Dear Sophie: I live in Europe but want to move my startup to the US

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Dear Sophie: I live in Germany, but I am a Hungarian citizen. I’m worried that I won’t qualify for an O-1A visa because I’m definitely not famous or a genius. I want to move my startup to America so we can access investors and the North American market. Because I am Hungarian and not German, I don’t qualify for an E-2 investor visa. Is there any way I can pull off moving to the States and growing my company over the next two to three years? 

— Hopeful in Hamburg

Dear Hopeful: You are not alone! If your dream is to move to the United States, you can definitely make it happen through your existing company in Germany. It’s going to take some basic planning and then a little bit of time to lay the groundwork. I’ll walk you through the basic requirements so that you can get an idea of what’s ahead of you, but if you need individual specific legal advice, you should ask an attorney. For now, I hope this helps.

The first thing the United States government will want to see is that you have a registered company here. It could be any type of company, even an LLC in California. However, startup investors usually prefer a Delaware C corporation. If you don’t yet have a company registered in Germany because you are very early stage, then you could also consider having the Delaware corporation be the parent company of any future legal entities in Europe. Talk to a corporate attorney about the right choice for you.

From the immigration perspective, all of this is necessary because of the main requirements of the L-1A visa for intracompany transferees. These requirements demand that a U.S. and foreign company have a qualifying relationship for an employee transfer, such as a parent/subsidiary, a branch or an affiliation.

US patents hit record 333,530 granted in 2019; IBM, Samsung (not the FAANGs) lead the pack

We may have moved on from a nearly-daily cycle of news involving tech giants sparring in courts over intellectual property infringement, but patents continue to be a major cornerstone of how companies and people measure their progress and create moats around the work that they have done in hopes of building that into profitable enterprises in the future. IFI Claims, a company that tracks patent activity in the US, released its annual tally of IP work today underscoring that theme: it noted that 2019 saw a new high-watermark of 333,530 patents granted by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

The figures are notable for a few reasons. One is that this is the most patents ever granted in a single year; and the second that this represents a 15% jump on a year before. The high overall number speaks to the enduring interest in safeguarding IP, while the 15% jump has to do with the fact that patent numbers actually dipped last year (down 3.5%) while the number that were filed and still in application form (not granted) was bigger than ever. If we can draw something from that, it might be that filers and the USPTO were both taking a little more time to file and process, not a reduction in the use of patents altogether.

But patents do not tell the whole story in another very important regard.

Namely, the world’s most valuable, and most high profile tech companies are not always the ones that rank the highest in patents filed.

Consider the so-called FAANG group, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google: Facebook is at number-36 (one of the fastest movers but still not top 10) with 989 patents; Apple is at number-seven with 2,490 patents; Amazon is at number-nine with 2,427 patents; Netflix doesn’t make the top 50 at all; and the Android, search and advertising behemoth Google is merely at slot 15 with 2,102 patents (and no special mention for growth).

Indeed, the fact that one of the oldest tech companies, IBM, is also the biggest patent filer almost seems ironic in that regard.

As with previous years — the last 27, to be exact — IBM has continued to hold on to the top spot for patents granted, with 9,262 in total for the year. Samsung Electronics, at 6,469, is a distant second.

These numbers, again, don’t tell the whole story: IFI Claims notes that Samsung ranks number-one when you consider all active patent “families”, which might get filed across a number of divisions (for example a Samsung Electronics subsidiary filing separately) and count the overall number of patents to date (versus those filed this year). In this regard, Samsung stands at 76,638, with IBM the distant number-two at 37,304 patent families.

Part of this can be explained when you consider their businesses: Samsung makes a huge range of consumer and enterprise products. IBM, on the other hand, essentially moved out of the consumer electronics market years ago and these days mostly focuses on enterprise and B2B and far less hardware. That means a much smaller priority placed on that kind of R&D, and subsequent range of families.

Two other areas that are worth tracking are biggest movers and technology trends.

In the first of these, it’s very interesting to see a car company rising to the top. Kia jumped 58 places and is now at number-41 (921 patents) — notable when you think about how cars are the next “hardware” and that we are entering a pretty exciting phase of connected vehicles, self-driving and alternative energy to propel them.

Others rounding out fastest-growing were Hewlett Packard Enterprise, up 28 places to number-48 (794 patents); Facebook, up 22 places to number-36 (989 patents); Micron Technology, up nine places to number-25 (1,268), Huawei, up six places to number-10 (2,418), BOE Technology, up four places to number-13 (2,177), and Microsoft, up three places to number-4 (3,081 patents).

In terms of technology trends, IFI looks over a period of five years, where there is now a strong current of medical and biotechnology innovation running through the list right now, with hybrid plant creation topping the list of trending technology, followed by CRISPR gene-editing technology, and then medicinal preparations (led by cancer therapies). “Tech” in the computer processor sense only starts at number-four with dashboards and other car-related tech; with quantum computing, 3-D printing and flying vehicle tech all also featuring.

Indeed, if you have wondered if we are in a fallow period of innovation in mobile, internet and straight computer technology… look no further than this list to prove out that thought.

Unsurprisingly, US companies account for 49% of U.S. patents granted in 2019 up from 46 percent a year before. Japan accounts for 16% to be the second-largest, with South Korea at 7% (Samsung carrying a big part of that, I’m guessing), and China passing Germany to be at number-four with 5%.

  1. International Business Machines Corp 9262
  2. Samsung Electronics Co Ltd 6469
  3. Canon Inc 3548
  4. Microsoft Technology Licensing LLC 3081
  5. Intel Corp 3020
  6. LG Electronics Inc 2805
  7. Apple Inc 2490
  8. Ford Global Technologies LLC 2468
  9. Amazon Technologies Inc 2427
  10. Huawei Technologies Co Ltd 2418
  11. Qualcomm Inc 2348
  12. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co TSMC Ltd 2331
  13. BOE Technology Group Co Ltd 2177
  14. Sony Corp 2142
  15. Google LLC 2102
  16. Toyota Motor Corp 2034
  17. Samsung Display Co Ltd 1946
  18. General Electric Co 1818
  19. Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson AB 1607
  20. Hyundai Motor Co 1504
  21. Panasonic Intellectual Property Management Co Ltd 1387
  22. Boeing Co 1383
  23. Seiko Epson Corp 1345
  24. GM Global Technology Operations LLC 1285
  25. Micron Technology Inc 1268
  26. United Technologies Corp 1252
  27. Mitsubishi Electric Corp 1244
  28. Toshiba Corp 1170
  29. AT&T Intellectual Property I LP 1158
  30. Robert Bosch GmbH 1107
  31. Honda Motor Co Ltd 1080
  32. Denso Corp 1052
  33. Cisco Technology Inc 1050
  34. Halliburton Energy Services Inc 1020
  35. Fujitsu Ltd 1008
  36. Facebook Inc 989
  37. Ricoh Co Ltd 980
  38. Koninklijke Philips NV 973
  39. EMC IP Holding Co LLC 926
  40. NEC Corp 923
  41. Kia Motors Corp 921
  42. Texas Instruments Inc 894
  43. LG Display Co Ltd 865
  44. Oracle International Corp 847
  45. Murata Manufacturing Co Ltd 842
  46. Sharp Corp 819
  47. SK Hynix Inc 798
  48. Hewlett Packard Enterprise Development LP 794
  49. Fujifilm Corp 791
  50. LG Chem Ltd 791

Meet MarsCat, a robot cat with lots of love to give and room to grow

At CES 2020, one of the more well-represented gadget categories was definitely consumer robots – but none was more adorable than MarsCat, a new robo-pet from industrial robot startup Elephant Robotics. This robot pet is a fully autonomous companion that can respond to touch, voice and even play with toys, and it’s hard not to love the thing after spending even just a brief amount of time with it.

MarsCat’s pedigree is a bit unusual, since Elephant Robotics is focused on building what’s known as ‘cobots,’ or industrial robots that are designed to work alongside humans in settings like factories or assembly plants. Elephant, which was founded in 2016, already produces three lines of these collaborative robots and has sold them to client companies around the world, including in Korea, the U.S., Germany and more.

