It ain’t rocket science. And that’s the problem! Eager researchers with innovative solutions for the burgeoning space industry often find themselves stumped when faced with the “b” word. That’s b for business.
It’s a delicate subject that needs to be confronted carefully and considerately, says University of South Australia (UniSA) Innovation & Collaboration Centre (ICC) director Jasmine Vreugdenburg.
“They’re very technically smart,” says Vreugdenburg of the space research community. “They can solve any problem if they can come at it from a technical perspective. But generally, they need guidance on how to turn their ideas into a successful and sustainable business.”
It’s a matter of perspective. And experience.
“It’s certainly challenging if you have a research science background,” says Guler Kocak, founder of photovoltaic cell startup Spacelis. “All your life has been about studying and researching for an academic audience. You focus on your specific area. You do your own work. Then, all of a sudden, you have to look outwards.”
Kocak’s passion is sustainable, lightweight and flexible organic photovoltaic (OPV) solar cells.
“The pandemic showed me we need to contribute to solving the global warming problem through green technologies,” she says. “So I focused my work on eco-friendliness. But at the same time, these cells are immensely practical because of their flexibility and super-light weight.”
Ultimately, Kocak hopes her product could become a wearable fabric. But first, the rapidly expanding space industry will likely be its first beneficiary.
The micrometre-thick plastic solar cells may not produce as much electricity per square centimetre as a familiar solid silicon panel. But Kocak believes her OPV concept wins out in pure efficiency.
Put simply, far more OPV solar cells can be stowed away neatly on a satellite or spacecraft. And payload weight and size costs are at a premium when it comes to sending objects into space – or the Moon or Mars.
Now all she needs to do is prove it. And market it. One giant leap…
“I was confident I had what it took when it came to the organic electronics and organic solar cells,” Kocak says. “So I reached out to people around me for ideas [to make the business case].”
At first, that led to a Flinders University support program that helped formulate a business idea. That, in turn, acted as a springboard to other support services, such as UniSA’s ICC.
Vreugdenburg says such aspiring entrepreneurs need help to understand the challenges they face. And they need to do so quickly. That’s what the ICC’s Venture Catalyst Space accelerator and incubator program is about.
“It’s not Marketing 101, it’s not Accounting 101,” says Vreugdenburg. “Instead, it’s about getting founders to think about how to develop their product with an end-user market in mind.”
Practical support is needed. Priorities must be identified. New space entrepreneurs need such basics to build the confidence to forge ahead. They need to know about the mechanics of hiring and the complexities of partnerships – not to mention securing appropriate types of investment or development grants.
But mostly, it’s about potential customers.
“So strengthening their understanding of how to build relationships with customers and other researchers, and trying to get them to put themselves in the other person’s shoes,” says Vreugdenburg. “We can support them through a process, such as forming a partnership, [and] help them understand other people’s and businesses’ motivations.”
Since the program’s 2018 launch, 19 companies have been guided in building, testing and developing their businesses. It’s not easy. It’s not fast. Every business has its unique challenges that must be carefully considered.
“I’m still working on it,” says Kocak. “The hardest part was building that mindset of being part of the business community, not just the science community. I am a woman. I am an international student. And all of a sudden, I was in the business community facing a lot of different questions. Why did you take this risk? Why did you want to do this here and not somewhere else?
“I’m a small startup in an especially niche and innovative area. The market is very new, but it has huge potential here in South Australia. It’s like the capital of space. This was the perfect time and place to start this company. This was the year. I didn’t want to miss that chance.”
She’s now taken her organic solar cell concept to the defence and space industries. She’s found mentors in both. “That’s allowed me to develop confidence that this really is a good idea and that it can be a good business,” she says.
Such relationships are an essential part of a startup’s success, says Vreugdenburg.
“We have a range of different people that are industry experts that are part of the mentorship program,” she says. “They’re not getting paid. They’re just people that we can reach out to. And they can be either someone that can connect on a technical level, a partnership level, or simply offer another introduction to someone else.”
They include experts from the CSIRO, the Australian Space Agency, Defence SA, and various local space-based industries. Vreugdenburg says international space companies are coming to South Australia specifically to explore our growing space industry. That can result in opportunities ranging from research grants to collaborative projects.
It’s about identifying opportunities. And providing the resources to seize them.
“The point is getting the right people and businesses in the same place,” she says. “It’s about supporting founders to focus early on who their customer is, and asking, ‘is what I am creating adding enough value to that customer to make it a sustainable and viable business?’”
That can mean making sure a prototype is available for early testing. It can mean demonstrating its usefulness in a variety of real-world scenarios.
“Since I’m a researcher, I find it’s easy for me to do this market research and test all the time whether or not I have the right target in mind,” says Kocak. “The thing is, what I’m working on is my passion. Even last night, I dreamt about it. And I woke up excited. And getting this support gives me even more passion for doing the science as well. So it works both ways.”
UniSA’s ICC Venture Catalyst Space program is currently seeking applications for its 2022 cohort. Applications close 28 November.