October 24, 2019
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Maine firm tests biofuel-fed rocket engines at a former Navy base

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Seven years ago, after the Navy left Brunswick Naval Air Station, the former Navy base sat silent and still, with the town surrounding it still reeling from the loss of jobs and economic activity.

On Friday afternoon, in one of the few remaining secluded areas of what is now a thriving base redevelopment project dubbed Brunswick Landing, mechanical engineer Brook Halvorson made some final adjustments on a keyboard and began counting down from 10.

Seconds later, a deep rumble sounded from the launch platform several hundred yards away, and, visible only on a computer screen and through a drone camera, a small hybrid rocket engine ignited.

Eventually, that rocket, powered by a proprietary bio-derived, carbon neutral rocket fuel formulation, will leave Earth, carrying small satellites — “cube sats” — into space. Eventually, the rocket would be able to carry 50 kilograms of satellites.

Founded by Maine native Sascha Deri, bluShift Aerospace moved from Massachusetts to the Tech Place business incubator at Brunswick Landing in 2016, and just recently expanded to a remote facility elsewhere on the former Navy base.

The company now employs seven, with three in Maine. Deri is actively applying for grants — including a $2 million Tipping Point grant from NASA — that he said would allow him to hire additional employees with a median salary of $60,000 to $110,000.

Deri, 47, grew up in Orland, went to Brunswick High School for a year-and-a-half (“Go Dragons!” he said), and went on to earn two degrees, one in electrical engineering from the University of Southern Maine and the other in physics.

He then founded a successful solar energy company in Massachusetts that currently employs 27.

But he’s always been fascinated by spacecraft, and nearly a decade ago began reading books on making rockets.

He and his roommate from USM investigated hybrid rocket technology similar to that used in the Virgin Galactic spaceship created by Richard Branson, because the technology is much safer.

Eventually, Deri invited a group of like-minded space aficionados for pizza and beer, “to dream, to talk, and see how it goes,” he said in 2016.

That group dwindled to about five, including experts in aerospace, computer science, physics, manufacturing and mechanical design.

In 2014, a prototype of the rocket engine was tested on Deri’s brother’s farm in North Yarmouth.

That day, Deri wondered whether the farm byproducts could be used as biofuel to launch the rocket. The group tested it, and found the “secret sauce” performed better than petroleum-based fuel — and is carbon-neutral.

Made from materials found on any farm, the sustainable fuel is not toxic and not explosive, according to Deri.

“My little girl could eat it. She might get a little constipated, but she would be OK,” he said.

Two years ago, they tested the rocket in an unidentified quarry somewhere in western Maine.

Then, in 2016, bluShift received a $25,000 grant from the Maine Technology Institute, opened an office in Tech Place, hoping to draw on the Maine Composites Alliance based there, and the carbon composites study program at Southern Maine Community College, located a block from Tech Place, to eventually build the carbon composite fuselage.

“Brunswick Landing has been wonderful, and so welcoming,” Deri said Friday.

In addition to providing a machine shop, Tech Place offers access to Business Development Coordinator Kristine Schuman, who Deri said “keeps you in connection with possible grants and organizations to work with you, so you learn how to grow your business.”

Plus, he said, “In Massachusetts, we couldn’t find anywhere that would let us [test the rocket engine].”

Steve Levesque, executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the organization redeveloping the former Navy Base, jumped at the chance to provide bluShift with test space, Deri said.

The MTI grant allowed Deri to hire Halvorson. Deri also moved back to Brunswick.

The company continues to seek funding to grow — Deri and his team have invested more than $250,000 of his own money to date — but has so far resisted the pull of venture capitalists, whom Deri said seek more than 50 percent ownership and would eventually sell the company to seek a profit.

His vision for bluShift is a stable company that grows organically in Maine.

“When I started the company it was because I love what I’m doing,” he said. “It isn’t like I want to build it up, sell it off to Lockheed or Boeing. The company isn’t about that. We want to run with it, grow it, and have the jobs here in Maine.”

Deri has sought “angel investors,” who offer less funding than venture capitalists but don’t require as much ownership and “are more willing to be exposed to risk.”

So far, though, he’s found that investors in Maine are really only interested in technologies with which they’re familiar.

“If you’re not growing something on the water, or on land, or fermenting, you can go elsewhere,” he said. But he added, “If you want to drive high-tech jobs to Maine, we need to be willing to invest in high-tech companies.”

Deri failed to secure one NASA Tipping Point grant, which he said could have provided $1 million — he lost out to Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, he said — but he’ll apply again early next year, hoping for success.

And after bluShift appears on Greenlight Maine, the Emmy-nominated television series that has invested more than $4 million in entrepreneurs during the show’s three seasons, Deri plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign on the Patreon platform, which would allow donors to contribute smaller amounts on a regular basis — “to pay for, say, more spark plugs.”

Deri and six other equity partners are confident they’re at the forefront of a new market predicted by one study to grow to $62 billion by 2030.

“Imagine if we in Maine could capture just 1 percent of that,” he said. “It would be well worth a little bit of risk in Maine to drive some of that business home.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect grant amount from MTI.


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