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Alumni Series: Kyle Adriany

From Physics Undergrad to Rocket Parts Pro—in Reverse

Kyle Adriany leads technology for corporation with products suitable for space and coronavirus

April 30, 2020 | By Cynthia Dillon

A typical trajectory for an undergraduate student is to get educated, get an internship and get a job. For Kyle Adriany (BS, physics; ’16), it happened differently. He started his career while he was taking courses toward his degree. Now he gives internships to students as co-founder of Additive Rockets Corporation (ARC). It’s a start-up with a shop on campus that combines advanced simulation and metal printing to produce optimal propulsion systems for the space and defense industries, with a new project to make ventilator parts to aid in the coronavirus pandemic.

“Conventional wisdom dictates that undergraduates should learn subjects in class, then go to internships and then go and make something, we did it in the opposite order,” said Adriany.

When he started at UC San Diego in 2012, the co-founder and chief technology officer at ARC recalls the Moxie Center and Rady School of Management, which was relatively new then, as campus resources for entrepreneurial-minded students.

“There were resources, but not at all focused on undergrads,” he said. “But now there are many more—The Basement, the Qualcomm Institute, the Student Success Center in Physical Sciences—that it’s really your fault if you don’t go find them.”

Seven years ago, he walked this walk with then-roommate, Andy Kieatiwong, now ARC’s CEO. They entered the Technology Transfer Office and said they wanted to produce intellectual property.

“Essentially they didn’t think we’d be making anything as undergraduates, so we were able to get some exemptions and establish ourselves separately. In a little way, we were underestimated, which is great,” said Adriany, the sole physics graduate on a team with three engineers. Together they design, manufacture and test thrusters and rocket engines for space-industry vehicles and small-rocket launchers with superalloys and 3D printing.

While a student, Adriany also learned that the American Chemistry Society’s student group on campus (ACS-SA) offered a lecture series on intellectual property, since many of the students involved would go into pharmaceuticals, where IP matters.

ARC Open HousePhoto taken during ARC’s open house event during fall quarter 2018. Photo courtesy of ARC

“That really got me thinking that once you come up with a new idea, you should take a moment to protect it before moving on to the next one,” explained Adriany. “After seeing [what intellectual property can do for a startup] and talking to our friends at the Tech Transfer Office, we signed up for a couple of Extension courses. There’s a whole IP law course over there….We did a couple of those, which were invaluable. It was one of the early indicators that made me believe your idea can be your property.”

Materializing the Vision

Adriany explained that his and his partners’ inspiration for their business was born from their experience in Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) group on campus.  During their first two years of involvement, they applied for and received funding from NASA to build and test an engine.

“It was very basic,” admitted Adriany. “We weren’t expecting it to work, but it did.”

As the story goes, they made a couple more engines and those worked, too.

“Then we made four, and none of them catastrophically failed. We stumbled into something that we were OK at,” he said.

When starting up, the young entrepreneurs had to find service providers with the tools to print their products. This endeavor led to another aspect of ARC’s current business—providing services to individuals and companies who need them.

“As a young company, we had some challenges when working with metal printing shops; we thought we could do better. We made the decision to raise enough money so that we could bring in a million-dollar printer and use it to accelerate our timeline. We knew that it would have some exponential benefits in terms of iteration,” he explained.

Realizing that they would not fully utilize time on the costly machine, they decided to reach out to people who make products and offer time on the printer at a good rate.

“Since then, that has almost become a business unto itself—servicing other people and their work,” said Adriany.

Advice and the Element of Surprise

According to the physics alumnus, early on he and his partners also worked with a business consultant who told them that 85 percent of their time would be on the business side, and the technology would take up 15 percent. They didn’t believe it.

“We were just starting, fully in product-development mode, writing and submitting patents, so we thought ‘no way, that can’t be true,’” Adriany said. “And then it was true. And it might have been an understatement. It was an absolute surprise.”

He said that a huge portion of his time now is spent on business development and taking on sales roles and meeting with customers who are very technical.

“You can’t just send somebody from the business school over there, they’d get demolished. We’ve seen [it] from average sales guys who come in our door. They can’t handle technical questions,” explained Adriany. “So, with my background, I can go over [to the sales side], and that has been successful. I never imagined I would be doing anything like a sales person does.”

Production and Customization

The ARC co-founder said that initially he and his partners thought they would be manufacturing a product and then selling it, but they thought that discounted what they could do with printing. For example, customization allows need to drive production, and it doesn’t require a product line.

“We initially thought that we might just be manufacturing product and selling it. Then we realized that kind of cheapened what we could do with printing because you can customize a lot of things that aren’t needed to develop a product line—you can make it as you need it,” he said.

For example, printing a part or piece of usable equipment can be done in as few as two days, which is very quick compared to traditional ways of making materials. Adriany added that in the industry, this type of production is becoming commonplace.

“The industry leaders are putting a lot of money full-steam-ahead—like Space X and Blue Origin—they are doubling and tripling down on this printing technology. Space X most notably,” he explained. “The technology on the process side is also advancing fast and swallowing other industries as efficiency gains are taking over.”

Story ‘ARC’

According to Adriany, the company is almost ready to take off its training wheels.

“We’re becoming a stand-alone facility, where we’re making real parts that are going into real vehicles and systems,” the businessman said.

Some of those real things include rocket components that will be used in launches soon.

“We’re actually working on some projects that will be in orbit, permanently. We’re also in other areas of aviation that are used for testing,” said Adriany.

Despite its growth and success, ARC plans to maintain a presence on campus. “It has been great. We’ve been able to have our pick of a lot of top students doing internships and who started to work for us,” he said. “During our first years, there was one student rocket group on campus, now there are three student groups. We always make sure to help those groups however we can because those are the brightest kids who will go on to do something. We also know that was once us, so we want to help.”

Pandemic Production

ARC’s help now extends to making ventilator parts to support efforts to manage the coronavirus pandemic after the team was approached by a medical device Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM).

“While we certainly didn’t anticipate being able to support critical manufacturing in response to a pandemic, we are thrilled that we are in a position to help,” Adriany said.

A tenant of Qualcomm Institute Innovation Space, ARC is using a 3D metal printer—the same one normally used to create rocket engines parts—to fabricate metal ventilator components for use in a hospital setting.

“Thankfully, we have been able to use our existing equipment and processes to create these ventilator components. Our entire team has been involved around the clock in an effort to expedite the creation of these components,” said Adriany.

ARC’s 3D printer is one of many features made available to the greater UC San Diego community.