Planetary Resources’ veteran engineers launch First Mode to target wider frontiers

Planetary Resources’ veteran engineers launch First Mode to target wider frontiers

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A wide-angle view provides an unusual perspective of First Mode’s new lab space on Western Avenue in Seattle. Click on the image for a 360-degree view. (First Mode Photo)

Planetary Resources was assimilated into the ConsenSys blockchain venture months ago, but a troop of engineers who used to work for the asteroid mining company is seeking out new frontiers with a new company called First Mode.

And this time, asteroids aren’t the final frontier.

“First Mode is working with industries on and off the planet to do design and creative engineering work, but also to build hardware and build solutions that get deployed around the solar system as well as a lot of harsh and challenging environments here on planet Earth,” Rhae Adams, vice president of strategy and business development, told GeekWire.

The company’s expertise is being applied to a wide range of technical challenges, including robotic space missions as well as clean tech, mobility, agriculture, oil and gas development, high-reliability consumer products — and yes, mining of the terrestrial kind.

“The goal for First Mode and its customers is to provide that method of looking at a problem that, at its starting point, appears to be an intractable issue … and then help the customer break that down into a set of problems that can be worked in parallel, and then brought together to form the functional whole that the marketplace needs,” said Chris Voorhees, president and chief engineer.

190402-voorhees-271x300.jpgChris Voorhees, First Mode’s president and chief engineer. (First Mode Photo)

Voorhees said First Mode has already solved what sometimes seems to be an intractable problem for startups: making money.

“We’ve reached a point where the company has achieved profitability,” he said. The company has also expanded from its original core group of 11 Planetary Resources veterans to 14 employees, and Voorhees says there’s more growth ahead.

That’s a big change from the final days of Planetary Resources, which made significant headway on its plan to develop asteroid-prospecting spacecraft but suffered through a spate of staff reductions in early 2018 after a funding round fizzled.

Voorhees and Adams were among those laid off.

“We had a core group of engineering, scientific technical staff members that really felt like they had unfinished business coming out of Planetary, and wanted to stay together,” Voorhees recalled.

The new venture started out under the name “Synchronous,” and built on the partners’ expertise and connections in the space industry. Last summer, the company said on LinkedIn that its team members were “excited to be supporting the Mars 2020 mission” planned by NASA.

Just last month, Synchronous moved into a 7,500-square-foot lab space on Western Avenue in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. It also won the trademark for its geeky new moniker.

Why First Mode? Engineers know that structures have natural frequencies at which they resonate — and that the most basic frequency for that resonance is known as the “first mode.”

“The founding members of First Mode realized from their previous experience working together that they too had found a natural frequency,” the company explained in its inaugural blog post. “By working together, our talents and expertise result in technical solutions that are stronger than the contributions of team members working alone.”

Voorhees said First Mode draws inspiration from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he began his career more than two decades ago, as well as from design and engineering companies such as Applied Minds and IDEO. Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works and Boeing’s Phantom Works also serve as models, he said.

190402-adams2-249x300.jpgRhae Adams, First Mode’s vice president of strategy and business development. (First Mode Photo)

Adams said First Mode is working with more than 10 different clients in business and government, while Voorhees said the company has taken on more than 40 different projects. Some work has even been done for folks on Capitol Hill, although Voorhees declined to go into specifics.

“In general, there’s an intimate connection between the development of new space policy and technology. … We’ve had the opportunity to contribute over the past year to conversations regarding where those two things have had to intersect,” he said.

Voorhees said that First Mode’s team members have “good, amicable personal connections” with their former colleagues at what used to be known as Planetary Resources and is now known as ConsenSys Space. But there are no formal business dealings.

Nor are there any plans to raise money from investors, at least in the near term. “It was important to us from the get-go that we were employee-owned,” Adams said.

Voorhees said he was grateful for the experience he and the other founders of First Mode gained at Planetary Resources’ headquarters in Redmond, Wash . “It would have been very difficult for us to have gone off and done this without that experience,” he said.

So just how scary is it to start up a startup, especially when it’s self-funded? ” ‘Exhilarating’ is the right word, which is a simultaneous combination of excitement and terror,” Voorhees said. “That’s what I live under most every day.”

Adams seconded that emotion.

“I know we’ve not come across anyone else that had 11 founders who have been able to work together and build something,” he said. “It’s gone remarkably smoothly for the number of unique personalities and opinions we have. We’re always able to take that step back and approach things logically as best we can, like any technical problem. It works for founding a company too, not just for pieces of hardware.”

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