This new product is designed for the home, however, not the factory or the lab. MarsCat is the startup’s first consumer product, but it obviously benefits immensely from the company’s expertise and experience in their industrial robotics business. With its highly articulated legs, tail and head, it can sit up, walk play and watch your movements, all working autonomously without any additional input required.

While MarsCat provides that kind of functionality out of the box, it’s also customizable and programmable by the user. Inside, it’s powered by a Raspberry Pi, and it ships with MarsCat SDK, which is an open software development library that allows you to fully control and program all of the robots functions. This makes it an interesting gadget for STEM education and research, too.

MarsCat is currently up for crowdfunding on Kickstarter, with Elephant having already surpassed its goal of $20,000 and on track to raise at least $100,000 more than that target. Elephant Robotics CEO and co-founder Joey Song told me that it actually plans to ship its first batch of production MarsCats to users in March, too, so backers shouldn’t have to wait long to enjoy their new robotic pet.

[gallery ids="1931424,1931421,1931422,1931425,1931428,1931426"]

There are other robotic pets available on the market, but Song thinks that MarsCat has a unique blend of advanced features at a price point that’s currently unmatched by existing options. The robot can respond to a range of voice commands, and will also evolve its personality over time based on how you interact with it: Talk to it a lot, and it’ll also become ‘chatty;’ play with it frequently and it’ll be a playful kitty. That, combined with the open platform, is a lot to offer for the asking backer price of just $699 to start.

Sony’s Aibo, the canine equivalent of MarsCat, retails for $2,899 in the U.S., so it’s a bargain when considered in that light. And unlike the real thing, MarsCat definitely doesn’t shed, so it’s got that going for it, too.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

A ton of Ruckus Wireless routers are vulnerable to hackers

A security researcher has found several vulnerabilities in a number of Ruckus Wireless routers, which the networking giant has since patched.

Gal Zror told TechCrunch that the vulnerabilities he found lie inside in the web user interface software that runs on the company’s Unleashed line of routers.

The flaws can be exploited without needing a router’s password, and can be used to take complete control of affected routers from over the internet.

Routers act as a gateway between a home or office network and the wider internet. Routers are also a major line of defense against unauthorized access to that network. But routers can be a single point of failure. If attackers find and take advantage of vulnerabilities in the router’s software, they can control the device and gain access to the wider internal network, exposing computers and other devices to hacks and data theft.

Zror said his three vulnerabilities can be used to to gain “root” privileges on the router — the highest level of access — allowing the attacker unfettered access to the device and the network.

Although the three vulnerabilities vary by difficulty to exploit, the easiest of the vulnerabilities uses just a single line of code, Zror said.

With complete control of a router, an attacker can see all of the network’s unencrypted internet traffic. An attacker can also silently re-route traffic from users on the network to malicious pages that are designed to steal usernames and passwords.

Zror said that because many of the router are accessible from the internet, they make “very good candidates for botnets” That’s when an attacker forcibly enlists a vulnerable router — or any other internet-connected device — into its own distributed network, controlled by a malicious actor, which can be collectively told to pummel websites and other networks with massive amounts of junk traffic, knocking them offline.

There are “thousands” of vulnerable Ruckus routers on the internet, said Zror. He revealed his findings at the annual Chaos Communication Congress conference in Germany.

Ruckus told TechCrunch it fixed the vulnerabilities in the 200.7.10.202.92 software update, but said that customers have to update their vulnerable devices themselves.

“By design our devices do not fetch and install software automatically to ensure our customers can manage their networks appropriately,” said Ruckus spokesperson Aharon Etengoff. “We are strongly advising our customers and partners to deploy the latest firmware releases as soon as possible to mitigate these vulnerabilities,” he said.

Ruckus confirmed its SmartZone-enabled devices and Ruckus Cloud access points are not vulnerable.

“It’s very important for the customers to know that if they’re running an old version [of the software], they might be super vulnerable to this very simple attack,” said Zror.

