Stellant Systems CEO Paul Russell on New Beginnings for a Company with a Pioneering Past
Stellant Systems emerged in October 2021, when Arlington Capital Partners (ACP) purchased the L3Harris Electron Devices & Narda Microwave-West businesses. The company has a rich history in Radio Frequency/Microwave amplification products, and has reinvigorated its business and growth strategies under ACP. In this interview, CEO Paul Russell talks with Via Satellite about the company’s direction and investments, including the new nanoMPM® product for the Airbus OneSat program.
VIA SATELLITE: What is the background of Stellant Systems, how was the company formed?
RUSSELL: Stellant Systems, formerly L3Harris Electron Devices & Narda Microwave-West has been an Aerospace & Defense supplier for nearly 70 years. There are three paths that led to what is now Stellant Systems. First, Charles Litton’s San Carlos, California-based Engineering Laboratories originated in 1932. Coupled with Howard Hughes’ Torrance, California-based Microwave Tube division that started in 1959, along with multiple acquisitions and consolidation of divisions that operated under larger organizations (Sylvania, Loral, GM Hughes, Sperry, GE, RCA Raytheon, Boeing and L3Harris — to name a few), led to what is currently the three Stellant Systems locations in Torrance, California; Williamsport, Pennsylvania; and Folsom, California. What is now known as Stellant Systems was purchased by Arlington Capital Partners (ACP), a Washington D.C.-based private equity firm in October of 2021 because they saw it as an especially unique asset within the defense electronics ecosystem.
ACP has been a great boon for Stellant. It combines the best of both worlds — three strong companies that have a rich history in RF/Microwave amplification products, with the ability to be agile and invest in growth. One of the things that ACP has allowed us to do is tripling our IRAD [independent research and development] investment and quintupling our capital investment. ACP is investing heavily in the business, and we’re excited about the opportunities that affords us.
VIA SATELLITE: What market segments do you target?
RUSSELL: Stellant is re-dedicating itself to those market area strategies where we know our products and services make a difference and adapting to those market demands. We cover a broad array of markets, cross-sectioning in defense, space, and commercial markets. Stellant products are used in defense systems protecting the U.S. and its allies around the globe as critical power amplification products in radars, air defense missile and counter UAS systems, air and sea based electronic protection systems, etc. But we also offer key products in life and sight saving medical devices, synthetic diamond manufacturing, and laboratory and university research.
We see space – in all orbital areas — as a vital industry where higher frequency and power coupled with SWaP consciousness will continue to grow.
Electromagnetic Sppectrum Operations (EMSO)/ Defense is a resurgent market area for the types of products Stellant makes, particularly our Helix Traveling-Wave tubes (TWTs) and Microwave Power Modules (MPMs), and we are excited about supporting companies and military services around the world that are helping put the U.S. back in a position of excellence in that domain.
VIA SATELLITE: There is a trend of Microwave Tubes being replaced with Solid State Devices. What is your take on the future of this segment?
RUSSELL: When I talk to solid state manufacturers, they always say we’re in competition with each other, and we don’t look at it that way. We look at it as complementing, because the world needs a range of products. There are certain applications where SSPAs are the preferred solution, but in applications where power and bandwidth or SwaP matter, Traveling-Wave Tubes are important.
TWTAs and SSPAs, I think, are really two sides of the same coin. They’re both providing power amplification. Solid state is doing that with solid state transistors. The invention of highly efficient semiconductor devices, such as gallium arsenide or gallium nitride, has enabled their efficiency and their ability to hit high power. That technology is ever evolving and they’re able to reach higher powers and higher frequencies all the time.
The Tube is a device that instead of having semiconductors driving the power, it’s a vacuum device that involves exchanges of energy from an electron beam into a RF field, and then creating RF power out. For high power, high frequency, there’s generally a line where the tube is a better solution. There are inherent limitations in semiconducting devices that limit their efficiency, their heat dissipation, and their frequency response. In places where you have SWaP constraints, as well as high frequency, high power needs, tubes generally do better.
In my first job out of college, I did Space Station studies in the mid 1980s. Our program manager at NASA said, ‘Don’t even look at tubes. By the mid-90s, tubes will be gone.’ He missed the revolution of direct broadcast TV demanding higher powers. We still build Ku-band tubes and even some C-band tubes. Situations where efficiency and power matter tend to be applications where tube technology shines.
VIA SATELLITE: What market segment drives the most business for you?
RUSSELL: Space is very important to us. The radar markets, because we’re in so many different applications, are currently our largest market share. But space is a close second — and growing — because of the emergence of new space and the diversification of space. There’s not only a large number of new entrants into the space market like Astranis and Terran Orbital that are emerging to provide alternate solutions to the established primes, but you also have the diversification of space.
We just released a very exciting new product, the nanoMPM®, this microwave power module for space will actually start shipping this year to Airbus for their OneSat product. It essentially allows them to provide a single product that can be used across almost any orbital slot and with almost any kind of coverage area for power and flexibility. Communications is evolving very rapidly, and the market is demanding more flexibility. We’re providing products that enable that flexibility.
VIA SATELLITE: What is the timeline on the nanoMPM®?
RUSSELL: Our Ka-band nanoMPM® product is currently in production and we expect the first flight set deliveries for the Airbus OneSat program to be completed in Q3 of this year. We are very excited to be a part of the OneSat program and believe the nanoMPM® will enable an entirely new flexible satellite market.
VIA SATELLITE: Can you tell me more about your product portfolio and how the nanoMPM® fits into that?
