Seven Questions for Exodus

I recently finished reading “Zero to One”, the international bestselling book by Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal and Palantir.  Although I didn’t agree with everything in the book, there is much to recommend about it, particularly the set of seven questions listed towards the end of the book.  These questions are what the author proposes that every startup company should be able to answer, and I wanted to relate some of our thinking on this below.

Firstly, a quick note about last week’s post, playfully titled Attention: Don’t Sponsor Exodus!  Some of the feedback we received was that this may have caused some confusion, especially for those who only came across the title in their media feeds, and didn’t have time to discover the tongue-in-cheek nature of the article.  So to clarify: we would love for you to download our Sponsorship Prospectus and think about how sponsoring us as a space company could help elevate your company’s profile.  For as little as AU$10,000 per year, sponsor companies could build a relationship with Exodus Space Systems that will help spread the excitement of Australian space exploration, could help those companies better take advantage of the growing space industry themselves, while helping us develop new technology that will benefit people in space and on Earth alike.

Here are the seven questions I mentioned, which Peter Thiel advocates every startup company be able to answer:

  1. The Engineering Question: Is your technology at least an order of magnitude better than the competition?
  2. The Timing Question: Is now the right time to start the business?
  3. The Monopoly Question: Are you going to start with a big share of a small market?
  4. The People Question: Do you have the right team?
  5. The Distribution Question: Can you deliver your product to paying customers?
  6. The Durability Question: Will your market advantage persist, decades from now?
  7. The Secret Question: Have you identified a unique opportunity?

For those readers who want to have a deep dive conversation into the answers Exodus Space Systems has for these questions, I encourage you to contact us.  This also applies if you’re interested in sponsorship, equity investment, or can even see your company being a future customer of our space debris cleanup services.

Let’s go through each question one-by one:

  1. The Engineering Question.  Exodus Space Systems has already done over two years of conceptual R&D on our kinetic flyby solution, which we call our “Street Sweeper for Space Debris”.  By avoiding the mass costs implicit in other “rendezvous and capture” methods – propellent mass, capture mechanism mass, and deorbit mechanism mass – we are able to deorbit debris in a far more efficient manner.  No matter how cheap the cost of launch becomes, a key ratio will remain how much mass is sent to orbit, versus how much (debris) mass is removed from orbit, and on this we believe our KiSSD method is at least an order of magnitude better than other proposed active debris removal (ADR) solutions.
    Being a space-based, range-limited method makes it more politically tenable than other non-ADR methods like ground-based lasers, and it’s small size also makes it more plausible than mega-structure solutions like electrodynamic tethers.
  2. The Timing Question: As an Australian company we are in an excellent position to take advantage of recent funding developments with the Australian Government and Space Agency, as well as the exponential growth of investment in the global space sector.  We also see significant new awareness of the space debris issue within the international regulatory and space insurance sectors, mainly due to the dramatic increase in satellite constellation proposals which will increase overall risk of space debris collisions in low Earth orbit.
    We see the potential for a new space debris cleanup market in the mid-2020s, growing into a $1B annual market in the 2030s, which will likely be dominated by a few players.  Given the timeframes of both the space industry, and of developing a deep-tech startup into a commercial organisation, we believe it is best to start now.
  3. The Monopoly Question: As large as we expect the space debris cleanup market to become, it is currently small, with only one established company that will not be a direct competitor for the types of services we are planning to offer.  With sufficient support now, we believe we can establish ourselves as a premier service provider of space debris cleanup.
  4. The People Question: Our team already has significant subject matter expertise, as well as experience in advanced prototyping, capital raising and corporate governance, and active connections in both the Australian and global space industry.  Once we achieve seed funding, we plan to grow our team to include more expertise in necessary engineering sub-disciplines, data science, IP protection, marketing, business development and legal competencies.  We also place high value on investors who have experience mentoring deep-tech startups from the initial stages, right through the commercialisation process.
  5. The Distribution Question: We have identified satellite operators as our future customers, as these have the most to gain from proactive methods to lower the risk of their assets being impacted by space debris.  This is particularly true for those satellite operators with plans to launch large constellations of satellites and/or those with assets in the most debris-congested polar and sun-synchronous low Earth orbits.
    While we expect to reach out to these customers directly, we also see the satellite insurance industry and national space agencies as key enablers, as both groups have large financial incentives to provide easier ways for satellite operators to behave as good citizens.  The current moves to encourage comprehensive planning for end-of-life satellite operations as well as reducing the timeframe by which old satellites must be de-orbited are excellent, but do not account for cases where satellites are unexpectedly lost during routine operations due to space debris collision or other electrical faults.  We aim to have our KiSSD method become a new gold standard for space debris removal, and we expect these enabling parties would become active participants in this process.
  6. The Durability Question: Our market advantage, once achieved, would be due to our space debris cleanup method becoming a recognised best practice, and our brand would be reinforced as an enabler of good citizen space operators.  Once an established space operator, we would be able work on different space technologies that also add value to this brand, eventually aiming to develop those technologies that would enable a safe exodus of humanity out into space.
  7. The Secret Question: Rather than trying to mimic other space startup companies, by building more communications or imaging satellites, or trying to start yet another small rocket company, we have chosen to focus on space debris cleanup, because we have identified that it is currently a small industry, but will become a service that all satellite operators will eventually need.  We have already achieved significant traction and endorsements by narrowing our service down to a simple concept that everybody understands – “a street sweeper for space” – and we’re aiming to execute on our vision in a way that makes best use of our current key advantages.

