Houghton, Mich., Oct. 7, 2022 – A global tech startup based in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is attracting national attention. On Tuesday, October 4, Orbion Space Technology cut the ribbon on a new rocket manufacturing facility in Houghton, Mich., where it has the capacity to manufacture 1,000 plasma thrusters, annually, for small satellites critical for defense and communication.
Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) from Silicon Valley attended the ribbon cutting, held in partnership with MTEC SmartZone, a startup incubator and accelerator affiliated with Michigan Technological University, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC).
Rep. Khanna spoke to the crowd about the importance of fueling high-tech jobs in rural America.
“We’ve made a colossal error as a nation over the last 50 years to believe that production doesn’t matter,” Rep. Khanna declared. “We need to produce things again,” he continued, standing in Orbion’s new facility where they are doing just that.
Orbion was founded in 2016 by two rocket scientists, CEO Brad King and CTO Jason Sommerville, who saw the growth coming in the space industry and knew small satellite propulsion would be needed. The pair enrolled in MTEC SmartZone’s Transformative Technologies program, which helped them grow into a business that now employs 50 full-time people in Northern Michigan, backed by midwest, Boston and Silicon Valley investors. The new facility is the next phase in factory buildout for Orbion, which will allow them to scale up their plasma thruster production, meeting the demands of customers like General Atomics and Raytheon Technologies.
While northern Michigan is not a traditional hotspot of aerospace manufacturing, CEO Brad King sees it as a perfect fit. “We get to do the work we believe in while living in a place we love. Hardly anyone gets both of those at the same time. When people ask me why we built a rocket company in northern Michigan, I reply that northern Michigan is as close to outer space as any spot on the planet, so why not here?”
In addition to the ribbon cutting, a panel discussion was held at the event, where tech employers and investors discussed how to succeed with tech and manufacturing in America’s heartland.
“There is nothing more high-tech than a plasma thruster, and nothing more heartland than Northern Michigan,” said Brad King, CEO of Orbion. He and fellow panelists agreed that a distinct advantage that midwest-based companies have over tech on the coasts is this: “The people who choose to live here stay. In six years we’ve had one resignation. The workforce for tech jobs in rural America is stable, and that is a huge competitive advantage,” shared King.
Orbion is one of more than 70 companies that MTEC SmartZone has mentored, incubated and/or accelerated since 2015. The results are becoming evident: Houghton County grew in population by two percent between the 2010 and 2020 census, and those numbers are on the rise.
“Job growth in rural America is not restricted to remote work,” said David Rowe, CEO of MTEC SmartZone. “Orbion is a prime example of manufacturing coming back to the United States, with the kind of employer a community can be built around.”
MTEC SmartZone’s mission is to accelerate high-tech business growth, and this week’s milestone for Orbion is evidence of more success to come.