Tesla to begin delivering China-built Model 3 cars next week

Tesla will start making the first deliveries of its Shanghai-built Model 3 sedans on Monday, Bloomberg reports. The cars are rolling off the assembly line at the new Tesla Shanghai Gigafactory, which is operational but which will also be expanding in future thanks to a fresh $1.4 billion injection in local funding reported earlier this week.

The Shanghai gigafactory’s construction only began earlier this year, and its turnaround time in terms of construction and actually producing vehicles is impressive. The Model 3 vehicles built in China will provide a price break vs. imported vehicles, since cars made in-country enjoy exemption from a 10% tax applied to imported cars. Tesla Model 3s build in China will also get a government purchase incentive of as much as $3,600 per car, which should drive even higher sales.

Tesla’s Shanghai factory is its first manufacturing facility outside of the country, though there’s also a gigafactory in the works in Germany just outside of Berlin, and Tesla has teased plans for at least a fifth gigafactory with a location to be revealed later.

Tesla’s production capacity in Shanghai probably isn’t ver high-volume to begin with, although the company has said previously it was targeting a production rate of around 1,000 cars per week by year’s end, with potential to ramp up to around 3,000 cars per week. Tax breaks and incentives have helped demand for the Model 3 in China grow significantly in 2019, so any progress on production in-country is bound to help lift global vehicle sales.

Mental health startup eQuoo joins UK’s NHS app library, closes in on seed round

UK-based mental health startup eQuoo has become the only game in the UK’s National Health Service App Library and is set to shortly close it’s seed funding round. The app is an emotional fitness game that aims to teach healthy psychological skills.

The NHS announcement means a UK doctor can now formally refer eQuoo to their patients to improve their mental health and wellbeing.

The app has also now achieved a top rating at ORCHA, the leading health app assessment platform and now has clients including Barmer, the largest insurance company in Germany.

Founder and CEO Silja Litvin says she created the startup because of the mental health crisis. “While working in an NHS Trust for eating and mood disorders I was dismayed about the fact that many of our young clients had to wait months to see us for a measly 6 sessions. Psychologists are not scalable, but apps are, so I decided to make an app. After developing PsycApps, an evidence-based anti-depression app I learned the hard way that mental health apps all struggle with drop off rates of up to 90% in week 1, so we pivoted towards gamification with the launch of eQuoo, as casual games can have a positive mental health effect and intrinsically get players to stick to them.”

A spokesperson for the NHS said: “Approximately 58% GPs across England now have the ability to refer patients directly to Equoo, as its now live on the EMIS App Library. The EMIS App Library is powered by IQVIA’s AppScript® platform, which enables clinical users of the EMIS Web clinical system to find and recommend high quality digital health apps to their patients via text or email, directly from their existing workflow. All apps listed on the platform (including Equoo) have been evaluated under NHS Digital’s digital assessment questions (DAQ) and assessed for their clinical safety, data protection, security and usability.”

Earlier this year the startup also gained scientific backing for its app, Going through a “three arm”, five-week-long, randomized control trial with over 350 participants, with Bosch UK. By contrast Woebot, a highly lauded mental health chatbot startup, went through only a two-week trial with 70 participants.

Results showed “statistically significant increases in wellbeing metrics” and a significant decrease in anxiety when using the app over a timeframe of five weeks.

The Station: Canoo hits the road, Coup shutters and Samsung shifts

Welcome back to The Station, the go-to newsletter for keeping up-to-date on what the heck is going on in the world of transportation. I’m your host, Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch.

Portions of the newsletter are published as an article on the main site after it has been emailed to subscribers (that’s what you’re reading now). The Station is emailed every Saturday morning. To get everything, you have to sign up. And it’s free. To subscribe, go to our newsletters page and click on The Station.

We love tips and feedback. Please reach out anytime and tell us what you love and don’t love so much. Email me at [email protected] to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

Shared mopeds might be popular, but that doesn’t mean companies operating these services are guaranteed to succeed. This week, TechCrunch reporter Romain Dillet reported that Coup, a wholly owned subsidiary of Bosch that operates an electric moped scooter-sharing service in Berlin, Paris and Madrid, is shutting down.

