The da Vinci Project - Canada's First X-Prize Competitor
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Brian Feeney
Project Team Leader
The da Vinci Project

The Present:

Team Leader - The da Vinci Project
President CEO - ORVA Space Corp (parent company of the da Vinci Project)

Brian is Team Leader of the Toronto based The da Vinci Project, Canada's first entry in the International X Prize Competition and is also the founding shareholder of its parent company, ORVA Space Corp. Brian founded the da Vinci Project in 1996. He has a strong background in large project management and 3D CAD industrial design. Specific design and analytical skills are in liquid rocket propulsion engines and systems, aero structure layouts and design, RCS, flight profile and trajectory analysis. His own business background is in closed loop life support systems specializing in the development of advanced life support solutions for aerospace, military and commercial applications. Detailed specific knowledge has been developed on the current space suit, its operation - closed loop methodologies, liquid cooling garment as well as regenerative CO2 technology and the study of various soft and hard suit concepts. Brian is also a founding member of the Canadian Space Chamber of Commerce.

Way Back:

For Brian, flying to space (and just plain flying) has been a living dream from his earliest years. He was born in Toronto in 1959. At age 5 he climbed and jumped out of a tree in the back yard with an umbrella to see if one could float down. A spilt second of float followed by a terrorizing free fall and one very sore Brian – and imploded umbrella. Months later his Dad discovered the inside out black umbrella in the front hall closet, needing it for a rainy day. “I remember him looking at me and saying something to the effect, ‘no way, he couldn’t be responsible for this, could he?’”. Like many youth (and everyone else) during the sixties he was caught up in and inspired by the race to the moon. In grade six he started building his own rockets. He made his own gunpowder to fuel the rockets. Teaming up with a few classmates, they made rocket nozzle engines from clay and used aluminium cigar tubes as the rocket main body. It is interesting to note that neither he nor his compatriots ever purchased an off the shelf rocket engine or other rocket parts. “We learned so much more by doing everything ourselves!” That said, not every flight was a successful one. ”We had our own Canadian ‘October Sky’ Program with one memorable launch resulting in a mini mushroom cloud in the local school yard” (all fingers, eyes and toes accounted for – also the last time in the Rolph Road School yard). By grade seven Brian had an honourable mention for rocketry in the school science fair and a full up overall first place in grade eight for astronomy and astrophotography – one of a few of his other science passions.

The Middle Years:

The middle years followed the typical young adult life path – well almost. Skiing and hockey were the sports past times including playing for the St Michaels College AA hockey team. “My Dad wanted me to go the distance into a professional NHL hockey career”. That was in conflict with the lab in the garage he had built where experiments were getting ever more insightful and dangerous. Home lab operations were temporarily suspended after the building of a flame thrower that lit the front end of the rambler on fire. “All I wanted to do was see how it worked and if I could build one”. He built his own photography lab and enlarger printing up to 16 inch by 20 inch prints of his astronomy photographs. The telescopes he was making were getting bigger – 8 inch Newtonian reflector with a 72 inch focal length. His parents were starting to get anxious when he was discovered in the attic of their mid town Toronto home with measuring tape and drawings for cutting a hole in a flat section of the roof for a hemisphere style observatory.

Brian has always been the consummate student of life investing his time and creativity into furthering his knowledge for his passions and business career. “My simple advice is as important as the degrees that many people walk around with. I never stopped learning or asking questions. I passionately consume journals and text books in my fields of interest, always challenging myself to bring my skills up to or ahead of those in the field. Learning is more than just time spent at a school, it’s a way of life.”

The Young Entrepreneur:

By his early twenties he was off to the bank to borrow some capital for an investment. His father guaranteed the $10,000 loan that, along with three other people, was invested in a sure thing – a gold exploration venture in West Africa. With a lot of tenacity and a bit of luck of the Irish, sufficient gold reserves were identified to attract larger serious capital from a Swiss Merchant Banking firm. Brian’s eyes had been opened to the frontier of exploration both literally through his two trips to West Africa, but also to the endless possibilities of when you put your mind to something, the seemingly impossible to most is achievable. At the age of 23 he was President and CEO of a public company doing minerals exploration in northern Ontario. Profits from the ventures were invested into an aerospace company he founded in 1984. This was the same year that his first child was born following his 1981 marriage. After spending the first few years planning and attracting key personnel to the board including the former treasurer of Ontario Hydro, the aerospace life-support systems company was off to a good start. Attracting key people and talent has always been one of Brian’s strengths. Head office operations were based in Toronto with a much larger research facility in the Hartford Connecticut area comprising about thirty engineers and 14,000 sq. ft. of lab and engineering office space. Child number two came along in 1987 and things were rolling. Brian had co-invented on the first of 5 patents. “We’re on our way to space. Well almost…“

