Kyle Flanagan and his mother, the artist Kim Bernard. Photo by Cecile Hebert, courtesy of Kim Bernard

Kyle Flanagan learned about science from watching his mother, Kim Bernard, practice art in her studio.

He saw what happened when water evaporated from clay, causing clay particles to shrink as they were drawn closer together. He learned the difference between pigments and light, and that pigments are chemicals that absorb wavelengths of light. As he got older, he observed her make things at her woodworking bench, and began using her woodworking and metalsmithing tools to make things himself.

Today, at age 29, he’s the founder and chief executive officer of a California-based space technology company that is developing a microwave propulsion system for fully renewable interplanetary travel. If successful, his company will make it possible to move spaceships and satellites through space without rocket fuel.

In December, Forbes magazine put him on its 30 Under 30 in Science list, highlighting his work as among the most important happening among young scientists today.

His company, Prime Lightworks, has raised $1.8 million in seed money and investment capital, and has begun a crowdfunding campaign to keep momentum moving forward. They’ve developed a prototype and are in the process of fine-tuning it with testing on Earth and eventually in space. To implement the idea on a commercial scale, Prime Lightworks has to continue to successfully test the prototype, eventually in zero gravity, Flanagan said.

It all started with him watching his mom make art at her studio in their home in North Berwick, where Flanagan grew up. “I got see my mom use materials for her art. That was a chance for me to see science in action,” he said. “I was always trying to figure out where everything came from, and the big bang and the existence of God question and how science and math can help answers those questions. I felt an affinity toward math and science. They were both enjoyable, but also useful tools in my tool belt to figure out the world.”

Flanagan attended public schools in North Berwick through eighth grade, then transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. He dived deep into physics at Phillips Exeter, riding that interest through a college career at Harvard University and a job as an engineer with SpaceX, a private aerospace company in California.

“On the second day on the job at 22 years old, I had my hands on a rocket engine,” he said.

He stayed at SpaceX less than three years. In addition to inheriting an appreciation of art from his mother, he also shares her environmental activism. He couldn’t reconcile working on projects that relied on rocket fuel for propulsion. “Burning all that fossil fuel to get to space was really hard for me,” he said.

He founded Prime Lightworks in 2015. Four-plus years into the project, he’s more confident than ever in his science. The recognition by Forbes validates his efforts, and motivates him to continue his journey, he said.

“We have good reason to believe this is going to work,” he said.

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