Haot sits on the F1.
Max Haot has always been obsessed with space. Before he became a tech entrepreneur and the founder of Livestream, Haot was a young man on his first trip from Belgium to the United States — the country he would eventually call home. Here he would start a family and make a name for himself, but during that first visit, he made a fateful stop at Kennedy Space Center’s Rocket Garden.
“There’s gotta be a bump on that right now,” Haot jokes, pointing toward a photo snapped of him as a kid. He’s sitting on the F1, the engine that powered the Apollo moon rockets. It’s also the largest engine of its kind ever built. Haot has kicked his feet up onto the turbine exhaust with a cheeky grin. He looks happy. It’s a frozen snapshot of a moment in 1984 that would influence the course of Haot’s life.
Fast forward to 2019, and Max Haot has left Livestream to become the CEO of Launcher, a space startup based in the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s refurbished warehouse complex, the NewLab. The building’s name speaks for itself. When you walk in, you’re met with an ecosystem of tech startups. Office cubicles are lined with fluorescent lights and succulents, glowing against the warehouse’s jet-black, monochromatic design. There’s the smell of creativity and nitro-brew in the air. You get the feeling that the seeds of innovation are being planted here.
But what made Haot walk away from Livestream and transition into the space engineering market? “It’s a combination of a lifelong ambition and being interested in new technology,” Haot tells Supercluster during our recent visit to the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Like typical journalists, our Chief of Content Robin Seemangal and I fell victim to our own curiosity. Translation: we got lost in the massive complex. Luckily, Haot came to find us in the lower atrium. He took us on a tour of the building’s facilities and introduced us to the Launcher team: a core group of four people, including Haot.
The engine is placed down post-ultrasound bath.
“In the last five years, I got to learn. My main skill is learning. Starting Launcher felt great,”
Launcher is tech entrepreneur Max Haot’s latest endeavor in the startup world after finding success in Livestream. What was originally a basement project soon turned into a ubiquitous streaming service in the early 2010’s. Despite Livestream’s rise, a deep interest in space exploration and rocketry still lingered for Haot. “Literally a month after starting Livestream, I found SpaceX, and I found Elon Musk. I was like, ‘How is this possible? How is it possible that this internet guy, like myself, can make this jump?”
Ultrasound baths refine and clean.
In 2017, Haot stepped down as CEO and sold Livestream to Vimeo. With those newly accumulated funds, he founded Launcher.
Igor shows us a burned out prototype.
Haot’s strategy with Launcher is unconventional when compared to other space startups. For one thing, Haot isn’t afraid of hiring outside of the states. The idea of vouching for a worker with US immigration doesn’t faze him. “Hiring Igor is a choice,” says Haot, referring to Launcher’s Chief Designer, Igor Nikishchenko, “Many people would have said, ‘Ukrainian engineer? Green Card? [That’s] too complicated.’ I like to work internationally. I’m not afraid of the bureaucracy of Visas.”
And launcher is in no rush to put engines on the market. Traditional business plans aren’t always compatible with rocket engineering. The company’s long haul plan might be a tough sell to certain investors, but Launcher is determined to stick to its slow-and-steady approach. Creating new engines requires multiple phases of testing and development. Production cost is one of the biggest obstacles that development teams face. Even NASA’s projects can turn into a money sinkhole, with its Space Launch System program expected to reach a cost of 8.9 billion by 2021.
Instead of trying to sell engines as soon as possible, Launcher is counting on a market culture that will value efficiency and quality overall in the long-run. “Our goal is to build the highest-performance, lowest-cost per pound of payload — not lowest-cost by itself — engine of its class. Which is 23,000 lbs,” Haot explains.
For Haot, pursuing a long-term production plan at Launcher is a refreshing change of pace. “I don’t want to just build a ten year company. You need to find ways, if you raise money, for that to make sense. You need to find advances to give your investors a return,” he says. “I’m definitely against the idea of ‘you start a company, you flip it, and you don’t think long-term.’ I think there’s too much of that on the internet side. It’s not thinking long-term, and it’s encouraged by the whole system.”
Prototypes are digitally designed then 3D printed.
Most importantly for Haot, Launcher is not a side project or a cash grab. It’s an effort to change the world for the better. “I hope it will definitely outlive me. More importantly, I hope that Launcher will make an impact on space exploration, my generation, and the future. I think it’s the best gift we can give our kids.”
Haot’s temperament strikes a balance between mild-mannered, and a quirky enthusiasm that’s distinctly European. His business model, too, is different from those of his American counterparts.
“Our timeline is very different from other companies. Our goal is to build the highest-performance, lowest-cost per pound of payload engine of its class.”
“One way the market could go is [as it turns out] there’s not much demand. There’s no need for another launcher. It could also go ‘Wow, we need more launchers. [Launchers] that are higher margin, that are more profitable.’ That’s where we hope to be,” says Haot.
Haot is the kind of guy you’d befriend to convince your parents that you’ve got your life together. There’s no need for him to flex his ability as a businessman and works collaboratively as part of his own team. When it comes to space exploration, Haot believes all are working in concert toward a better future and prides himself on the team that's been assembled at Launcher to help build that future. “We set the road map and are tracking with it. I think we have a much better team than I would have dreamt,” says Haot, “Ultimately, I think about the world in ten thousand years, and how the moon landing will be the most important event. Comparatively, World War II won’t even be relevant. That’s assuming we’re multi-planetary and didn’t screw up.”
What’s next for Launcher is putting their full-scale engines through a series of tests. These tests will happen this summer at Launcher’s Long Island testing site, where The Verge space reporter Loren Grush visited last year to some unconventional results. “Failing is really important. Failing safely is really important,” Haot comments on the engine mishap, “It’s content! It’s great!” Since this minor mishap, Launcher has reached its highest performance combustion goal with its 3D printed copper alloy engine in subscale engine tests.
Beyond the summer, Launcher’s game plan remains steadily on track. What lies ahead of their first test launch in 2024 will be determined by how much the market for space exploration has changed by then. As a former tech guy, Haot is well aware that demands and interests are constantly shifting, and he is prepared to oversee his startups’ developments with a degree of patience. When asked if there is anything he would tell his younger self before starting Launcher, Haot has this to say: