Centennial, Colorado

Founded: 2007

Privately owned

Employees: 20

Progeny of Adams Aircraft, Kim Madigan’s growing aerospace manufacturer is charting its own lofty path.

CEO Kim Madigan founded AdamWorks in 2007 with an investment from the eponymous George Adam, formerly of Adam Aircraft. “It was in my living room, with one other person,” she says.

Instead of making an entire aircraft, AdamWorks designs and builds composite structures for the military, commercial, and business aerospace markets.

Radomes — short for radar domes — represent a sizable piece of the company’s business. “Radomes are one of our specialties,” says Madigan, describing housing for microwave antennae that shields them from the elements at 40,000 feet and 500 miles an hour.

Competing with multinational powerhouses like Honeywell and General Dynamics, AdamWorks makes radomes of a quartz composite that “structurally sound but easy to see through,” says Madigan. The company also utilizes carbon fiber and other composite materials across its projects, including pods and other structures for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones. It recently developed a composite landing gear for one customer.

It’s these sorts of projects that makes AdamWorks unique. “We are engineering and build,” says Madigan. “Most of the stuff we do is our design. There are a lot of shops that will just make you a part — that’s not what we do.”

The strategy catalyzed a fast start for AdamWorks. “It was pretty quick,” says Madigan. “In our first year, we did $700,000, and then we did $2.5 million to 5 million to $6 million.” The staff of 20 is equal parts engineers and manufacturing technicians.

Space represents another fertile frontier for AdamWorks. Composites are notably lightweight, making them a perfect match for spacecraft.

The company supplied pressure vessels to Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Dream Chaser, the likely heir to the Space Shuttle, and also worked with XCOR Aerospace, a private space-tourism firm as well as a third customer Madigan says she is “not allowed to talk about.”

While 3D printing and other additive manufacturing techiques getting heaps of hype, “They’re really in their infancy,” says Madigan. But composites are in their prime right now. “Composite materials have been around for long enough that prices have come down a bit,” says Madigan.

Challenges: “One of the things a small business struggles with is debt financing,” says Madigan, noting that the company is currently debt-free. “I have to personally guarantee any loan we get from a bank.” Her solution was to interview a slew of banks. “You can find a bank that understands that, but it takes a lot of work.”

Another AdamWorks challenge is uncertainty with the federal budget, she adds, a big issue when you work with military contractors. “Sequestration was a mess. That was a challenge but we made it through it.”

Opportunities: Radomes for in-flight Wi-Fi, which requires a radome for the necessary microwave antenna. “It’s a huge opportunity,” says Madigan. The industry adoption of the Ka microwave band should make for more reliable connectivity and better ROI, she adds. One Ka satellite went into orbit in 2013, and two more will join it by the end of 2014. “A lot of companies are moving to Ka moving forward.”

The onboard Wi-Fi market is expected to grow from $225 million for 2012 to $1.5 billion in 2015, with more than 6,000 Wi-Fi-ready aircraft taking to the skies.

Needs: A better career track for manufacturing jobs in Colorado’s educational system Madigan commends the engineering programs at Colorado’s universities, but expresses “great frustration” with high schools. AdamWorks’ manufacturing jobs “are good jobs, good-paying jobs, but you don’t need a college education,” she explains. “You do need to come out of high school with the ability to handle fractions.”

“Educators need to reach out to employers so they understand what the curriculum should be,” contends Madigan. “Industry is very disconnected from education. It doesn’t have to be that way.”