The closure might surprise some, considering Coup has brand recognition and, according to the company a loyal customer base that uses its services. That’s not enough to be a profitable enterprise. Coup said that operating the service is “economically unsustainable” in the long term.

Meanwhile, TechCrunch reporter Manish Singh learned from two sources familiar with the deal that Bangalore-based startup Bounce has raised about $150 million as part of an ongoing financing round led by existing investors Eduardo Saverin’s B Capital and Accel Partners India. Bounce, formerly known as Metro Bikes, operates more than 17,000 electric and gasoline scooters in three dozen cities in India.

The new round values the startup “well over $500 million,” the people said, requesting anonymity. This is a significant increase since the year-old startup’s Series C financing round, which closed in June, when it was worth a little more than $200 million.

Bounce, which is known for its cheap rental costs, along with competitors Vugo and Yulu are trying to carve market share away from ride-hailing companies like Uber . The big attraction isn’t necessarily price either. Traffic congestion is prompting people to turn to two wheels as well, giving Bounce and others a boost.

Subscriptions are so hot right now

the station electric vehicles1

Remember Canoo, the Los Angeles startup that revealed a minibus-type electric vehicle a few months back? We have an update. In short, the company’s rapid ramp continues to accelerate despite some legal headwinds.

Canoo is taking an interesting approach to EVs. It aims to offer a “subscription only” electric vehicle in the U.S. and China.

The company began life as Evelozcity in late 2017 after ex-BMW executives Stefan Krause and Ulrich Kranz left Faraday Future amid an internal power struggle. Evelozcity rebranded as Canoo in spring 2019 and unveiled its prototype electric vehicle several months later.

Now, the company is beta testing its EV on public roads. Canoo tells me that its focus is to validate the powertrain, steer-by-wire system, battery, chassis and body structure.

Canoo is building a fleet of more than 30 beta vehicles for various types of testing. The bulk of the beta testing is expected to take place over the next six months in various locations, including near Canoo’s Torrance, California headquarters, Toyota’s Arizona proving grounds and on public roads in Ohio.

Canoo said it’s also conducting hot and cold testing as well as focusing on the advanced driver assistance system in various locations.

Canoo electric vehicle

A subscription reboot

Automakers including Audi, Porsche and Volkswagen have been testing subscription programs with mixed success. Now, one failed pilot is coming back.

At an event in Los Angeles, GM’s Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Wahl said the subscription service Book by Cadillac will return next year. GM’s luxury brand Cadillac will pilot the next-generation of the subscription service in San Francisco starting in the first quarter of 2020.

“We learned a lot from the first pilot… first, it verified that there is no longer a one-size-fits-all solution to personal transportation,” Wahl said at the event. “Second, we learned that the BOOK model is enormously effective as a conquest mechanism: 70% of Book subscribers were new to Cadillac.”

Moving forward, Cadillac plans to integrate the subscription service into the retail dealer network, Wahl said.

A little bird

blinky cat bird green

We hear a lot. But we’re not selfish. Let’s share.

Samsung appears to be yet another company stepping back from a pursuit of full autonomy and refocusing efforts and investments towards advanced driver assistance technology. At least for now.

Several years ago, Samsung was all in on autonomous vehicle technology.  At CES in 2018, the company introduced its new Samsung DRVLINE platform — an “open, modular, and scalable hardware and software-based platform for the autonomous driving market. But Samsung is changing up its strategy.

The DRVLINE/Smart Machines team based out of its Samsung Strategy and Innovation Center has been shuttered, a source with direct knowledge of the events told me. This move also includes closing offices in Germany.

Let’s get wonky

the station autonomous vehicles1

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is keen to change how the 5.9 GHz band is used and that matters for connected car technology and the eventual deployment of autonomous vehicles.

For the unfamiliar, the 5.9 GHz band has been reserved for the past two decades to be used by the Dedicated Short Range Communications, a service in the Intelligent Transportation System that was designed to enable vehicle communication. (ITS is a joint operation that overlaps five offices under the Department of Transportation.)

