Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby
Co-founder and CEO
Location / Year Founded / Industry:
Houston, Texas / 2020 / Aviation & Aerospace
WHAT IS VENUS AEROSPACE:
Venus Aerospace is building a carbon-free, passenger hypersonic space plane that can hit 9 times the speed of sound, allowing people to travel from Los Angeles to Tokyo in one hour.
WHY DOES IT MATTER:
For two decades, engineers have been trying to figure out how to build a rocket engine efficient enough to enable hypersonic space travel. Venus Aerospace has cleared one of the last hurdles in this riddle and is building a completely carbon-free, lightweight, and efficient rocket engine that will enable takeoffs and landings similar to a passenger airplane from an airport, rather than a space station.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE:
By 2030, you will be flying to Tokyo in one hour in a non-polluting space plane that can take off and land just like a normal plane, while gliding right at the edge of the atmosphere.
At 40 years old, Sassie Duggleby, a code-writing launch engineer with an MBA in an industry unkind to women, was the oldest female engineer at Virgin Orbit. Her husband, Andrew Duggleby, was the head of Virgin’s propulsion research and development team and would later go on to lead the company’s orbital launch operations. It was while living in Japan that they became fascinated by hypersonic travel, after missing Sassie’s grandmother’s 95th birthday party because of long travel times.
“We were half a world away and recognized the potential for a space plane,” says Andrew, co-founder and CTO of Venus Aerospace. “It was the 13 hours it took to get home, the jet lag. We started piecing together the technologies that have been coming together over the last five, 10 years within academia, and realized we could really change the technical narrative of how this whole thing could work.” Together, they left Virgin in June 2020 to build their own rocket engine and space plane. “I am the business side while still being able to understand the technical side,” says Sassie, co-founder and CEO. “He’s the PhD and mechanical engineer.”
Fast forward to November 2021 and Venus Aerospace has raised $14 million in Seed and Government funding, with 30 employees and a Series A to follow. We are thrilled to back Sassie and Andrew’s grand vision for hypersonic passenger travel alongside investors Prime Movers Lab and Draper Associates. Read more in our interview with Sassie and Andrew below.
For those who are new to this industry, can you give us a quick overview of what makes Venus Aerospace so revolutionary?
Andrew: From the technology point of view, our lighter-weight engine enables a hypersonic plane to double its mass immediately—things like landing gear, all the safety features, passengers, and the ability to take off from an airport rather than a space station. Basically it goes like this: You leave from the airport by normal jet engines. You get above the weather, you get downrange of the city, and then you turn our rocket engine on. You break the sound barrier and then you’re sailing across the world with less fuel. It’s completely green. The rocket engine has no carbon whatsoever.
The shape of the aircraft itself is set to be a hypersonic glider. When you’re traveling that fast, it gets really hot. Previously, hypersonic aircraft designs used a ceramic coating which, once it lands, would take a weeks’ worth of re-inspection to make sure there are no hairline cracks. At the end of the day, that isn’t scalable—to have hypersonic aircrafts grounded for weeks at a time. One of our advances is because we’re a rocket engine we fly higher, and so the vehicle’s actually slightly cooler, and we’re able to use a metallic leading edge [outer shell], which means once you land, you just have to do a visual inspection on that leading edge, and then you can fly again immediately. It’s those big things that move the needle on how far you can glide, and how fast you can turn it around for a return flight.
Within the company itself, it’s also the culture we want to build at Venus. The aerospace industry has been at war for three generations: the Cold War, beating Russians to the moon, getting an SR-71 going, building a U-2 plane, launching a satellite to see what the Russians are up to. This has meant generations of people in the U.S. aerospace industry have been asked to salute the flag and get back to work on Saturday. That culture is hard to break. While the rest of the U.S. has lived this dream of family values and football games, the aerospace industry has always been very hard to exist in, especially for women. Once you get rid of the sexism, there’s still the problem of who can actually be at work for 80 to 100 hours a week. Only one of the spouses can, so if you’re going to do that in aerospace, then you have to be married to someone who’s going to catch the slack. That’s one of the reasons now that even though most of the sexism is gone, you still see a very low number of women engineers in their 30s and 40s.