I hope that helps you understand a little better what Exodus Space Systems is trying to do.  If you have any further questions please feel free contact us, and one of us will be happy to have a chat.

Attention: Don’t Sponsor Exodus!

Why would you even consider doing a thing like that? Are you trying to inspire people or something?

Well, lucky I found you, because I’m here to tell you that you absolutely, totally, should not sponsor Exodus Space Systems.  There are far better uses for your money than supporting a space startup with new, versatile and cost-effective technology that can help solve a global issue no one else has yet been able to effectively address. Surely you don’t think associating your brand with the wonder of space exploration is going to be a good thing?

I want you to make a choice with your head, not your heart. Yes, I know we all grew up on stories that featured humankind out amongst the stars, and we know how NASA put people on the moon and sent robots to explore other planets, but does any of that really resonate with people today? It’s not like four of the top five grossing movies of all time involve some form of space travel.

Instead, let’s look at the numbers, shall we? Morgan Stanley reports the global space industry will triple in value to over US$1T before 2040, whilst Space Angels reports that yearly private investment in space startups has gone from $500M in 2009 to more than $3B every year since 2015, including the first six months of 2019.  So while you might say the space industry has a wee smidgen of growth happening, since when did innovation in space ever drive the creation of technologies useful on Earth? (aside from solar panels, water filters, digital camera sensors, weather forecasts, GPS or the Internet).

Also, if you really wanted to solve the space debris problem, why would you locate your company in Western Australia? Surely you’d want to go somewhere with world-leading experts on tracking space objects, as well as access to vast dark skies?  You’d also definitely want to have a national space agency that saw this as a key national strength and saw space debris clean-up as a key national priority for support.

In summary, I want to advise you in the strongest possible terms that you absolutely should not download the Exodus Space Systems Sponsorship Prospectus and think about whether sponsoring Exodus is a fit for your company’s goals. There’s no telling what kinds of benefits you might suffer.

Pitch at Palace reflections

What a gigantic fortnight it has been!

Exodus Space Systems has been busy selling our idea of a street sweeper for space in a variety of different forums, and meeting some absolutely amazing people along the way.  The most high profile of these was the Pitch at Palace pitching competition, run by a magnificent worldwide organisation which was set up by his royal highness Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, in 2014.  The 2019 Australian final was hosted at Perth’s government house by WA Governor Kim Beazley.