His Irish luck went on vacation with the 1989/1990 recession. “We tried everything to raise additional capital to put an advanced breathing apparatus for special military and civilian applications into production”. However, the ongoing operating costs were just too high and the operations had to be ceased in 1990. “I remember going down to Hartford Conn. (Windsor Locks) on that fateful day when I had to let everyone go. I used the companies last $250,000 to give everyone a month’s pay. I could have held it in the company but my reasoning was simple. A lot of these folks took a major risk leaving very secure careers with companies like United Technologies to back my passion. The least I could do was give them this – money was so tight it was everything the company and I had. I was the ‘entrepreneur’ and would land like a cat. I was ever so proud to hear later that everyone was reemployed within the next two months.”

A Little Wiser:

The fall of 1990 was the worst of times and the best of times. All was gone – literally. His Dad and brother had a renovation company - putting additions on homes. He needed to make money immediately for his young family and joined the building business. During this period he started to design some new products, including one he thought the BRITA Water Filter Company might be interested in. Drafting table by night and roof shingles by day. “I remember a cold December day in 1990. Light snow in the air. Life felt as cold as the freezing outdoor temperature. I slung two stacks of shingles on my shoulder and climbed the ladder to the top of the roof. My Dad’s partner and life-long friend was up there. He glanced at me and could see the disheartened look in my eyes. He repeated something to me that one of his directors had said months earlier. “You’ve only lost everything if you allow yourself to believe it. Remember what you had before you started. Your knowledge, intellect, passion, drive, they’re all still there waiting to be put to work once again.

Within two weeks Brian had proposed and received a sizable development project from BRITA. Not the one he proposed but a concept they wanted him to design and get produced. “I learned more about myself and the human spirit – especially my spirit, in those few months than at any other time.” That was December 21, 1990. Merry Christmas!

GO West Young Man - Way West:

The BRITA project took Brian to Hong Kong for seven years. The BRITA product won best new product of the year in category at the Canadian Consumer Products Show while its packaging came in 3rd in category at the New York Advertising and Merchandising Show. The first few years in Asia were for BRITA and the rest designing consumer products for various companies and getting them made in China and Taiwan. Passports were filled with well in excess of a hundred trips to the Chinese mainland, Taiwan, Japan and throughout the region. Brian even managed to accumulate six months of living in Germany throughout the 1991 through 1997 period adding to an ever-increasing international business experience base. He designed and produced many different products for companies. The hair grew to two feet long, in came the earring, out went the blazer, and in came the purple jackets and a much-accelerated lifestyle to match. It was a change from the slow high-tech arena to the hyper pace of consumer goods. He honed and refined his CAD and international business skills throughout this phase establishing 3 new retail Brands / product lines of his own with sales into Japanese department stores, United States, Canada and Australia.

The X PRIZE Competition Has Arrived:

For his seven years in Asia he made it a point to get out of his downtown Hong Kong Office and spend and afternoon each week at the book/magazine store. The Internet was still in its early days and the bookstore was his route to keeping apprised of advances throughout the world. It was one afternoon the week of May 18, 1996 when he picked up one of the International News/Business Week Magazines. He noticed a short article that said something to the effect – ‘American based Group announces the X PRIZE Competition, $10 million dollars to the first team that can put 3 people into space, twice within a 2 week period’”.

For Brian that was the catalyst. “I immediately began to work on a design, applying every ounce of my accumulated design, aerospace and business knowledge to make this happen.” He returned to Toronto one year later to pursue it with full force.

The da Vinci Project:

One could spend many more pages describing the incredible events of the past nine years. The new Timeline directory will give you a glimpse of what the projects been up to and the new monthly newsletter will keep you up to speed on current progress. What is hard to show is the incredible effort of more than 600 people from across Canada and around the world that have volunteered well in excess of 150,000 man hours to make the dream a reality. What had started as a dream of one, Brian has built up into the worlds largest volunteer technology based project ever. Management of the far-reaching project, both its goals and geographic distribution of volunteers across the country and around the world being accomplished through the innovative use on online project management software systems.