Sassie: At Virgin Orbit I was the oldest female engineer. I had just turned 40. There’s tons of young female engineers in their 20s and they’re fantastic, but by the time you get to late 30s, mid-40s, they’re all gone.
Andrew: For us, as we’re establishing the culture at Venus, we want our employees to go home for dinner. If a project is going to take longer because of that, then okay. Let’s get more time, let’s get more money or better yet, let’s keep our creativity alive to see if there’s another option. Because what’s the first thing that happens when you get stressed? Your creativity crashes. There’s a hurricane currently brewing down in Mexico and one of the things Sassie and I have to do today in addition to running Venus is make sure we have groceries. We’re trying to show that balance; we are that live demonstration of the culture we want to create because there are days we have to take off because we have to get the kids.
Has sexism actually disappeared in the industry?
Sassie: I have never personally experienced sexism as a female engineer. I’ve never felt looked down upon, for example, “Oh, you can’t do this because you’re a female.” I’ve worked with people who have respected me for my talents, my knowledge, and my abilities. However, I do feel the burden as a mom. The industry does not recognize that, by having a meeting on Friday night at 7 p.m., you are eliminating people. There’s an industry sexism that’s happening where people don’t even realize it’s sexist. I recently sat next to a woman with a six-month-old baby at home. Well, there is no way that she can be at work on a Friday night at 7.30 p.m. The industry doesn’t pay attention to that kind of thing, and because of that, there’s no 35 to 55-year-old women in the industry. They flee because they can’t keep up with the culture.
As a rare woman in this space, what was your fundraising experience like? Any learnings that you can share for other founders?
Sassie: It took us six months to figure out who is “okay” with deep tech. Interestingly, we approached several female investors and none of them felt confident enough to invest—mainly because they didn’t have an extensive understanding of the technology. Whereas male investors, who also lacked an understanding of the tech, were more open to it. We also had one major handicap: we have a long time horizon so we’re going to need incredible amounts of capital. I spent a long time trying to understand who were the investors with patient capital and who was willing to take a deeper technical risk. That took a while—lots of noes in the beginning. I had to learn how to really craft our story, how to tell the story right. The first person who believed in us came from our network—fundraising is a networking game and about finding the people who can help connect you to other folks, which is frustrating because I know a lot of female founders don’t have that network.
Then I’ll be honest—we had a deck we built ourselves using PowerPoint that we thought was fine, until an investor told us it was too confusing. He reiterated that big, deep tech is a hard thing to understand for a lot of people, and that our deck needed to look “beautiful.” So we spent the money to hire a graphic designer and it was probably the best money we spent. I know some people say, “You shouldn’t have to spend money on the deck,” but for us to get the kind of money we needed, I’m glad we spent the money.
Several of our portfolio companies are family co-founders: mother and daughter or husband and wife, which can be a red flag for investors—but we view it as a secret sauce. Can you tell us why you work so well together?
Andrew: On the first day that Sassie joined my first company, we had a very key realization that we work well together. I was doing something and she said, “Why are you doing that? Get back to work.” I said, “Yes, ma’am” [laughs] and my partner’s jaw dropped—he had no ability to ever talk to me like that. Immediately he said to Sassie, “You’re now vice president”. As the PhD, I can get down in the weeds; sometimes I need the perspective of someone who can reach down and pull me back. Sassie has a unique ability to focus me and remind me about priorities. She’ll tell me to write whatever I’m researching down, reminding me we can decide to keep going down my rabbit hole later, but for the rest of today, for the rest of the week, we need to push on this milestone. It was her ability to do that lovingly.
I’ve learned so much from her background on the business side, so our skills are very complementary. We also have an unofficial board meeting twice a day while walking our dog. We have a morning walk and we have an evening walk where we discuss what we’re doing and what’s important. Sometimes it’s the only time where we can really have that key few moments of quietness to talk and strategize together. We’ve also learned that if we get back to our house and we’re still talking about Venus and we haven’t talked about family or us, that we need to keep walking. Our relationship can’t just be about Venus.