If you’ve been reading our previous entries you’ll know that in the last week of August we pitched in the WA state final of Pitch at Palace, and as a result were selected to participate in the Australian national final on October 4th – also in Perth.  At the time, we thought we were one of the 8 WA companies selected to be amongst the 42 Australian finalists, but as it turned out, there were 13 WA companies in the final!  This was because of the wildcard system, as well as several WA companies flying interstate to qualify through other state finals.  Even though it’s a long list, I do want to acknowledge each of them individually because it was the amazing people behind these companies that made the experience what it was, and I think it’s important to acknowledge the increasingly thriving entrepreneurial scene in Perth.

First among the WA companies was eventual global finalist Orthocell, which has done some amazing work in nerve regeneration.  DiGii is social media for year 5-6 students with AI moderation to address bullying and other forms of abuse.  Noisy Guts uses a special belt sensor to non-invasively detect irritable bowel syndrome and other gut conditions.  Quipmo is recreational equipment for the moment: an online rental marketplace for travelling fun-seekers.  The Volte is a high fashion online rental marketplace that helps reduce clothing waste.  Jugglr is an online jobs platform to help new mums get back into the workforce.  Kinchip Systems improves health outcomes with better medical data management.  Assisting Your Life to Achieve (AYLA) Inc‘s “You Matter” boxes make possible the 24/7 assistance of homeless and disadvantaged people.  The Difference rounds up your electronic purchases to the nearest dollar so you can contribute “spare change” to charities of your choice.  Virtual CSI is using virtual reality as a tertiary teaching tool for crime scene investigation, MARKR Systems allows easily updatable and translatable augmented reality signage at events, and Gelavo saves food wastage by turning ugly avocados (and other fruit rejected for cosmetic reasons) into a healthy snack.

And THAT was just the WA cohort.  The two other global finalists came from interstate with powerful stories, and these were Soldier.ly who use technology to detect stress and anxiety in returning veterans, and Xceptional, who have an online jobs platform for people on the Autism Spectrum.  Additional companies from interstate who really made a strong impression on us included Augmented Bionics, who are building a non-invasive alternative to the cochlear implant.  Capricorn Power have developed a new way to convert waste heat to energy, potentially having a massive impact on climate change mitigation efforts.  Cynch helps small businesses deal with cybersecurity issues through customised programs.  Ecoblends Australia is working on a beautifully simple concept of colour-changing toilet paper to detect a number of gut-based cancers and other conditions.  Farmwall uses the power of aquaponics to bring healthy snacks into the office.  GoAct has some potentially game-changing technology for using the biomarkers found in a simple blood test to diagnose mental illness.  GoNap is a boon for parents of young children with an eco-friendly and very portable nappy kit.  HackHunter has some nifty tech to help offices secure their wifi networks by detecting malicious devices.  Kognat uses very impressive deep learning techniques to automate video editing processes.  SensaWeb has a realtime environmental radiation monitoring solution for workplaces where radiation sources are in common use.  Tendril Care is a platform for aged care service which aims to solve the more inefficient aspects of that industry, and Wheel Alert Technologies has a simple sensor for realtime monitoring of truck brake condition which will save lives and money.

The entire event was streamed live on YouTube, and you can watch it here (Exodus is on stage at 1:40:40):

We’d like to repeat our congratulations to the three companies who made it to the global finals in London, and especially would like to thank all the organisers at Pitch at Palace, as well as staff at Murdoch University for making this a well-run and an incredibly valuable event.  At least two outcomes from Pitch at Palace have resulted (in the week since Pitch at Palace) in new conversations with – and pitches to – potential investors.  Also, as we requested in our ask, we’ve now begun conversations with corporations who have both the ability and interest to help commercialise the technologies we are developing.  Hopefully more to come on this soon!

Lastly, it was a pleasure to be invited to speak at UWA on Wednesday, 9th of October for the Australian Institute of Physics (WA) quarterly meeting.  Being able to speak for one hour (rather than the 3 minutes or 30 seconds at Pitch at Palace) was quite a different kind of presentation, and it meant being able to do a deep dive into Exodus’ technical plans with a number of scientists present, which led to some very good audience questions! One unexpected result from this is that we’ve had a request to speak to some school kids about the exciting things that can happen when you study STEM subjects, which is something we’re definitely open to doing more.  If you want to know more about this, or want to hear more about why Exodus would be a great company to invest in or sponsor, please get in touch!

