Defense & Aerospace Daily Podcast: Building a Better Rocket Propellant with Dr. Wes Naylor

On this episode of the Defense & Aerospace Report Daily Podcast, host Vago Muradian interviews Dr. Wes Naylor, retired US Navy captain and CEO of Helicon Chemical, who is developing a drop-in-ready, upgraded propellant binder that will improve the performance of missiles, rockets, aerospace propulsion systems and munitions for government and commercial customers.


Read the full transcript below. 


Muradian:  Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report Podcast.  I’m your host, Vago Muradian.  Our podcast is brought to you by Bell.  Since 1935 Bell has been redefining flight.  Learn more about its pioneering spirit at BellFlight.com.


Joining us today is a friend of our program who’s joined us many, many times before.  Dr. Wes Naylor, a retired United States Navy captain who commanded the Naval Air Warfare Centers Training and Simulation Division, as well as the Fifty Pound Brains advisory company.  He is now the new CEO of Helicon Chemical, an innovative company that was founded a decade ago by Dr. David Reid who developed a potentially revolutionary new propellant and binder for guided weapons including a new generation of hypersonic missiles.  Wes, welcome back to the program.  It’s great to have you aboard.


Naylor:  Vago, a pleasure to be with you as always, and looking forward to the conversation.


Muradian:  And before we get started, our global coverage is sponsored by Leonardo DRS; Fortress Information Security sponsors our weekly Cyber Report and Northrop Grumman supports our cyber coverage overall; General Atomics Aeronautical Systems sponsors our coverage of strategy.


Same here, indeed.  Our producer, Chris Servello, you guys are old friends.  I should point out that aside from Chris being our producer he’s also the cofounder of the Provision Advisors PR firm who’s worked with you.  In every iteration, Wes, you’ve continued to be involved in absolutely fascinating stuff, whether it was some of the Fifty Pound Brains stuff we were talking about, cutting state of the art in training and simulation technology.  You guys were working on the Clear system in order to be able to cleanse aircraft cabins of potential biohazards.  That was at the height of the pandemic.  And now of course this.  So we wish you nothing but fair winds and following seas on the new assignment.


Talk to us a little bit about what it is you guys do, and why what it is that you guys do is so unique.  Dr. Reid not just developed an entirely new propellant binder technology, but you also can improve almost anybody else’s propellant and binder technology.  And I want to preface this by saying there are pretty strict limits about what it is you can say under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.  But what is it you can tell us about what you guys do that’s different and important at a time when the United States wants to improve its stocks of guided weapons across the board from small munitions all the way up to big ones and hypersonic ones?   


Naylor:  Absolutely, Vago.  And again, thanks for the question.


It is a really interesting and challenging space.  As we look across DoD and the administration and how we’re hoping to interact with small, innovative companies and what they can bring to the table, there’s always a lot of barriers that we run into.  And as you well know, whether it was involving installation, the advanced biosecurity or cybersecurity domains, our teams have been working around how can we find that advanced technology that is dual use, has a very valid or proven use in the commercial sector, and rapidly transition it into use by the DoD in ways that make it accessible to everyone.  I think that’s one of the large challenges.  


Certainly from the administration, down through both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, there’s this call out there that we have to bring innovation and small business to bear, but there are some challenges that we traditionally face.  How do you get an idea that maybe at a TRL 1 or 2 and transition that into a warfighter capability in short fashion?  That’s a tall order.


The thesis we came up with was if we could find more advanced technology at the TR level, say 5 or above, that already had a proven commercial use as well, we could set a stage through the use of OTAs, SBIRs at the phase two and beyond level, to start bringing that in and what I like to think of really as an open architecture type of format for non-traditional things.  


Generally we think of software in open architecture.  But what if we could bring in RUVC capabilities?  What if we could bring in cybersecurity capabilities? What if we could bring in something that would dramatically improve the performance of solid rocket fuels and next generation technologies related to hypersonics?  And we could do it in a way that it could insert into legacy and developmental programs at a very low level in the supply chain, and it didn’t matter which OEM or which lead system integrator was doing it, or if the company that we have was doing it ourselves.  We could make it available to program managers and defense planners in a more ubiquitous way.


So that’s kind of the thesis we’re operating on.


Muradian:  So technologically the thesis is important, but technologically what is it you guys are doing, both on the propellant side and on the binder side of it?  The binder is what holds the whole thing together and makes the magic happen, right?  In a controlled fashion where you can even control frost and a whole bunch of other things with that, of course, which is important certainly in a hypersonic application.  Any application.


What is it you guys are doing that’s different, drawing off of commercial in order to develop what could be actually kind of a breakthrough approach on the defense side?


Naylor:  The core intellectual property is built around that our founder David Reid was one of the principal investigators on, s around a technology that’s really a new form of chemistry producing metallic polymer composites, and it allows you to bring very unique material characteristics to bear in a number of potential use cases.


One of the most obvious that it came to bear I was in the energetics line.  If we could take the ability to produce a new formulation that could become a part of say a legacy rocket fuel formulation whether it was for commercial or military use, keep all the good material properties in those legacies but through the introduction of this unique structure, improve the capacity and output in a significant way.  


That’s a very major change.  And the fact that we can do this at the core level and the easiest level of upgrading and existing and proven bundle of those technologies really means that if you into a legacy formulation, so you could take an existing system that you want to improve the range or lift capacity, and by inserting this compound at a very low level in the developmental chain, directly improve the performance in a significant fashion that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars of non-recurring engineering if you were going to completely reengineer a weapon system to come up with those gains and range of performance in some other way.


So that’s, at the highest level I can talk about is it’s a new form of chemistry where we have specifically applied it to binders, that works exceptionally well with all of the current solid rocket fuels that are within the inventories and also works exceptionally well in solid rocket fuels for hypersonics.


Muradian:  Obviously aluminum perchlorate is one of those sort of staple fuels that we’ve used since World War II as sort of foundationally core to the solid rocket industry.


You guys just won the Air Force Pitch Day.  Congratulations on that, by the way.  July 20 and 21.  So most of us when we were sweating at Farnborough, Wes, you were sweating at Eglin Air Force Base.  AT least you were in an air conditioned setting, so that’s good.


Talk to us a little bit about the Pitch Day and what this phase two award means for you guys.


Naylor:  David and the team have done a remarkable job over the past nine years of taking what was a fundamental basic science find in this new form of chemistry and then developing it into actual products.  And Helicon is bringing two products to market right now.  One is the binder formulation which is part of the award at Eglin; and the other is an actual aluminum powder formulation that is encased in the binder material which is a very high performance additive for rocket fuels in general.


This was a great opportunity for us because we’ve done a lot of work with other DoD entities.  We’ve worked and continue to work with the Navy in NLR, the Air Force AFRL, NDA and a score of commercial partners.  But that has allowed us to in very specific use cases mature the technology up to its [406] which is right at that break point where you can really say we can start figuring out how we can work this into programs of record, which is that leap from SBIR to become so tough.


In order to do that, what we proposed was to take our binder and really prove it out to a TR 6 level across the entire inventory of what is currently being used.  So the idea is to qualify it so that any commercial manufacturer, commercial partner, or the Air Force itself or any DoD component command, could then specify this as a capability or a component that they want included in a planned upgrade or a new development, and there’s not that same level to get over proving that it works because we’ve already done that in partnership with the Air Force.


Muradian:  Let me just sort of go back in terms of what is it you guys do.  As you mentioned, you can make — you’re a little bit like BASF, right?  Not to pull the company’s legendary slogan, right?  You make things better.  Your case is that we can make it go faster, we can make it go farther, and we can do that at a fraction of the cost of starting from scratch.  


How scalable is what you’re doing?  That becomes one of the more important questions the department always asks.  You’re in kind of a tough place because ultimately at some point the SBIR — you know, small contracts are not really enough to sustain you.  You’re looking to get to that bigger work.  How scalable is what you’re doing?  And what’s the time scale both in working with the customer to get you guys certified, but then also to build up the capacity that you guys have to be able to furnish and to do this at scale?


Naylor:  It’s a great question and it’s at the heart of what we’re doing, not only in this recent award but across other work that we’ve already been doing with the Navy and the Air Force, and also part of our dual track, both commercial and government track development.