RUSSELL: There’s different applications that require solid state versus tubes. The nanoMPM® fits a situation where a customer demands flexibility. But there’s other applications where a customer might need just raw high power over a wider bandwidth. One of our main customers has a very unique communications mission. They need to put a lot of power onto the Earth in order to deliver that content reliably to customers. There are needs for both products.
We offer a range of products, from our nanoMPM®, which is at the 40 watt-range for Ku- and Ka-band, all the way up to large 200–300-watt tubes at Q-, Ka- and Ku-band and an S-band tube in those power levels. We also have V-band technology up to 80 watts. There are places where you need that high frequency and high power.
VIA SATELLITE: Who are some of your major customers?
RUSSELL: We have a great portfolio of space customers. Besides our commercial space partners like Airbus, Maxar, and Astranis, we also supply to all of the aerospace primes. We have several international partnerships with allied countries.
Astranis has been a great customer of ours. We’re very excited about their successful launch and we are looking forward to an ongoing partnership with them.
VIA SATELLITE: What are some other interesting applications for your technologies?
RUSSELL: We’re really excited about environmental things such as industrial diamonds. Our customers provide diamonds for retail, and supporting that mission is great because it has social and environmental implications. We are also very excited about CO2 reclamation. And you can’t forget about medical — we are helping to save lives. We currently provide the frequency source for the CyberKnife cancer treatment application which has saved countless numbers of lives.
VIA SATELLITE: What differentiates Stellant Systems from other satcom manufacturers?
RUSSELL: We get feedback constantly from our customers that they love the performance of our products. They come to us and say we provide capability that’s unmatched. They really like the technical performance of our products. I think it’s our ability to work with customers to absolutely meet their mission needs. It’s not just answering the phone when somebody calls, but actually going out and talking to the customer.
At the end of the day — there’s a soldier out in a tough environment or a patient that is scared to death because they’re being treated for a life-threatening condition. We want to have a successful outcome in any of those cases. Our customers provide the products that do those things, and we want to help them be the best that they can be.
In terms of space, we are the only vertically integrated Space Traveling-Wave Tube Amplifier (TWTA) manufacturer in the world. We are also the only manufacturer of Space-qualified Traveling-Wave Tubes (TWTs) in the United States.
If a customer wants a linearized tube, we can sell them the power supply, the linearizer, and the tube itself. We are a one-stop-shop which saves them from having to do multiple procurements.
VIA SATELLITE: Can you customize your offerings?
RUSSELL: We’ve done that. And we’ve collaborated with competitors if a customer prefers a competitor’s power supply. We have figured out ways to work together because we want to make sure that we’re meeting our customers’ needs in the best way possible.
VIA SATELLITE: How are you further developing your product portfolio?
RUSSELL: We’re making a big bet on modernizing our power supplies for our traditional space TWTA. That allows us to be more responsive to market demands for power and different types of interfaces. That product is just starting development right now. It’s focused on meeting our customers’ need for shorter development schedules and more flexibility in terms of how they control the device. We are also investing in SSPA development. Now that we’re on our own, we’re able to make those investments more readily into what our customers’ needs are.
If you look at ACP’s history, they buy platform companies. Stellant is a platform company. So, we’re going to be out on the market acquiring other technologies over the coming years. We’re looking to expand our product portfolio so that we can be a one stop shop for whatever our customers need for either amplification or RF/Microwave passive products.
VIA SATELLITE: Will you acquire a company this year?
RUSSELL: I certainly hope so. It’s hard to predict how these things will come out. We’ve looked at a number of possible acquisitions. I’m hopeful we’ll get something out in the next quarter, but I think there’s a strong possibility you’ll see at least one acquisition this year.
What makes me legitimately excited about this is the degree of investment we’ve been able to make into the business and the potential to target some much broader markets and support exciting new applications. We’re happy with the first 18 months of Stellant.
VIA SATELLITE: You have customers in both space and medical markets. Do you see a future in which medical procedures are done in space?
RUSSELL: Of course they will. There’s a host of companies that are looking at both manufacturing and medical treatments that might happen in space. The world is going to evolve to do different things in space. It’s very exciting to see, because the things that we talked about in the 1980s are starting to come true. Some of the game changers have been the dramatic reduction in launch costs that had been brought about by some of these new players, namely SpaceX. That reduction in launch cost has enabled people to think about things in entirely new ways.
VIA SATELLITE: What does your product development process look like from design, development, and production?
RUSSELL: It starts with us looking at the market and what our customers tell us they need. It always starts with the customer and their mission requirements. We go through a standard process — preliminary design reviews, critical design reviews, prototyping, and eventually the product introduction process. All three facilities have manufacturing capability and environmental test capability and all three are AS9100 & ISO9001 certified manufacturing facilities. In Torrance, for instance, we can do everything from building power supplies, to building the individual components that go into the tubes, as well as the finished product, and delivering it through testing.
VIA SATELLITE: What are some industry trends or issues that you are following that affect product development?
RUSSELL: We manufacture XENON ION Propulsion Systems (XIPS®) which contains a plasma thruster. We’ve had a lot of interest in this plasma thruster, as recent events in Ukraine, have not allowed customers to buy Russian thrusters anymore.
The main trend is toward space becoming more distributed and more agile. We have been figuring out how to get products that support that evolution and the best example has been the nanoMPM®. I think we are going to see other applications with more integrated assemblies, because the spacecraft are going to get smaller and more dense. We are finding ways to help our customers meet that, taking up less space, with higher levels of integration.