In the FCC’s view, the DSRC service has evolved slowly and has not been widely deployed. The commission issued this month a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to take, what it calls “a fresh and comprehensive look” at the 5.9 GHz band rules and propose changes to how the spectrum is used.

The upshot: the FCC wants to carve up the band. The commission proposed dedicating the upper 30 megahertz of the 5.9 GHz band to meet current and future needs for transportation and vehicle safety-related communications, while repurposing the lower 45 megahertz of the band for unlicensed operations like Wi-Fi.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of this proposed change is the FCC’s views on DSRC and what sounds like a strong endorsement for Cellular Vehicle to Everything (C-V2X). The FCC wants to revise the rules and give C-V2X the upper 20 megahertz of the band reserved for vehicle communications. The commission plans to seek comment on whether this segment of the spectrum should be reserved for DSRC or C-V2X systems.

C-V2X, which the 5G Automotive Association supports, would use standard cellular protocols to provide direct communications between vehicles as well as infrastructure like traffic signals. But here’s the thing. C-V2X is incompatible with DSRC-based operations.

It’s pretty clear which way the FCC is leaning. In a speech Nov. 20, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he believes the government “should encourage the expansion and evolution of this new vehicle-safety technology.” Pai insists that the FCC is not “closing the door” on DSRC, but instead allowing for both.

“So moving forward, let’s resist the notion that we have to choose between automotive safety and Wi-Fi,” Pai said in his speech. “My proposal would do far more for both automotive safety and Wi-Fi than the status quo.”

Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 starts shipping

Earlier this year, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Microsoft announced the second generation of its HoloLens augmented reality visor. Today, the $3,500 HoloLens 2 is going on sale in the United States, Japan, China, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia and New Zealand, the same countries where it was previously available for pre-order.

Ahead of the launch, I got to spend some time with the latest model, after a brief demo in Barcelona earlier this year. Users will immediately notice the larger field of view, which still doesn’t cover your full field of view, but offers a far better experience compared to the first version (where you often felt like you were looking at the virtual objects through a stamp-sized window).

The team also greatly enhanced the overall feel of wearing the device. It’s not light, at 1.3 pounds, but with the front visor that flips up and the new mounting system that is far more comfortable.

In regular use, existing users will also immediately notice the new gestures for opening up the Start menu (this is Windows 10, after all). Instead of a ‘bloom’ gesture, which often resulted in false positives, you now simply tap on the palm of your hand, where a Microsoft logo now appears when you look at it.

Eye tracking, too, has been greatly improved and works well, even over large distances, and the new machine learning model also does a far better job at tracking all of your fingers. All of this is powered by a lot of custom hardware, including Microsoft’s second-generation ‘holographic processing unit.’

Microsoft has also enhanced some of the cloud tools it built for HoloLens, including Azure Spatial Anchors that allow for persistent holograms in a given space that anybody else who is using a holographic app can then see in the same spot.

Taken together, all of the changes result in a more comfortable and smarter device, with reduced latencies when you look at the various objects around you and interact with them.

Porsche pilots online vehicle sales in the U.S. and Germany

Porsche will begin selling its vehicles online in the U.S. for the first time, the company announced on Monday. To begin with, the company is proceeding with a pilot program that will be offered with 25 of its U.S.-based dealer partners, but the automaker says it could expand to cover the U.S. market more broadly across a larger group of the 191 independent Porsche dealers that currently operate in the U.S.

The pilot project will let Porsche buyers pick out and submit an order for both new and used in-stock vehicles, but the process isn’t entirely online – buyers will still have to show up at a dealership to sign the final paperwork, and to take delivery of their new car. All the heavy lifting is handled online, however, including things like financing and payment calculators, as well as credit approvals and any insurance options that a buyer chooses to append to their purchase.

U.S. online shoppers will be able to do all of this through new sections integrated into the websites of the dealers participating into the program. Meanwhile, at the same time in Germany, Porsche is introducing online vehicle sales centralized through their own ‘www.porsche.de’ website, which itself is a pilot designed to test the waters for a broader European roll-out.

