2022 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Canopy Aerospace, University of Chicago (Booth)

Canopy Aerospace

University of Chicago, Booth School of Business

Industry: Space and Defense

Founding Student Name(s): Matt Shieh

Brief Description of Solution:  Canopy Aerospace manufactures Thermal Protection Systems (TPS), or heat shields for the space industry. Heat shields protect spacecraft during the destructive environment of re-entry, vehicles traveling at hypersonic speeds, and military weapon systems. Our solution consolidates a fragmented manufacturing process that lowers costs, shortens lead times, and increases overall safety of flight for the Defense Industrial Base (DIB). We do this through integration of software, additive manufacturing, sensors, and MRO (Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul) services.

Funding Dollars: $1.8M pre-seed

What led you to launch this venture? After a summer internship in investment management, I came across an incubator (FedTech) that partners entrepreneurs with government agencies to evaluate and commercialize technology from federal labs. I was introduced to the NASA division at Ames Research Center, which has been developing heat shields since the space program began in the 1960’s. They have this incredible technology that’s been flown on the Space Shuttle program, rockets, and re-entry capsules but has traditionally been difficult for space companies to access. I was curious how space companies today developed heat shields for their vehicles.

After completing over 100 customer discovery calls with space companies, I found compelling evidence that this was a critical supply chain issue that the entire space and defense industry was facing. During this time, I also met my co-founder, John Howard, who was a material scientist working on similar technology. We teamed up and after several more calls with potential customers, we gathered enough evidence that this was a huge problem worth solving. Over several months, we developed our relationship further with NASA and were awarded a Space Act Agreement, which allows us to complete a tech transfer of materials for commercialization.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? Our biggest accomplishment to date has been raising our pre-seed round of $1.8M. I got a lot of pushback early on that scaling a deep tech company would be difficult, if not impossible. Every time an investor told me no, I would ask them for feedback. This turned into dozens of data points that guided a lot of our early strategy.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? Booth gave me the foundational skills and network to incubate the company. It was the perfect environment for me to leverage all the entrepreneurship classes that could help me build this venture. Classes such as Building the New Venture, Entrepreneurial Selling, and Accounting for Entrepreneurship contributed to the building blocks of establishing this company. My classmates were also some of the brightest individuals I’ve ever met and many of them provided feedback or were part of my startup team launching this company.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? My family has always been the biggest inspiration to me for entrepreneurship. I come from a long lineage of business owners who have owned restaurants, manufacturing businesses, and international trade firms. As a child, I grew up watching my dad run his own company. More recently, my cousin started a venture-backed software company in the healthcare space which has been successful. Hearing him talk about the challenges of a startup further motivated me to pursue this route.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? I took the business idea through New Venture Challenge (NVC), Chicago Booth’s startup accelerator class that has helped launch companies such as GrubHub, Braintree/Venmo, and Simple Mills. I was building the business case for this company during the school year and NVC helped me translate this into an opportunity for investors. We knew there was a big problem in the industry and we had a solution for it. Pitching a startup manufacturer in a highly technical field is difficult. However, we were able to pitch in front of VCs from a variety of industries who provided candid feedback, which was critical to honing our story in with the right audience. We ended up placing 3rd out of 60+ teams and received substantial funding that launched the beginning of our pre-seed round.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? I took Karl Muth’s New Venture Strategy class, which ended up being my favorite class at Booth. He was one of the most engaging professors I had and was extremely intelligent on every industry we discussed. The framework he taught in this class for modeling business cases is something I still use today. I also did my first pitch for the company in his class. He became one of my company advisors afterwards and continues to be a sounding board whenever I need guidance.

How has your local startup ecosystem contributed to your venture’s development and success? Our company is currently one of 12 companies in the Techstars LA Space Accelerator, which is a highly selective program with 600+ applicants this year. This program is in partnership with the United States Space Force and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. During the cohort, we’ve been able to refine our go-to-market strategy and strategic objectives. We’ve been connected with critical industry partners that will accelerate our market development for heat shields.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? Ultimately, I’m here because going to space and unlocking a destiny of humanity beyond earth is a really cool mission to be a part of. But in order to do so, we need to develop the industrial base for Thermal Protection Systems (TPS) manufacturing so companies can get to space faster, cheaper, and safer. We’re rebuilding a vertical of the space industry that has been neglected for years and needs a fresh take. Our vision is to have our heatshields on every rocket, space vehicle, and re-entry capsule over the next decade. Space is an unforgiving environment with inherent risk but I’m glad to be part of this journey in history.


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