Exodus at Bloom and on 6PR radio.

A really important aspect of any public outreach work that Exodus does is helping to normalise the space industry as something real and tangible that can be invested in, provide valuable outcomes and jobs to “ordinary” people.   We’re helping to communicate the important message that if you work in the space ecosystem, you no longer have to fit into the mould of “the right stuff” Apollo astronauts and rocket scientists in order to participate.  We all use the internet, GPS, weather and other satellite-provided services, so we all have useful feedback to give as to how these services can be better.

Take the exciting recent announcement of a further $150 million being allocated to the Australian space Agency  – funds that will help Australian companies participate in NASA’s Artemis program that will return humankind to the moon.  Maybe this will build on Australia’s mining & remote operations experience, our business innovation sector, our world-class scientific researchers, or all of the above, but you can bet that this will have massive knock-on effects throughout the economy and our society more broadly.  The aim is to triple the size of the Australian space sector to $12 billion and create around 20,000 extra jobs by 2030.  Those aren’t all going to be high tech jobs, but it is important that people have a better intuitive feel for some of the quirks of working in the space environment.

It was great to talk to students at the Bloom WA entrepreneurial hub about what Exodus is doing to solve the Space debris problem, as well as Mike’s personal entrepreneurial journey, including what we learn’t from our recent trip to London Tech Week with Startup Catalyst.  We started with a video of the well known game and space-simulator, Kerbal Space Program, showing a replay of the test Mike (yours truly) gave himself years ago when deciding to switch fields and join the new space industry.  Did I understand (at least in theory), how we landed men on the moon, and returned them to the Earth safely?

If you can do this in Kerbal Space Program – I recommend this test to anyone interested in improving their knowledge about space – then you understand many of the issues of operating in space, even if – like us – you only plan to work on the rocket payloads.  Exodus might have no plan to design or operate rockets, but we will certainly need to have a good understanding of those requirements.  Narrating this video I was able to talk about the need to use rockets in stages (the parts of the rocket that get used up, then break off and fall away), and how – simply by the nature of what is required to get to space – this has created a significant amount of space debris all by itself.

Another important aspect demonstrated was how using simulators like drives the development of an intuitive understanding of orbital dynamics – since nothing in space moves in straight lines – and also how to make two objects meet in space at a given time and place.  It is this understanding that led to Exodus’ Kinetic Solution for Space Debris (KiSSD), which is different from other space debris removal methods in that we have no plans to match speeds with each piece of debris – a process which requires extra propellent and inhibits the scalability of the debris removal process.  Understanding how to remove space debris kinetically with a low speed flyby (~200m/s) whilst still taking care not to fragment the debris, is a key aspect of the method, and the basis of why we think we will be able to leapfrog the competition in the growing space debris removal market.

Lastly, it was great fun to be invited to speak with Jon Lewis on 6PR radio, who invited me onto the show to talk about space debris for his late-night audience, and answer a few questions from his listeners.  Always a breath of fresh air to talk to, Jon is doing some great work helping people to think about topics that might not normally come up.  We might be up to our eyeballs in planning and applications, but we’re always happy to come talk to an interested audience, and there are a few more engagements coming up, so contact us if you’d like to know more.

Exodus a finalist for Pitch at Palace!

We have some exciting news to share! Exodus Space Systems has been selected for the Australian national finals event in the Pitch at Palace competition!  More on that in a bit, but here’s a brief update first…

Ever since coming back from London Tech Week, Exodus has been exploring a variety of strategies for raising the funds we’ll need to continue our work.  The first of these was that as a result of seeing the success of the UK’s Enterprise Investment Scheme at promoting investment in seed-stage companies, we set a goal to attain Early Stage Innovation Company (ESIC) status with the Australian Tax Office, which would give our prospective Australian investors a similar tax incentive.

