Winning ways: Tech companies excel in Accelerate competition

Photo provided by L. Brad King Orbion founder L. Brad King, center, accepts the $500,000 grand prize for his company in the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition in Detroit.

DETROIT — Companies with Michigan Technological University ties got high marks at this year’s Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition, including the top overall prize.

Coming in first was Orbion Space Technology, which received $500,000 in cash and $39,000 in in-kind services. The company was founded by Tech professor L. Brad King, the Ron and Elaine Starr professor in Space Systems in Tech’s mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics department.

Orbion builds small engine propulsion systems that are bolted onto satellites to get them to their destination.

In the next five to seven years, about 10,000 satellites will be launched into space, King said — “more than have been launched since the dawn of the space age.” The satellites, some as small as a smartphone, are packed into the nose cone of a rocket and released once the rocket is in orbit.

But having so many released into the same orbit has created difficulties. The thrusters can put the satellites in better position. Once they’re no longer necessary, they detach from the satellite and fall back into the atmosphere, where they burn up on re-entry.

“We’re not involved with getting the vehicle into space, but once it’s in space, we let it do its job,” he said.

StabiLux Biosciences (Novolux), developed by Tech physics professor Yoke Khin Yap, won the “Up and Comer Award.” That came with more than $30,000 in cash and services. The company makes bright dyes used to distinguish types of cells in flow cytometry, which analyzes cells via laser.

Makerhub, a student-developed web app, was a finalist in the student division. It links students who need 3-D printing done with students who have their own printers.

Three Tech startups and three student startups were also semifinalists in their respective divisions.

Companies are first invited to apply online. The 200 entrants were winnowed down to 36 semifinalists invited to the competition in Detroit.

There were two rounds of presentations, done in a format similar to the show “Shark Tank,” King said. After all 36 companies gave presentations, the top 10 did another round for a different panel of judges at an evening gala event.

Orbion raised $1.5 million over the summer. The additional $500,000 will speed their progress to the marketplace, King said.

“It’s incredibly valuable for our company,” King said. “The market we’re addressing is happening really, really fast and we need to act fast. This award will accelerate our development, so that’s huge.”

Orbion has had support from the MTEC SmartZone and Innovation Shore Angel Network, King said.

King expects to have a completed, flight-quality device in 18 months. Within seven years, the company could bring 50 high-tech jobs to the area.

“Our motto is that the U.P. is as close to outer space as anywhere on Earth, so why not here?” he said.