Online auto sales are not new, but they still aren’t really a widespread thing in most markets, especially in the U.S. where the existing independent dealership system persists. Tesla leaned heavily into online vehicle sales, however, due in part to its unwillingness to work with independent dealer partners, and to the inflexibility of state laws that protect that system. The automaker’s investment in automotive ecommerce has clearly inspired others to follow suit, however, and I don’t expect Porsche will be the last to dip its toes in these waters.

Morpheus Space’s modular, scalable satellite propulsion could be a game-changer for orbital industry

Building effective propulsion systems for satellites has traditionally been a highly bespoke affair, with expensive, one-off systems tailor-made to big, expensive spacecraft hardware. But increasingly, companies including startups are looking at ways to provide propulsion tech that can scale with the projected boom in demand for orbital satellites, including cube sats and small sats, as the commercialization of space and advances in sensor, communication and launch technology broaden the scope of those working in this bold new frontier.

Morpheus Space, which began life as a research project at the University of Western Germany, has accomplished a lot when it comes to propulsion in the short time since its official founding around a year and a half ago. The Dresden-based startup already has sent some of its thrusters to space where they’re actually providing propulsion, and it’s working with a number of clients and potential clients including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The startup also just wrapped up its participation in Techstars’ inaugural Starburst Space Program in LA.

“Our motivation behind starting Morpheus Sapce was the lack of maneuverability of, especially small satellites in space,” explained Morpheus CEO and co-founder Daniel Bock, who I spoke to at last week’s International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C. “We have around 2,000active satellites in space, and in the next few years this will increase by 10x. We have to deal with that. So the first step in how we want to solve that is with our proportion systems, to give mobility to small satellites.”

The startup has seen a ton of inbound interest, and has even had conversations with the CTO of NASA and the CEO of Aerospace Corporation based on the strength of its technology. But what’s so special about what they’re doing, vs. what has already been available for satellite propulsion? Put simply, “it’s the world’s smallest and most efficient propulsion system,” according to Morpheus Space co-founder István Lőrincz.

NanoFEEP V2 SingelUnit Assembly V1.0 transparent Unschärfe

A single Morpheus NanoFEEP thruster propulsion system.

Morpheus’ thruster uses gallium as its fuel source, which allows it to be very efficient, with an operating linespace of up to three or more years – non-stop, Lőrincz told me. When you factor in the low cost of these thrusters vs. other solutions, and the ability to make them incredibly small (one thruster, along with electronics, is not that much larger than your average USB charger), you get a product that’s tailor made for the cost-sensitive emerging new space industry. Ensuring the mass of these thrusters is small pays off big dividends when it comes to thinking about launch costs, and the fact that these are ‘LEGO-like’ in their modularity means they can suit a variety of different clients’ needs.

“You can build propulsion systems for satellites that are below one kilogram, up to those the size of trucks, just by creating arrays,” Lőrincz says.

3U Satellite Rendering MF transparent

An example of a Morpheus multi-thruster array used in a 3U-sized small satellite.

Size is important, but so is scalability, and that’s another strength that the Morpheus thrusters bring to the market. Lőrincz told me that their technology allows you quickly and easily build a large batch of the thrusters, instead of having to tailor-make your propulsion system to fit the satellite, which provides big benefits in terms of manufacturing and design costs – which Morpheus can then pass on to its customers, opening up the possibility of including true orbital maneuvering capabilities to a whole new, much more price-sensitive segment of the market.

Next up for Morpheus Space, after it gets its hardware business fully up and running, is to develop and deploy software that complements its thrusters and can offer clients things like fully automated route planning and navigation, Bock told me.

“For example, you can imagine you just have to command ‘Okay I want to go from A to B,’ and everything is handled on board,” he said. So when and how you turn, all the routing. And the next step will be an automated way of handling whole constellations.”

It’s a big goal, but there’s a big potential pay-off. More and more companies are getting into the constellation game, including SpaceX and Amazon, and there’s a lot more to come on that front as companies build out new use cases for collecting and making use of data gathered from orbit. Orbital traffic management and collision avoidance is one reason big industry groups like the Space Safety Coalition are being formed, and anyone who can help supply players at all budget levels of the industry with a solution stands to benefit.