This led us to apply for the Entrepreneurial Mindset Bootcamp and Concept to Creation modules at the Centre for Entrepreneurial Research and Innovation (CERI), which have been accredited by the ATO as worth 50 points towards our coming application for ESIC status.  We completed the two-day Bootcamp at the beginning of August (group photo below), and I would strongly recommend this to any early stage company or would-be founder who wants to know more about how to get started – this material is immensely valuable and I can’t wait to see how the program progresses and expands.  We’ve also been accepted into the Concept to Creation accelerator module, which will start early 2020.  More on this to come.

Boot Camp Photo August

On to Pitch at Palace!

The next part of our strategy after coming back from London was to seek sponsorship from corporations with a technology interest, and this led us to apply for Pitch at Palace: a pitching competition set up by the Duke of York, where the Perth round was held Friday 23rd of August at Murdoch University.  The competition consists of state, national and global-level events, with each company being asked to give a short pitch on stage (usually 3 minutes) with a single slide for a visual aid.  Importantly, it’s not a “competition” in the conventional sense, because the practice sessions were all about helping each company improve their pitch, and the quality/number of influential people in the audience meant that most companies had the potential to get their ask fulfilled by members of the audience, whether or not they were selected for the next round.

Having said that, being selected for the Australian national final by a panel of esteemed judges is a huge honour and validation of the work we’ve put in so far!  We have an updated slide deck available for review by technology corporations that would consider sponsoring us, with a proposed arrangement that includes a number of benefits for sponsors, a key one being the chance for our sponsors to display their logo/branding on our prototype spacecraft when we launch it to space for our validation mission – currently planned for 2022.

We can’t wait for the next round, to be held on October 4th at Government house in Perth.  In the mean time we’d ask you to consider if you know influencers within technology corporations – be they mining, telecommunications, banking or otherwise – and consider whether they would be interested in helping an Australian space company get the means to help solve one of the biggest problems in the space industry of tomorrow – a market segment we estimate will be worth $1B annually by the 2030s.

It’s time to clean up our (space) garbage!

The next 50 years of inspiration

My dad has often told me of his experience of the 1969 Apollo moon landing, where he and other students gathered around a small black and white television at the physics department in Melbourne University.  On the way home that day he stopped by the house of an old hermit at the end of his street to tell him the news, where he was met with utter disbelief and then promptly asked to leave.  For anyone not up with current events, the very idea of this achievement was so outrageous that it created contempt, yet now we know it was an event that inspired generations to come, and the word “moonshot” has come to mean any crazy idea that – once completed – becomes a breakthrough success.

There are many thought pieces coming out this week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, often focussing on it as a testament to the audaciousness of the American spirit, or as an example of 400,000 people being able to work together to achieve a single, far-reaching goal.  Many are citing it as proof that people can come together to achieve similarly daunting goals like serious action on climate change, or preventing environmental degradation.  That may be true, but in my opinion the moon landing isn’t a great analogy in these cases.  Those efforts are things we *have* to do, and will require something more akin to the mobilisation effort by western allies in World War II – that was also something we *had* to do.  There are many examples of large goals that humanity has achieved through necessity, but I’d argue the moon landing is not one of them.

The moon landing, by contrast, was a crazy, audaciously difficult goal that we *chose* to do, and I think that’s inspiring on an entirely different level.

I feel it’s important to make the distinction, because it’s an example of a different way of thinking, and it requires a different kind of intelligence.  Where deductive reasoning gives you clear, logical outcomes that must follow from a given premise, inductive (creative) thinking requires setting a goal, and working backwards from that goal to infer how you can achieve that outcome with the materials that you have.  Thinking creatively is the bedrock of the innovation culture on which we pride ourselves, because it’s only through setting goals and working backwards from those goals that true invention occurs.

When it comes to space, what should the next goal be?  It’s important that it be forward-looking, simple, and with success easily measurable, like it was to “land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth”.  As most people in this business are used to thinking *logically* about this, it’s not surprising that most have come to the conclusion that the next goal should answer the ‘where next?’ question, whether that be a landing site elsewhere on the Moon, or on Mars, or even visiting the asteroids.

