Stofiel Aerospace CEO and Chief Engineer Brian Stofiel on Ensuring That STEM Education Is Integrated Completely into Their Business Model

CEO & Chief Engineer

Stofiel Aerospace CEO and Chief Engineer Brian Stofiel on Ensuring That STEM Education Is Integrated Completely into Their Business Model

Leadership Monthly: Tell us about your story

Brian Stofiel: Okay, well, I'm originally from the medical industry, and I wasn't really happy there. I was fixing MRI, CT, ultrasound machines, and doing my biomedical engineering. But I had always loved space. I went to space camp twice as a kid, and even at 8th grade they said I was most likely to go and run NASA in my yearbook! So, I was always interested in space. As an engineer, I had been giving designs to medical companies for years, and I had engineered products for them. For example, being out in the field, it was easy for me to learn the technology and design new ideas around it, and, eventually, I decided to start designing for my own benefit.

So, the first thing I did, starting up as an entrepreneur, was to talk to my daughter Bella, she was four or five at the time. We discussed the changes, and I said, look, I'd like to go do this, what do you think? So, we went down to Kennedy NASA space centre. I showed her around down there. We got to see a rocket launch from a distance and everything else that would give her an understanding of what space engineering was all about. Then we started building a satellite system based on an MRI principal, and I ran into the whole process of, I can't get my satellite in orbit quick enough or cheap enough. So, I actually went back to Bella and said what should we do as it's going to take a few years' wait to get this thing into orbit. And, as any six-year-old would say, she said, it sounds like we need to build a rocket. And that was an eye-opener to me: the little girl immediately saw the problem and solution. We all know the problem, and the solution is, well, simple, we just need to go build one.

So, I spent two years basically going through designs, in quiet, attending Kent State, talking to a couple of veterans: that's who I was hanging out with there, US military veterans, and finally I said, I think I'm ready to do a trial. I had developed something that I could basically bootstrap up, if I had to, in order to get my satellite into orbit. In fact, our first commercial product is set to my payload weight of 30 pounds intentionally for that satellite. So, I got some veterans together and we started doing experiments and went through the whole process. To re-educate myself, I started school over, and basically every class I took we built more and more of the system and more and more of the company. Then, about two years ago, we formed the company and got a chance to go out to the Consumer Electronics Show. I took the former US military guys out to CES for week and we exhibited. It was a big conference, 189,000 people I think that was there that year, and it really exposed all of us to the reality of the market in the consumer area. But we were also the odd duck out! We were among college kids, and we were the guys in suits and ties: those guys were in t-shirts and jeans. But that's us, and we've done it over and over again, which is to try to get outside of the box.

The adventure, to date, has been great, and Bella has been an amazing part of it. We went to Nasa Glenn for the Ohio Aerospace and Aviation Technical Committee, and she got up in front of them and testified as part of a space start-up company. That's us too. We try to really keep the kids involved because our philosophy is that they're going to be the ones using our system. For example, last year, doing the mark-two tests, we got the neighbourhood kids together. I taught them how to spray paint, when we were applying our heat treatment. We taught them how to 3D print, and then we fired a couple of motors to show them how it all comes together. What we found was, I teach Bella how to do it, and then she teaches the other kids, because the kids actually learn better from her. The way I attribute that is these kids have a different experience with technology. I grew up with one of the first computers. My first modem was 2,400 bits per second. It took eight hours to download a picture! So, I've taken that experience and applied it to the company and said, look, these kids are also going to understand our technology better than we do so let's just go ahead and give it to them now.

So that was one of the areas we really tried to push: STEM education, and not just the science and technology bit, but the getting-them-excited-about-it bit too. We pushed that a lot with the marketing at ISDC. I put it on the kids more than I actually put it on the adults because we see them as where our customer base will be in the near term. But more importantly, we're showing them that they can do it too. For example, Bella went out to the RNC in Cleveland last year. Our offices were less than a mile away so we picked up our mountain bikes and headed out to it. She talked to politicians and everybody out there about what we're doing, and that's what we wanted to show the kids. That they can get involved, even the political process, just get out there and do it. Today, technology is giving kids the information they need to go do what they want to do, and they don't need to wait for school or college to get things rolling. They can get out there and do it on their own and that's what we're trying to show them.

So, it's been a great journey but it feels a little bit weird sometimes. For example, we sat in on some meetings with the big launch names, and that was surreal because I'm sitting there as a start-up company and these guys there talking pretty openly with me. So, what I've learned about the industry is that it's filled with great people, and we really don't see competitors yet because we're all trying to get to the same place and there are so few of us, especially in the launch community. We're all trying to go in that same direction, and we know how hard that obstacle is, so it's been a very supportive industry nothing like the medical industry, which is quite different.

