Ethan Thornton is a teenager who has gained the interest of the US Department of Defense and Venture Capital firms alike. With the war in Ukraine worsening and the US’ continued efforts to support the Ukrainian front, the entrenched military industrial complex is no longer enough to supply the Pentagon. Through his startup, the 19-year-old is working to develop ammunition that is powered by hydrogen as well as other machinery for the US military.
The Defense Industry Disruptor
Thornton’s interest in hardware and military inventions was sparked by his obsession with electrolysis back in high school. By splitting water into its components, Thornton learnt of the ability to use hydrogen to create arms.
To further his research, he wrote a 20-page paper to convince his parents to give him $200. Using the electrolyzer he built and deer feeder batteries, Thornton discovered a device with the functionality of a bazooka.
Even before joining the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Thornton was already working at the MIT Lincoln Lab which is a national research and development facility center managed by the school for the DOD.
The lab included a separate section devoted to energy systems because the military has long been interested in hydrogen, particularly as a reliable energy supply chain for contested war environments.
During his time at the lab, he quickly realized that MIT was not a suitable place to actualize his dreams. He, therefore, dropped out and focused his resources on building connections with people within the government.
“This was pre-team, pre-revenue, anything. I just couldn’t sit through classes anymore,” he said.
He, however, did not leave Lincoln Lab alone. He left with Mark Donahue, a former program manager for control and autonomous systems who had worked at the lab for 15 years, and Erik Limpaecher, a senior technical staff member at the lab’s energy systems group.
The two joined his team at his startup, Mach Industry, with Donahue as the vice president of engineering and Limpaecher as the chief innovation officer. The defense tech startup has now grown to have a team of 15 as well as a headquarter based in Austin.
Replacing Gunpowder with Hydrogen
In an uncharacteristic move from the US commander and chief, President Joe Biden admitted that the US is low on ammunition after its many shipments to Ukraine. This may be why the Department of Defense is starting to show interest in startups and open its contracts up to smaller suitors.
Mach Industry is one of the startups that the DOD has shown interest in. It has a hardware-first approach to defensive technologies and makes use of state-of-the-art hydrogen synthesis techniques. Using hydrogen combustion powered by a field-produced energy source, the company aims to give the military a tactical edge in war.
Using this technology, Thornton and his team have created unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), munitions, and hydrogen generation systems. According to the company, this approach is more cost-effective than existing weapons.
In fact, Thornton stated that the company is working to replace gunpowder by switching munitions from rocker-based to more projectile-based systems. In an interview with TechCrunch, he said: “That’s fundamentally one of the changes Mach wants to see happen: taking more away from the rocket equation — because you have to bring your own propellant, your own sensors, and things get very expensive — and back to actually an older model using more projectile-based systems.”
In June, the company secured funding from Sequoia Capital as the first investment the VC firm has made in defense tech. The company raised $5.7 million during the seed round which was led by Sequoia and had participation from Marque VC and Champion Hill Ventures.
This funding, the company says, will be used to increase its engineering capabilities in production, research and development, and staff hiring. Currently, the company is out in Texas’s open lands conducting experiments using hydrogen in combustible applications.
Within the next five years, Thornton intends to be producing thousands of products annually, with some systems reaching the end user within a year. He, however, admitted that some will take more than 12 years.
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