-M and return, Sorensen finds many of his new hires are following him back to Ann Arbor. “There’s so much excitement from alumni who heard we were here, and we’ve now got a field of resumes coming in.” 

He understands the draw and he values what these hires have to offer R2 Space and the local community:  “These folks really are really important to me because they’re bringing their education and unique experiences and now are helping me get to my ultimate vision to develop a 21st century aerospace industry in the state of Michigan. It’s been an honor to work with the people we’ve brought in in this short period of time.”

 

Connecting the dots

Sorensen connected with the BEC through conversations with Senior Director Nick Miller. This took many forms, from introducing R2 Space to Nick’s neighbor, who happened to be the chair of U-M’s aerospace department, to sharing information on people, programs and internship funding opportunities.

“I came in at the right time and got to be in at the ground floor of MSpace at U-M. We contacted all the right folks in the aerospace and mechanical engineering departments that do related work. Our initial conversations focused on internships, and now our summer class of interns has eleven students  – and nine are from U-M,” Sorensen says. Two of the interns are supported through funding from a small company internship program managed by the BEC.

Sorensen also connected through MSpace to people who run U-M NASA space grants and can potentially support students through these grants. He comments, “This even furthers our partnership because now can bring in more interns. This was another big step for us. Nick helped us navigate all of this. He served as our filter to U-M, taking everything in and getting us focused in the right areas on campus. I can’t say enough good things about him.”

 

The right model to weather the storm

Sorensen’s background in commercial and federal projects helped R2 Space hone in on working with the Department of Defense as their singular market strategy. This is helping R2 weather the current economic conditions – and helps put them in a position to help others.

The need for technology in this ‘space’ is only increasing, and R2 is seeing a strong demand for space based data. Proprietary unique technology allows their satellites to see at night, through clouds and in any weather condition. That’s been pretty popular with their customers, and it comes with a much smaller price tag than the DoD usually pays. That insulates them through these turbulent times.

He explains, “We’re fortunate. We have a strong market focus at R2. Other companies have a larger marketplace to serve by focusing on the commercialization of imagery they’re collecting. They’ll be challenged in an economic recession.

”We elected to focus on the Department of Defense market that works on national security. Where others are laying off, we’re actually hiring. Since COVID-19 hit, we’ve hired about seven people and plan to continue. Our market is giving us stability and the focus needed to help scale the company accordingly.”

 

Economic support where its needed

“My heart breaks seeing everything in the manufacturing industry in Michigan right now. There’s overlap in the radar technology we use and that used in the auto industry, and our goal is to keep hiring from auto in order to influence our design, because they think about designing differently. We’re going to do our part on our end to hire when we can and help out where we can,” states Sorensen.

 

A startup begetting startups

Sorensen says R2 has two missions: developing technology to improve national security and giving back to the state of Michigan. They are exploring ways to do that almost weekly.

It is through job creation, but it’s also highlighting to other companies how their technology can be repurposed to support the DoD as well. I want to show there’s talent that if repurposed has a great opportunity to go after a new market segment.”

When it comes to expanding his company, he really wants to expand the aerospace and entrepreneurial ecosystem: “When I hire onto our team, I tell employees that I don’t want them to stay here. I want them to come to R2, accomplish a goal you want to accomplish, demonstrate a technology, learn a piece of tech you didn’t think would be fielded, then come up with an idea and create your own company. Stay in Michigan and start a business I might be able to buy from.”