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Australian startups entering the space race
Studentpreneur Michael Leslie discusses the catalyst that has ignited the current Australian startup space race and gives his views on the future of this rapidly growing industry.

Hi Michael, how did you get started with your space startup?

I am currently studying aerospace engineering and astrophysics at the University of Adelaide in my 6th and final year. Early in 2014 I got introduced to the startup scene through a couple of colleagues but I was busy doing my honours project, which included building a satellite for the university. By the end of 2014, our current founder and CEO Brett Burford contacted me saying how he found my profile online and what I had already done regarding space, and wanted to catch up. We were really passionate about the topic and so I came on board as a co-founder for a space startup. He taught me everything he knew about business and marketing while I taught him space engineering and related topics.

Initially we had some grand visions but after market research we realised that satellite-related projects in Australia are very saturated, while the rocket market is saturated internationally; plus entry cost is in the order of millions of dollars. Since I have a bit of experience regarding the legal field for my satellite project I can see that no one else is currently providing this service in the market.

From there we founded ‘AU Launch Services’ which offers people administration and consulting work and organised third party service providers to streamline the processes that help facilitate the launch of people’s satellites into space. This can involve contacting various space launch providers to find out price, duration, negotiating the deal, looking at the insurance side, assessing potential risks and its implication. We also dealt with spectrum which enabled the connection between the satellites and earth. There is only a certain frequency range available and this requires coordination through United Nations, which can cost upwards of a million dollars – while it only cost $75k to launch a satellite. The more data you want the higher the cost will be. Newer launch vehicles are cheaper but are not as reliable and so this increases insurance cost… these are complex processes that we have to work with.

OrbitOz is a monthly meeting for space entrepreneurs that have been running in Sydney since February 2014 and I brought it to Adelaide in January 2016. We aim to promote the entrepreneurial activity in Adelaide's and Australia's space industry and inspire people to get involved in their own entrepreneurial space activities. Currently we have around 65 members and 25 people attending each meet up event. I started it here in Adelaide as a way to bring together the current space community, as well as introduce new people to the opportunities available to them in Australia’s space industry.

You can still be bold but need to maintain good relationship with all big players. It only take 1 space startup to mess up and no one will take the whole industry seriously anymore.

 

How did you gain this industry knowledge?

The first two years at university was interesting but turned tedious and so I added a double degree of science and physic in my third year. This is when I attended a student conference - Aerospace Future which exposed me to that of aerospace, while aviation professionals talked about their careers and what was available for us. There was an International Space University program which was being held in Adelaide the following summer which I thought will be pretty awesome to attend. It was great fun studying a 5 week's course together with 30 passionate like-minded people. This experience shaped my path in this field further.

 

What is your vision with this startup?

Currently we are negotiating with various sale providers to determine pricing and which company we will work with to show our clients the options which are available. We hope in the next year of two we can get our first client and help them launch their satellite into space. The more successful our clients’ launches are, the more we can work for them, it is pretty much a feedback loop. There is only 1 – 2 potential clients in SA and so one day we will reach for interstate clients and then launch international-wise. There is massive growth potential in South East Asia and in the Pacific region.

In Australia with this market you either get a graduate role with defence or a consulting work role with a big organisation. It doesn’t appeal to me to be a cog in the big engineering machine. When I started doing this project I realised that working for myself was great and it was fun trying to build my way up in an industry that was non-existent up and until 2013. May be in 5 years’ time, my startup can give out graduate position for students to join this thriving industry.

 

How do you manage your time?

With great difficulty. Space engineering subjects are hard and so I try to get all university work done during university hours so I can work on the business at night. I always set aside social time for myself otherwise it is too much stress bottling up. Knowing I have set aside personal time forces myself to work harder as well.

 

What triggered this Australian space startup race?

There is massive growth in Australian space industry. At the end of 2014 Adelaide was chosen to host the International Astronautical Conference in 2017 October. This is the biggest space conference with dozens of astronauts and the heads of big space companies like NASA attending. This announcement makes every Australian startup want to be the first one that successfully launched commercial satellites into space and so they can present at this conference.

I see too many people focusing on the “cool” products without emphasising on the market’s needs.

What is the Australian space market like?

This sector is mostly dominated by big players in Australia. If they say you can’t do this then listen to them. I have seen new groups coming out saying that if these organisations don’t support them then they better get out of the way. These guys are going in for a big surprise. You can still be bold but need to maintain good relationship with all big players. It only take 1 space startup to mess up and no one will take the whole industry seriously anymore.

Currently in Australia there are a number of cube satellite manufacturing startups that are coming out in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. None are super established as yet but all are working very hard. I believe Australia is such a small market and there are plenty of players in the world that there will only be a few spaces for startups in these areas which can grow to an international level.

 

What does the future hold for Australian space startup market?

All it take is one Australian startup to successfully launch a satellite to show the world that Australian market has the drive to make a big impact on the space industry. This will show potential and attract investors towards this market.

2016 OrbitOz space entrepreneurs’ meetup at Microsoft Innovation Centre SA

 

Do you have any advice to young entrepreneurs?

Start while studying

Start as a student because you won’t have to worry about paying bills. People get impressed and hold in high regard those that can study and run business at the same time.

 

Your business partner is your ‘wife’

You might have the best people in your team but if they don’t unite as a team or enjoy each other’s company then nothing will happen. Find the right people and create the right environment for your team.

Don’t just say yes to the first investor coming along. Imagine having someone that you don’t like telling you what you need to do.

No point having ideas without putting in the effort towards them

People have ideas all the time but most just throw it away, and they then have to spend 30-60 mins per day research it to gain solid industry knowledge. Got to figure out whether you are solving this problem better than your competitors? Start your concept by solving a small part of the big problem first. If the global market is saturated already then why are people out there still coming up with great concepts, you wouldn’t see Airbnb coming 5 years ago but now they are worth a billion dollars in terms of value.

 

Focus on the market and solve a real problem.

There is a guy who saw fresh produce ship from farm to market and caused lots of spoilage, so he made recycle box that locked in the moisture. This equalled less spoilage which fed more people, farmers and sellers made more money-sounds like a great idea, right? But the problem is that supermarkets were never paying for boxes in the first place so why pay now, while farmers can’t afford to buy them. In the end he had a great product and no buyers. I see too many people focusing on the “cool” products without emphasising on the market’s needs. This happens a lot especially in the startup competition I participated in.

 

Don’t focus on the money

Focus on the problem you solve, the market you serve. Think about whether this is something you are passionate about. Do a good job and the money will come. Don’t just say yes to the first investor coming along. Imagine having someone that you don’t like telling you what you need to do.