It is a crucial part of what we’re doing across the next 12 months.  Our ability to take what we’ve been able to prove out at the laboratory level and in the small production domain and move that into largescale manufacturing.  It’s currently what we are doing.  Literally in the process of signing the contracts with our partners to be able to show that we can scale.  Because it is a vital part of becoming a part of the defense infrastructure.  There are lots of great ideas up there, but in order to work at the levels we want to work at, there’s a requirement to show that you can become a part of the national defense infrastructure at a scale where you can be a reliable supplier


So in addition to the great work, and we’ve had a lot of success with our federal partners, we are in the process right now of finalizing our first raise in bringing in some outside capital with people who see the vision and the maturity of our technology as it sits, and realize that the addressable market here not only for this instantiation for solid rocket fuels and propellants inside the commercial and DoD but the other uses of this chemistry which are immense into the semiconductor industries and others, just to name one.  They see the value of this.


We are bringing pretty much what DoD and the administration and the Hill have been asking for is be a company that can find a dual-use technology, tap into private sector capital and the government capital, and then use those to multiply the effect of each other to find that place in the national infrastructure for critical supply chain items like propellants.


Muradian:  You started by actually talking a little bit about semiconductors.  I’m interested in you being able to spin that out for our audience and the application for this in the semiconductor industry.  Just like propellants, whether for defensive missiles, short range missiles, Javelin, or something that is much, much longer range, you guys have a role in that.  What’s the role in semiconductors?  Because obviously there’s the Chips Act, there’s a lot of national focus on that to develop this capability and give the United States more sovereign capability.  How do you guys play into the whole semiconductor piece of this equation?


Naylor:  The underlying chemistry that we’re talking about, the metallic polymer composites, lend themselves to some extremely interesting use cases in heat management and in dielectric films.  We are at the early TRL levels of that and as we build out our technology road map across the next 18 months we understand the critical functioning there as portrayed in the Chips Act, and we have gotten a tremendous amount of interest from potential partners as they see how this technology could be used to improve the performance of semiconductors significantly through heat management.


Muradian:  And you just mentioned 18 months.  One of my standard questions is, when you grow up in five years, what do you want to be and how do you get there?  We heard recently from Leigh Madden of Epirus and the challenge of sort of growing and sort of getting to that next stage.  Obviously your investors want to get there as well.  And I should point out that Dr. Reid, your founder, is still with the company as the Chief Technology Officer, the CTO.  What’s the growth plan?  And where do you hope to be in five years?  And how do you get there, more importantly?  


Naylor:  That kind of gets back to how do you eat an elephant?  One chunk at a time.  And that’s what it is.  Taking an idea from germination and building that up to a very successful SBIR firm.  David’s done a tremendous job in that.  And through that work, attracted the interest to say okay, now can you take this from being a high functioning SBIR-based concern and move into a production capability?  That requires more capital, it requires more team, it requires more capability and that’s what we’re in the process of.


Obviously bringing aboard investment and our targets over the next 12-18 months.  It was 18 months, was my target on this first one, was building out the corporate infrastructure and the manufacturing capability.  And proving that out so that we can be delivering in thousands of kilograms rather than tens of kilograms at a laboratory scale.


Through things such as the [Armament Directorate], when the interest has gone up exponentially.  So there might be some acceleration in how we have to approach our growth.  That’s going to obviously drive us towards additional investment.  What I thought might be 18 months from now, is probably 12 months from now, so that we can further build out production partners, that we can take this from lab to small manufacturer, to coming up with a way that we can work with multiple partners in very large settings to produce [inaudible]. 


We’re also seeing some very interesting things coming out through executive orders around the Defense Production Act.  Certainly one coming around, critical infrastructure and items for hypersonics.  We fit into that domain very well.  The question is, do we continue to build out so that we are producing the entire propellant in partnership with someone, or are we just providing the binder for that?  There could very easily be said that there’s an argument of DPA and the outreach for small businesses to grow that out, but that might be a very interesting and viable path for us with the right partners.  Not only for the hypersonic world but just for energetics in particular.  Those are parts of critical infrastructures for both defense and commercial use inside the United States.  And given the right conditions, the ability to provide additional outlets in partnership with folks we’ve already been working on, that could make for a very attractive path for us over the next five years.


Muradian:  Wes, fair winds, following seas.  We wish you all the best of luck and look forward to staying in touch with you as you through the process.  Again, congratulations and wishing you all the very best.


Naylor:  Vago, thanks so much.  Always a pleasure.  And I hope you guys are having a great summer up there and look forward to seeing you guys soon.


Muradian:  Indeed.  Whether in Florida or anywhere else.



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