But hang on… let’s back up a step.  Are we still a single organisation like NASA, funded by a government caught up in a war of prestige, trying to win a first-past-the-post competition with flags-and-footsteps on an astronomical body as the goal? Or are we part of an international movement made up of many different types of organisations, trying to ensure humanity settles space and becomes a truly space-faring civilisation?  Only one of these is a goal I find audacious and inspiring.  Technically, we know we’re capable of planting a flag on another astronomical body… because we’ve done it before.  Doing it again won’t create the same level of inspiration that it did the first time, which is why “where next?” is the wrong question.

Instead of ‘where next?’, what if we asked ‘who next?’.  Instead of ‘what mission?’, what if we asked ‘how many?’.  We can infer what it means to be a space faring civilisation, because we know what it meant to be a sea faring civilisation.  It was less defined by where the ships were going, or what they were doing, but more by the variety and quantity of the people and cargo being shipped.  I think a simply stated (but audacious) goal should be framed in these terms and easily measurable…. something like this:

To accelerate the advent of humanity as a space faring civilisation, we will work towards the goal of having 50,000 people in space by the year 2050.

Does it matter whether they’re at the Moon, on Mars, at asteroids or in Low Earth Orbit (LEO)? Not particularly: the technology required will have significant commonalities regardless of location.  Nor does it especially matter whether the astronauts involved are performing scientific research or mining, participating in tourism or setting up communications infrastructure.  All of these pursuits and more will be key elements of a vibrant human civilisation in space, and supporting a large number of people in space will have a fundamental impact on how large numbers of people live on Earth, just as the technological achievements Apollo have had knock-on effects throughout society.

Take sustainability for example: Due to the volumetric constraints of space habitats, supporting large numbers of people in space means managing energy use, resource consumption and waste disposal at levels that have never been necessary on Earth before.  Indeed, one of the holy grails of spacecraft design is the creation is a fully closed-loop ECLSS (Environmental Control and Life Support System), where every waste product, and every gas emission by every living thing on a spacecraft is fully recycled back into useful materials.  Like every other technology developed in space, it’s the highly exacting nature of the space environment – and the severe consequences of anything going wrong – that results in proven technology that is useful for similar problems on Earth.

This is why it’s frustrating to hear space exploration presented as an “either/or” proposition versus solving the problems on Earth.  The fact is that space exploration solves problems on Earth, because it solves the problem in a more exacting scenario, then applies it to the mainstream.

To bring this back to the vision for Exodus, you may have noticed that the website’s tagline recently changed to “A Kinetic solution for Space Debris” from “Technologies Enabling Settlement”.  The long term goal is still to build technologies which will enable those 50,000 people to live and work in space, but first, we have to build a successful company using our technology, and that’s where the kinetic solution for space debris comes into play.

‘How?’ you ask?  Well, one of the places I believe we can expect to see settlement is in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), not just with one, or a handful of space stations, but with scores or hundreds of space stations supporting tens of thousands of people.  This “big LEO” scenario, as I call it, is where I think the majority of those 50,000 people will be located, because of the safety/convenience aspect of being able to move back and forth from Earth’s surface quickly and easily, as well as move many other places in the solar system.  As Robert Heinlein once said “Once you’re in LEO, you’re halfway to anywhere” (which if you do the math, is quite a good approximation).

Unfortunately, LEO is also where the majority of space debris is located, so that’s a problem that needs to be solved first, before large scale settlement of LEO can occur.  It turns out that there is a nice synergy between our technology and our plans: Our DeTA technology is both what we’ll use to deploy our kinetic solution for space debris *and* eventually build spinning habitats to produce artificial gravity.  Our plan is for the early versions of our technology to clean up space debris in LEO, so that later versions of our technology can help humanity settle LEO.

The 50th anniversary of Apollo is a huge week for space exploration, any way you slice it.  The Apollo program has inspired generations of scientists, engineers, educators, students and more, and will continue to do so.  I think it’s important that the next 50 years in space are even more inspiring than the last, because going to space will be one of the ways we solve humanity’s current problems.  Exodus wants to be a big part of that, and I hope you can see we have a vision to match.  If you want to know more about what we’re doing, please feel free to get in touch.  Till next time!