Veering Off Topic With Accion Systems CEO Natalya Brikner

Xconomy Boston — 

Next up in my ongoing series of unusual interviews with local tech leaders is Natalya Brikner—space technology researcher, entrepreneur, aspiring pilot, ruthless scheduler, and lover of camping.

Those are just a few of the traits I learned about Brikner in our wide-ranging conversation, which was probably the wackiest yet in the series. (I never thought I’d do a journalistic interview that allowed me to geek out on aliens, parallel universes, robots, androids, and Harry Potter, but here we are.)

Brikner is the co-founder and CEO of Accion Systems, a 10-employee Boston startup that makes satellite propulsion systems. Accion (pronounced like “ax-eon”) has so far raised $10.5 million in venture capital and $6.5 million in government funds to commercialize its technology, Brikner says. It’s an interesting bet worth watching as the next era of space exploration unfolds. (You can hear more about Accion from co-founder Louis Perna at Xconomy’s Influx business conference June 22.)

Here are the highlights of my chat with Brikner, conducted over e-mail:

Xconomy: Why should the average person care about what Accion makes? What might your technology enable companies, governments, and society to accomplish?

Natalya Brikner: We’re working to make space accessible and affordable, with the ultimate goal of improving our lives on Earth. Our products, starting with our novel propulsion (and soon other related) systems for satellite maneuvering and navigation, will help to connect and monitor the planet. Some of my favorite examples of what our products can enable include ad hoc communications networks during natural disasters and evidence of gravitational waves due to events like mergers of massive black holes.

X: As I see it, cuts to NASA’s budget in recent years have partly driven the private sector to take a bigger role in space exploration and space tech R&D. What are the implications of that shift?

NB: Primarily the shift has caused the industry to look toward smaller, more affordable platforms like small satellites, driving innovation and infrastructure around that segment. It’s a bit like hard disk drives and IBM in the ’70s. Fortunately, there are also rich individuals and foundations stepping in in place of government funding to fund more moonshot ideas like getting to Mars and asteroid mining. These programs often result in invaluable spinoff technologies and pave a lot of the paths for the commercial sector.

X: How long until humanity colonizes another planet?

NB: If I look 200 years into the future, humans (or our android offspring) live on other planets, because … that’s just how it’s got to work. If I try to get more granular and answer when, I think it will rapidly take off when we get seriously into interplanetary travel, exploration, and terraforming, and remove the weakest link in that puzzle: ourselves. We have short expiration dates and we don’t do well on long flights. Send organ stem cells and smart robots, and I expect progress will move quite rapidly.

X: Serious question: Do you believe we’re not alone in the universe?

NB: Mathematically, in this universe or one of the multiverses, it’s not impossible that there are other instances of combinations of variables that lead to life.

X: What would you be doing with your life if you hadn’t gone down this career path?

NB: I would have gone to work in a national research lab or tried to start a Bell Labs knockoff. I want to push envelopes and research cool stuff, like quantum computing. What I described isn’t far from what I’m doing now, except that I’m currently trying to work on a venture-backed company, whereas other paths would have likely been government-funded. They both have their ups and downs, and I’m enjoying learning how to play the VC game.

X: Favorite movie, and why?

NB: “Harry Potter.” I don’t know how to answer “why,” and the question is making me think I need a more mature favorite movie. I loved the book series growing up, the movies have great soundtracks, and who wouldn’t want to go to Hogwarts? Accion was named after a spell, and a lot of our equipment has names from the stories, too. Like the Vacuum Chamber … of Secrets.

X: Can you pick a favorite Harry Potter film?

NB: I like 7 (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”), part 1—there’s a lot of drama, love, and camping in that one! I grew up in Oregon doing a lot of camping and outdoor activities, so I think it reminds me of home.

X: How do you relax outside of work when you want to tune out the noise for a little while?

NB: I’m planning my wedding coming up in October, so that takes up most of my time outside of work. Other than that, spending time reading, going on runs along the Charles River in Boston with my fiancé, and doing a bit of travel. Oh, and logging hours towards my pilot license!

X: Biggest pet peeve?

NB: I’m a big calendar/list person, so I really dislike broken commitments. It seems straightforward to me—just put it in the calendar and make it happen. I have to be ruthless with scheduling and prioritizing, and sometimes I forget other people don’t live like that.