First Mode’s chief scientist spans the spectrum

Lots of tech startups have a chief executive officer and a chief technology officer, and some have a chief operating officer and a chief financial officer as well. But how many have a chief scientist?

First Mode, for one. The Seattle-based creative engineering company recently named its first chief scientist (and its first COO). Both were internal promotions, with co-founder Rhae Adams becoming chief operating officer and planetary scientist Elizabeth Frank becoming chief scientist.

Many of the projects First Mode has worked on over the three years of its existence have to do with planetary exploration. For example, the company’s engineers have provided support for NASA’s Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February; and for the Psyche probe that’s due for launch to a metal-rich asteroid next year.

But other projects are much closer to home: First Mode is building a hydrogen-fueled power system for the massive trucks that Anglo American uses to haul ore out of its mines, and it’s designing a power module for the world’s first zero-emission race truck in Mexico’s Baja 1000 endurance race.

Those Earth-based engineering challenges represent a brave new world for Frank, who was part of the science team for NASA’s Messenger mission to Mercury and came to the Seattle area in 2016 to work at Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining company that fizzled out just as First Mode was forming.

First Mode has grown rapidly, despite the COVID pandemic. Two years ago, just before the virus took hold in the U.S., the company had 28 full-time employees. Today it has more than 150 employees, including more than two dozen at its Australian facility in Perth. First Mode is planning to add 170 more jobs in 2022.

Some of those jobs will be on the chief scientist’s team in Seattle. But Frank’s duties extend far beyond the Emerald City. She’s also the chair of the Commercial Advisory Board for NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, and the co-author of a white paper for the National Academy of Science’s decadal survey that delved into the role of commercial space ventures in planetary exploration.

“I would like to see NASA have smaller missions, so that it’s OK for some number of those missions to fail in a way that allows technology to move forward,” she said.

The way Frank sees it, failure should be more of an option.