Leadership Monthly: You mentioned your love of design as well as the designs you sent to medical engineering companies. When did your motivation to start doing these designs start, and how did this help your transition from one industry to another?

Brian Stofiel: Well, I got out of the Air Force, and got into the medical industry. I first built a cryogen monitoring system for Hitachi Medical. I helped put it together and helped design some of the stuff that basically monitored the liquid helium levels inside the superconducting magnets to indicate if something had unintentionally switched off. The system would then let us know about this so we wouldn't boil off $30,000 worth of helium, in a couple of hours. That was the first design. I then worked on some vibration testing for those magnets and some of the procedures for doing the vibration testing and the setting of superconducting magnets. I then moved around a little bit and learned a bunch of stuff about almost every system in the radiology department. I then got into nuclear detector repair systems. so, I was working as an electronics bench tech and this was right as Fukushima was happening.

During this time, I was handing designs out left and right as inside the medical field we made images out of nuclear detection and these guys, which were going into Fukushima, were still using handhelds that had just a number on the screen to indicate general radiation levels. So, the very last design that prompted this all, was the development of a visual radiation detection system. It was about the size of shopping cart that you could roll out, turn on, and look at the radiation field in front of you in a visually rendered view. In return, I got a thank-you note. Which was okay, but then, about six months later, I asked if I could take the design back as I'd like to take it into the medical field, and they basically told me no. So, I decided that was the last design I would send out, and it got me thinking about my own business.

I looked at the space industry, SpaceX as well as Blue Origin, which had just recently landed their first one. I could see that this industry was about to take off in a major way, which is something I wouldn't have said that back in the 90s, when I was considering the military and college. But I look at it nowadays with CubeSats, and it's clear that the microprocessors have caught up with the industry, and we call this "microisation". Everything that got the word micro, back in the 80s and 90s, with computers and cell phones, has now hit the aviation industry. It's already changing the way that everything's done and that's why I decided the time was right to start designing for aerospace and start this journey.

So, I looked at quite a few different ways to begin, I didn't know if I wanted to go into aerodynamics or if I wanted to go to into structures or anything like that, and I started to play with my design for a thrust system, and it was the fluid dynamics that really caught my interest. I could visualise that stuff my head and that was what really caught my interest. As most of the products I'd designed over the years were in the medical and nuclear field, I basically went out and started learning as much as I could on my own. Obviously, the college classes I took for the first couple of years were just standard classes, so I went through the MIT OpenCourseWare as well as calling my friends that I'd worked with, out of Oxford, England and ran ideas by them repeatedly. And that's how the system started: the self-education, going out there and learning stuff on your own. I think there's a big miss there at the moment in society because all of humanity's knowledge is sitting on the Internet in one form or another and you just have to track it down. MIT's OpenCourseWare, for example. The course I best remember was the series that MIT did, when they brought in Apollo and Shuttle engineers, and they'd explain why they developed the subsystems that they did, and why they had developed them in the way they did. That was a real key area to me because it resonated with me and how I was doing things. I think that higher self-education is underrated at the moment, and I see the garage engineers of the future as potentially the ones to come out with ideas that are going to change the game.

Leadership Monthly: STEM education seems to be a big part of what Stofiel Aerospace has already achieved. How does that fit with the business model?

Brian Stofiel: To start something up that will keep going four generations down the line, especially in an industry that is so young at the moment, we have to make sure that STEM education is integrated completely into our business model. I've got some college guys coming on board as interns soon, and I told them as much as my daughter is eleven years old, and you're newly graduated from Saint Louis University, you need to listen to her because she understands it better than you do because she doesn't know any different. She grew up from five years old with spaceflight on her mind and she doesn't know that there's a different life: she's your future, and it's important to recognise that. For example, at CES, I stopped talking to someone in front of me and said excuse me sir I've just seen someone walk up that I need to have a quick word with, and I turned to the little kid that had just walked up, she was probably no more than eight years old, and began talking to her. When I came back to the other guy he said, well, that was amazing, and I said well, technically, she's my future customer. But she's also the one we've got to inspire to keep this thing going, and by me stopping for a moment, and talking to her, she's going to be the one that integrates that into her personality, in the long term, and say to herself, the CEO of this rocket company stopped, said hello, and explained things to me, and that's the culture we're trying to push here.