Sassie: And we try to set boundaries. Our vision for the company is home for dinner, which is important. Our girls are nine and 12. If we’re at this for 10 years, they’re going to be 19 and 22 and not in our house anymore, so we’re very intentional about being home. We have dinner at the table with them every night; we talk about their day and try to involve them. Not too long ago when we were trying to hire someone, we told them this person had some competing offers, so we asked them what we should do to try to get them. Our nine-year-old says, “Offer them food. How about cookies?” [laughs]. We’re trying to bring some learning experiences to them, but not make all of our discussions around the dinner table about Venus and we’re having a blast. It’s so fun to build something together, but we want to make sure our girls know that they’re more important than Venus.
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Can you take us down the rabbit hole of the problem you are looking to solve with Venus?
Sassie: The world is a really big place, and we have been trying as a civilization to create a space plane for what? 60 years?
Andrew: Yeah, none of the early space plane designs from the ’50s and ’60s were built because none of them work. They were either too expensive or too slow or too heavy. Honestly, nothing’s changed in 70 years with this technology. The advanced engine that SpaceX is making right now is maybe 2 percent more efficient than the same engine that took Apollo to the moon. This new kind of rocket engine we’re building gives you 15 percent more thrust. That’s huge. Not a 2 percent advance, but 15 percent. That’s a major improvement, which allows you to go back to all these designs from the ’50s and ’60s—you can almost pick one and they would all work, but we’re figuring out what parts we like of the old designs and what else has changed. We have some aerodynamic and leading-edge things we’re updating, but the level zero problem is that all of these space planes always required more thrust in order to work, and we have solved for that.
Sassie: At the end of the day, what opportunities are we creating by building a space plane? You can get to the other side of the world in an hour and then be home for dinner. You don’t have to deal with 18 hours of jet lag. The market is enormous. High-speed global travel is estimated to be worth $270 billion. It changes the world if you can get to one side of the earth in an hour.
Andrew: Think of a Secretary of State on the phone, “Tell the South Korean president I’ll be right there.”
You’re preaching to the choir as someone from New Zealand. It used to take me 40 hours to get to Europe.
Sassie: Oh, yeah, you get it. We’ve done the flight to Australia. That thing is brutal.
I want to touch on the rocket engine being carbon-free. Venus uses a normal airplane jet engine to get off the ground and once it’s above the clouds, the carbon-free rocket engine turns on. If airplanes today spend about 2 percent of their fuel usage on takeoff and then very little on landing, would it be fair to say that a Venus plane would produce only 3 percent of a normal aircraft’s carbon?
Sassie: Exactly, the rocket engine uses non-carbon based fuels, like the Space Shuttle main engine. As founders, we are passionate about not throwing carbon into the upper levels of our atmosphere, and so even with the jet engine part, we have to find a solution. There’s a bunch of research going into hydrogen-based engines and electric engines. Technology is advancing so fast.
Which brings me to the big question: Where do you see the future of Venus, and what is the 10-year plan specifically?
Andrew: In 10 years, you will be flying to Tokyo in an hour.
Sassie: Tapping into existing infrastructure, we believe, is key, and because our goal is human flight, there’s a lot of interaction with the FAA that we’ll be starting next year. We want to get past our demos and prove out the technology stack, but we will start those conversations with the FAA early. Because we take off and land just like a normal plane and we’re not actually in space, we’re just right at the edge of the atmosphere, air traffic control would still be governed and coordinated by the FAA. Basically an airport would need to become a spaceport in order for us to land there, and there’s some regulations they have to meet (like where they will store the carbon-free rocket fuel and how they will load it onto the plane), but Venus is actually the perfect case for an airport to become a spaceport.
Andrew: During WWII, my grandfather flew for the Royal Canadian Air Force in one of those planes that landed on water. If you look at the heritage of early aircraft, many were actually water-landing. Why? Because the ports were already there. People already came by boat, so all the infrastructure for how to get people to and from places was at the port of the city. It was key that early aircrafts could land on water and eventually, we built airfields and airports. That’s really what I see—right now, there’s a massive advantage to using an airport. In the far, far future, will it be Venus’ hypersonic planes taking off from a rocket pad in the middle of nowhere and you take a hyperloop there and back? Maybe. But that’s version two of how we move people across the world in an hour, not version one.