HyperSciences wins support for ram accelerator from NASA, Shell — and from crowdfunding

Alan Boyle
HyperSciences CEO Mark Russell holds a test projectile that is used in the company’s ram accelerator system. (HyperSciences via YouTube)

Things are looking up, and looking down, for HyperSciences Inc. Either way, that’s good news for the four-year-old hypersonic startup in Spokane, Wash., and for its founder and CEO, Mark Russell.

Hypersciences’ key technology is a ram accelerator system that can be used to drill downward into rock up to 10 times more quickly than traditional methods — or send a projectile upward at 6,700 mph, roughly nine times the speed of sound.

The drilling application, known as HyperDrill, won more than $1 million in support from Shell Global’s GameChanger program for early-stage technology development. In May, Shell sent HyperSciences a non-binding letter of intent to provide another $250,000 in development funding, potentially leading to a $2.5 million field trial.

Also in May, NASA awarded HyperSciences a $125,000 Small Business Innovation Research Phase I grant to develop a hypersonic launch system based on the company’s HyperCore ram accelerator technology.

“There’s a new way to fly,” Russell told GeekWire.

To take HyperSciences to the next level, Russell and his team have turned to SeedInvest, an online platform for equity-based crowdfunding, SeedInvest lets investors sign up for shares in line with the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Regulation A rules. The money that’s raised is held in escrow until it hits a set minimum, and the round closes when a set maximum is reached.

The process has some similarities to Kickstarter’s crowdfunding approach, but with private equity in the company serving as the reward once the minimum is met.

In HyperSciences’ case, the minimum that triggers the money is $2.5 million, and the funding round’s maximum is $10 million. So far, $1.6 million has been raised from more than 500 investors. The company expects to get past the $2.5 million mark sometime in the next few weeks.

“It’s part of the reason, honestly, that we’re talking,” Russell said.

Russell said HyperSciences latest fundraising round builds on $3 million in previous investments, including support from the Washington Research Foundation, Kick-Start II, Cowles Company and The Toolbox. The fresh funding will be used to expand HyperSciences’ team, which Russell said currently consists of about half a dozen employees and consultants.

Getting HyperSciences off the ground requires Russell to draw upon three major themes in his background — in the drilling industry (due to his family’s mining operation), in the aerospace industry (thanks to his engineering experience at Boeing and Blue Origin) and on the startup frontier (as the founder of Zebigo, an early ride-share venture that faded as Uber and Lyft rose).

“This is how we ended up merging underground technology with aerospace technology,” Russell said.

HyperSciences’ ram accelerator concept has some characteristics in common with an air-powered post driver in the downward direction, or a rail gun in the upward direction. Patented blends of natural gas and air, or hydrogen and oxygen, propel a projectile at ramjet speeds through a tube. “It rides like a surfer rides in the ocean,” Russell said.

Some types of projectiles can blast through rock when they’re used in the company’s HyperDrill or Hyperbreaker underground systems, to drill oil and gas wells, bore tunnels or tap geothermal energy.

A robotic arm loads a projectile into the ram accelerator system. (HyperSciences via YouTube)

Other types of projectiles shoot up through the sky when they’re used in the HyperDrone launch system, to deploy hypersonic air vehicles. That skyward application has already gone through preliminary tests at Spaceport America in New Mexico, and Russell said the NASA grant will go toward proving out the launch concept.

“We’re scaling up the system to be the world’s largest impulsive launch system,” he said.

The concept calls for creating an 18- to 24-inch-diameter launch stage, topped with a rocket-powered second stage capable of putting small satellites into orbit. And that’s just the start. “It does scale much larger than that,” Russell said.

Russell said he’s aiming to have a version of the system ready to compete next year in the DARPA Launch Challenge, which is offering a $10 million top prize for quick-turnaround orbital launches.

There are lots of caveats to HyperSciences’ vision, many of which are cataloged in the 81-page Regulation A offering circular on the SEC’s website. A lot of what HyperSciences is trying to do hasn’t been done before, and there are no guarantees of technological success (or financial profitability).

One of the more interesting caveats is that HyperSciences has the rights to the ram accelerator technology only for applications beneath the 100-kilometer altitude mark. In-space applications have been licensed to a different company founded by Russell, EnergeticX, and a subsidiary called Pipeline2Space.

That just goes to show that Russell intends to ride ram accelerators wherever they can take him, from the depths of the Earth to the stars above. “It’s my big dream, finally coming true,” he said.

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