State of the art Sun Microsystems hardware and ANSYS, MATLAB, International Instruments etc. software has allowed the team to conduct some of the most advanced Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) and Finite Element Analysis (FEA) for spacecraft engineering and atmospheric re-entry analysis. The project developed its own flight analysis software, tooling and machinery to construct and test its rocket engines, thermal re-entry shielding and recovery systems. The high cost quotations for a 3rd party built reusable helium balloon didn’t hold them back. The da Vinci project embarked on the engineering and testing of its own balloon setting up a manufacturing operation and built the world’s largest reusable helium balloon at just under 4.0 million cubic feet of displacement volume. The reusable helium balloon is used to float the spacecraft to 70,000 feet plus for launch. The list goes on. Everything you need to get to space including the development of a spacesuit, harkening back to Brian’s earlier days in the aerospace life support systems field where he was reapplying NASA spacesuit technology into Military and civilian applications.

As early as 10 years old Brian was on TV being interviewed at the Ontario Science Center as a participant in the all Ontario Science Fair. While living in Hong Kong he was interviewed on TV for his innovative new products. Little did he know that the media exposure would blossom to even greater proportions later in life. He’s been on CNN to ABC news to NHK in Japan and the BBC in the UK. Several mini docs have been done already airing on the US history channel, NHK Japan, the BBC UK, TLC, Discovery Channel and more.

Worldwide newspaper and magazine coverage has been massive for the project. One highlight of many was the front page of the Wall Street Journal worldwide, a feature article in Discovery Magazine, GEO magazine in Germany just to name a few. These are only a fraction of the more than 2.0 billion media impressions achieved by the project to date.

Brian is no less the passionate speaker and speaks regularly to Universities, professional organizations, corporate functions and public venues such as Science Centers. One high note was the fall 2004 speaking engagement at MIT. “It was certainly a high moment and an extreme honour. I knew I was there not just for my vision but for the backing of so many people, the public and corporate supporters. It is and always will be a TEAM effort.” 2005 has been just as busy with keynote addresses at the Canadian Undergraduate Physics Conference, Federal Partners in Technology Transfer Conference, the October Canadian Foundation for Innovation conference to name a few. Brian has even been honoured this summer with a nomination for the WTN (World Technology Network) awards in the space category for most innovative contribution to the advancement of space sciences. Past recipients of the space category include Burt Rutan and Dr. Peter Diamandis founder and chairman of the X PRIZE. Other WTN recipients read like a who’s who of technology leaders throughout the world.

The da Vinci Project has been keeping a record of this incredible journey. Michel Jones, the da Vinci Project’s film documentarian, has accumulated more than 800 hours of film footage since 2000 – a quantity Howard Hughes would be impressed with.

The project’s namesake, da Vinci, was chosen as it represented the vast array of talents needed to accomplish the manned space flight missions. It also is core to the mission of inspiring people of all ages and especially youth to drive for and accomplish their dreams, whatever they maybe, however difficult and great the challenge may present, however small or large the paradigm may result thereof.

The da Vinci Project has also been a test. The project ran a solid second place to Burt Rutan and the Space Ship One team that successfully won the X PRIZE Competition. The project did this not with great sums of money that was available to Rutan’s team and others, but with the cumulative talent and drive to complete the mission. Together we are fulfilling the passionate dream of an individual as shared by everyone.

The da Vinci Project is still the least-funded team moving forward though. The team has been tested time and time again with limiting financial resources and yet maintains its competitive position to be the first group in Canada and 2nd group in the world to accomplish a private manned flight to space. The summer and fall of 2005 has been no exception. The lack of funding also severely slows the technical and building progress. Brian has lived by the edict; “I’ve never let the lack of money be a reason not to complete this project.” The project still needs public and corporate financial support, since, however resourceful it is, it is a major undertaking with an enormous worldwide impact. Average people along with highly skilled experts combining their talents to complete a manned fight to space mission.”

“This is something everyone will identity with: raw ingenuity and drive, not willing to give up regardless of the hurtles. People from all ages and walks of life will look at this project and take a piece of it into their own lives!”

To everyone that has been involved in the da Vinci Project over the past nine plus years, to the volunteers, our sponsors, the public and new supporters to come, thank you for helping to make the dream a reality. We will stay the course. Failure is not an option.


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