Things did not go well the first time Natalya Brikner launched a startup.
Her 11-month tenure as the co-founder of Asteria Propulsion, a company started from her work on micro-rocket engines as a graduate student at Duke, had been humbling. The startup imploded in 2011, at which point she retreated to academia—MIT’s Space Propulsion Laboratory— where she intended to get a PhD and “hide out” for the rest of her career, she explained to the crowd at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women NextGen Summit on Wednesday at Laguna Niguel, Calif.
The reaches of the Ivory Tower weren't high enough to truly shield her from the private sector, though; Brikner’s work quickly attracted the notice of companies that wanted to buy her systems or license her technology. It took being “beaten over the head” with such offers—providing undeniable evidence of “product-market fit"—but by October 2012, she had founded her second company. Four years later, this space propulsion start-up, Accion Systems, is running smoothly and readying for first space launch.
Brikner has been through two rounds of fundraising, and says, though it’s constant work (she says she’ll be back at it soon), it has gone well. So, how did the rocket scientist do it?
She credits a mentor who gave her a fundraising “compass”—or the four points of one’s “story” to keep in mind, and to convey clearly to investors.
- Opportunity. How big is it? Why is it exciting?
- Context. Why you? How do you solve the problem?
- People. Why trust this team?
- Deal. Know what you want to get out of it, going in.
The rocket scientist had other advice for founders looking to launch—“Don’t be afraid to ask for help”—and some thoughts on extraterrestrial life: Statistically speaking, she doesn’t rule it out.