Space Entrepreneurs Share Memories, Advice
Tuesday, 14 January 2014
By Ben Iannotta, posted at 6:16 p.m. EST
Turning technology into a business isn’t easy. You will need to defy convention. You’ll need to be open to inviting outsiders into to your startup team. You might even discover the government can be your friend.
Those were among the messages delivered by a panel of representatives of four leading entrepreneurial companies: Aurora Flight Sciences; Ball Aerospace; Made in Space; and Orbital Sciences Corp.
In the 1990s, scientists convinced then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin to start the Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology program, a joint NASA-industry effort to develop new kinds of unmanned aircraft for scientific work.
John Tylko, chief innovation officer at Aurora Flight Sciences, said Goldin’s decision was instrumental to the rise of his company and others, including Scaled Composites. “It’s a great example of the role NASA can play,” Tylko told an audience at the AIAA SciTech conference.
Debra Facktor Lepore, vice president and general manager for strategic operations at Ball Aerospace, said her company embraced fixed-price contracts as a way to share risk with the government. She rattled off a list of Ball satellites built that way, including NASA’s QuickSCAT wind-measuring satellite and the Suomi NPOESS Preparatory Project weather satellite.
Jason Dunn, co-founder of Made in Space, said the international space station is lowering the cost barriers to research in space by international players. “A small nation can put an experiment on the space station,” he said.
His company is working with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on a plan to test a 3D laser printer on the station later this year. It would be a step toward autonomy for astronauts, who are sure to need replacement tools on a long mission.
David W. Thompson, the longtime CEO of Orbital Sciences Corp., said entrepreneurs need to be ready for a series of transitions as they grow their businesses. At some point, it may be necessary to add new financing and management expertise. Entrepreneurs must become adept at communicating with the people who have “entrusted you with their money.”
For space startups, Thompson said the environment is shifting in some positive ways. Historically, it’s been “almost an impossible challenge” for a startup to find a “crack in the wall” to win business in a market dominated by big companies making big spacecraft. But now, he said, there is a trend toward disaggregation, in which sensors are carried on fewer, smaller satellites. “It’ll be interesting to see over the next five years how this new batch of startups do,” he said.