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Full Force Innovator

Tim Pickens’ innovation engines have been on warp drive ever since a Rocket City childhood spent conjuring from the Amateur Scientist’s Handbook. Now he’s deep into medical inventions, as well as aerospace.

Rockets have always been fascinating for Tim Pickens. Here he test fires a prototype scaled propulsion rocket engine.

Rockets have always been fascinating for Tim Pickens. Here he test fires a prototype scaled propulsion rocket engine.

Photos by Dennis Keim

Growing up as the son of a self-taught engineer in Huntsville, Tim Pickens was never allowed to say the words, “I’m bored.”  Instead of playing video games or watching TV, he and his brothers were instructed to “go outside and build something,” he says, by a father who believed “no one should be bored when we have so many resources in this country.”

Pickens’ childhood projects included building a hang glider, a hovercraft, a distiller for rice beer and making gunpowder. By age 13, he was rebuilding Volkswagen engines. He spent a lot of time reading his father’s copies of Henley’s Formulas and the Amateur Scientist’s Handbook. “Most of the stuff we built didn’t work,” Pickens says. “But I learned a lot about the things I was interested in.”

His longtime affinity for building and inventing things has served Pickens well; he has built a reputation as an inventor and rocket scientist. He served as lead propulsion engineer for a private space travel company that won the $10 million X Prize and founded aerospace company Orion Propulsion in 2004, which he sold to Dynetics in 2009 after building it into a 40-employee, $6.4 million company.

Pickens is fond of demonstrating that rockets aren’t just for space.  Here he models his personal water-propelled jet pack.

In addition to his accomplishments on the job, Pickens has become known for his garage-style, weekend rocket projects — he has led amateur rocket building clubs to win design contests and builds his own rocket-powered vehicles, such as rocket bikes, a rocket truck and a jet-powered scooter. After making his mark by inventing new breeds of rocket engines and by building and selling a space hardware company that continues to bring major space contracts to Alabama, Pickens is now applying his engineering and marketing expertise to solve problems in healthcare and other industries.

Through his newly formed company, Pickens Innovations, Pickens is currently developing an anti-reflux device to be used with catheters to prevent urinary tract infections that are sometimes caused by catheterization and can become fatal in some sick patients. The device was designed by Mark Wells, a friend of Pickens, who learned about this problem after a family member’s hospitalization.

Because he suffers from sleep apnea, Pickens knows firsthand the hassle of lugging a bulky CPAP machine through an airport and pulling it out of the case every time he goes through security. For that reason, he’s developing a smaller, lighter CPAP device for easier travel.

Pickens’ process in developing these and other healthcare devices is to use local R&D resources. “We’re trying to conduct the research here in Alabama and tap into the smart folks here,” he says. “We’re doing a lot of design work and packaging and finding doctors to bring into the process for testing.”

Once the products are tested and approved, Pickens plans to move on to the next thing rather than overseeing the manufacturing and distribution process. Through building his space company, Orion, Pickens realized he “really enjoyed the development of new products and marketing, but I did not enjoy the long, boring recurring themes of production,” he says. “I was ready to move on to the next thing. I decided if I ever have another company, I want to be on the development end. You get so far away from development when you are running a company and working with bankers, lawyers and personnel issues. I wanted to get back to the innovation side of it.”

Another down-to-earth rocket application, Pickens on his rocket-powered bicycle.

While he’s still innovating, making the jump from space hardware to medical equipment may seem unusual, but it fits Pickens’ unique combination of skills. Huntsville is crawling with typical engineers who are serious, smart and reserved, but Pickens is not a typical engineer, and he stands out starkly in a city of pocket protectors and lanyards. In addition to his scientific bent and talent for building new things, he has a mind for business and marketing and an outgoing, witty personality. Inventing new products is just the beginning for Pickens, because he also knows how to market and sell those inventions.

“Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of smart people with good ideas,” Pickens says. His business model for Pickens Innovations “was the best way I could utilize the talent of people I know and help incubate some of the ideas of some smart guys who don’t like to do business or don’t understand how to do business. We’re developing products, doing the testing, and then we hope to find manufacturers who can produce and distribute the products.”

While Pickens may be working to solve new types of problems at the moment, he doesn’t plan to give up his lifelong preoccupation with aerospace. He plans to use any profits from his healthcare inventions to help fund other space products. He has a number of ideas for projects he wants to build, such as a vehicle to carry people to space cheaply and a reusable aerospike rocket engine. “I love aerospace, and I want to develop more products on my own dime,” Pickens says. “I have some designs, and I want to build them and test them on my own time. Right now, I want to make enough money to fund my habit of space transportation projects.”

For his accomplishments as a professional rocket scientist and as a garage rocket scientist, Pickens has been lauded, appearing on National Geographic’s “Mad Scientists” and featured in publications such as Fortune and the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space. But he says his proudest accomplishment has been the impact his work — and specifically his former company, Orion — has had on his hometown. “Building Orion was the hardest thing I ever did,” he says. “But I was able to handpick some great people, and the company has made a pretty interesting impact on Huntsville.”

Spoofing himself, Pickens dons his “Mad Scientist” apron to whip up a batch of rocket propellant.

By selling Orion to Dynetics, which already had a space division but no space hardware program, Pickens helped fill a void for Dynetics and allowed the larger company to compete for big space projects that have benefited Huntsville. He continues to serve Dynetics as a commercial space consultant, and, with his former Orion team, Dynetics recently won a contract to help build a space transportation launch system for Stratolaunch Systems, a space transportation venture founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Burt Rutan. The former Orion team, now at Dynetics, was a chief reason that Stratolaunch executives chose to locate their corporate headquarters in Huntsville, where they plan to test launch the vehicle in 2016.

“Paul Allen could have gone anywhere in America, but he came to Huntsville, Ala., to build the world’s largest airplane,” Pickens says. “People are here doing that and making a living, and their families are here, because we now have a privately funded space program that’s like no other. We get to build rocket engines for the world’s first space habitat or hotel, and someday that thing’s going to fly over Huntsville. I’m just proud I’ve had something to do with that.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Huntsville.

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