An aerospace company’s new office could bring Utahns closer to the moon

Draper hopes to tap Utah talent and might soon train future engineers.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) An Advanced Inertial Reference Sphere (AIRS) with Floated Inertial Measurement Ball (FLIMBAL) navigation system is on display at Draper, a major engineering firm from Cambridge, Mass., opening a campus in Clearfield, on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. The company has a decades-long partnership with the U.S Air Force at Hill Air Force Base, and has plans for Utah in sectors including biotechnology, electronic systems, space systems and national security.

Clearfield • The roar of jets from Hill Air Force Base just outside Clearfield welcomed employees of Draper to their new Utah office.

Draper is an engineering firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts — not to be confused with the city at the south end of Salt Lake County, further down the Wasatch range. Clearfield, the city, is now home to the 12th office of Draper, the company, and its proximity to the base is no accident.

Draper is in the business of national security and defense, and Hill is a decades-old client and partner.

Draper also is in the business of outer space. Draper engineers helped send the first men to the moon, said Marjorie Quant, the company’s chief operating officer, and are now working to land on its south pole. And Utah engineers, present and future, could help get it there.

Neighboring Hill Air Force Base was one factor in Draper’s decision to expand in Utah. Another was the state’s higher education offerings. Utah’s universities are already shaping the next generation of engineers; Quant said she hopes Draper can tap into the state’s burgeoning STEM workforce and help future engineers realize their potential.

And schools in Utah are already in talks to partner on that.

“When we can find the synergies between the current and future workforce, which usually means alignment to the education system, as well as to our customer missions, that’s what we’re looking for,” Quant said of Draper’s office criteria.

Draper is a nonprofit 501(c)3; one of its missions, Quant said, is to “expand the STEM technical workforce.” It does that through its Draper Scholars program, which funds graduate STEM degrees for a select cohort of students at partner universities.

Students get tuition coverage and a stipend for their time; in exchange, they dedicate their studies to a Draper project. This year’s cohort included 90 master’s and Ph.D. students from roughly a dozen universities, including MIT, University of Colorado Boulder and Brown University.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marjorie Quant, Chief Operating Officer with Draper, a big engineering firm from Cambridge, Mass., joins the conversation at the opening of a campus in Clearfield on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. The company has a decades-long partnership with the U.S Air Force at Hill Air Force Base and plans for Utah in sectors including biotechnology, electronic systems, space systems and national security.

Quant said Draper hopes to grow its scholars program to 250 students by 2033. Utah students could be part of that growth.

Half a dozen Utah college representatives visited Draper’s office on its first day, April 23, to discuss a potential partnership with Draper, Quant said. These are very preliminary conversations, she added — university partnerships take time to finalize. But Quant said Utah’s education ecosystem, with its increased focus on STEM and tech, and Draper’s research priorities, are “very much in alignment.”

The University of Utah — the state’s flagship institution — is one of the schools that met with the company’s representatives, confirmed U. spokesperson Rebecca Walsh.

“Those talks are continuing,” she added.

The U. has made a point of partnering with industry leaders in recent years, with the aim of landing students jobs upon graduation — particularly jobs that contribute to the state’s $21 billion annual GDP around life sciences, Walsh said, pointing to numbers from a 2023 Gardner Policy Institute report.

That includes an existing, high-profile agreement between the university and BioUtah. The U.’s Center for Medical Innovation, Walsh noted, is also currently working to develop partnerships specifically around medical device technology.

Defense technology for engineering students could be next, with the blueprint now laid out for Draper.

“The University of Utah is committed to working with industry partners to develop strategic pathways to fulfilling jobs for our students, while at the same time, helping to meet the essential workforce needs of our state,” Walsh said.

Another potential partner for Draper could be Utah’s growing technical colleges — where more students in the state are going to gain hands-on workforce training in a shorter amount of time than a four-year degree.

Davis Technical College President Darin Bush said he is “very encouraged by the opportunity and the potential of working with Draper.”

Bush said the college in northern Utah already prepares technicians in fields that overlap with Draper’s mission, including cyber security, software development and composite materials technology.

“So much of that workforce now relies on skilled technicians, just as much it would seem as they do on engineers,” he said.

Bush said the technical college is interested in exploring internships and scholarships for students with Draper, as well as securing future jobs with the company or the Air Force that the company serves.

Draper also is a SkillBridge employer, part of a Department of Defense program that connects active-duty members to career training and work opportunities, giving them a “soft landing” as they transition out of active service, Quant said.

One of Draper’s new Utah employees is a SkillBridge alumnus and soon-to-be Air Force veteran, said communications manager Dan Dent.

He will be in good company among his new boss, Paul Hendrickson, who helps lead the firm’s Air Force Strategic Systems team and will manage the Utah campus. Hendrickson also is an Air Force veteran, who served at Hill Air Force Base as an engineer for 21 years. He also is a lifelong Utahn, save for a few years of out-of-state education, and a second-generation defense and weapons engineer.

”The Utah ecosystem for innovation and defense is huge,” Hendrickson said. “And so, as I got to know Draper more I realized, Draper is made for Utah. ... The opportunities to grow are just huge.”

Draper’s Utah engineers in its Clearfield office, Quant said, will focus almost exclusively on the Air Force’s missile defense strategic systems projects — at least for now. Quant said she “fully expects” Draper’s Utah footprint to one day include all of Draper’s business offerings, including in space.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Draper, a big engineering firm from Cambridge, Mass., opens a corporate campus in Clearfield as they have an open house on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. The company has a decades-long partnership with the U.S Air Force at Hill Air Force Base and has plans for Utah in sectors including biotechnology, electronic systems, space systems and national security.

Shannon Sollitt is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.