Richard Branson has become the first billionaire in space, marking a milestone in the global space sector and opening the door to a new era of growth. And Australian space-tech entrepreneurs are ready to ride the rocket ship.
That’s according to Troy McCann, founder of the Moonshot space tech accelerator, which has just secured $500,000 in funding from the federal government and private investors to fuel the next generation of high-flying Aussie tech.
Half of that funding has come from the federal government’s Incubator Support Scheme, and is paired with support from a consortium of bonafide space-tech experts.
The Moonshot model sees investors acting as mentors, contributing their time and expertise, as well as their money.
That means participating founders can pick the brains of local success stories Adam Gilmour of Gilmour Space, Flavia Tata Nardini of Fleet Space Technologies and Carley Scott of Equatorial Launch Australia.
Dr Andrew Aldrin, chief executive of the Aldrin Space Institute and son of second-man-on-the-moon Buzz Aldrin, is also an investor, along with Amir Blachman, chief business officer of Axiom Space.
“We’ve got this incredible group of people coming together saying we need to help grow the next generation of entrepreneurs,” McCann says.
But it’s not all about space tourism and colonising Mars, he adds. Moonshot is working with businesses helping detect and tackle bushfires, and growing new medicines in microgravity environments.
There are also applications of space tech in agriculture, mining, logistics, manufacturing — the list goes on.
“Too many people still think of space as this impossible faraway location that has nothing to do with any of us here on Earth,” he explains.
“Really, this is about real commercial opportunity.”
Internationally, the Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson space race has picked up momentum over the past few months, with Branson’s Virgin Galactic launching its first passenger flight into orbit over the weekend.
That’s bringing space tech into the mainstream media and the public eye, and it’s likely to be inspiring to a new generation of space-tech entrepreneurs.
McCann himself has something of a soft spot for Virgin Galactic, he confesses.
“I remember back in high school, looking at this company and thinking, ‘we’re going to have $250,000 flights to space’. I did school projects on it.”
Finally, seeing this come to fruition is “absolutely incredible”, he says.
There is still a negative connotation around the likes of Virgin Galactic, Space X and Blue Origin, with much of the rhetoric focusing on the egos of the billionaires involved.
While ego’s may play a role, this kind of misses the point, McCann suggests.
These business models will not be successful unless they can be democratised, making it accessible for regular people to access the services — whether that’s space tourism or rocket launches for satellites.
“That, to me, is the really exciting part,” he says.
“How do we really open space up to everybody?”
The Aussie opportunity
This is an area in which Australia is, perhaps unexpectedly, leading the way. This isn’t a country with a strong “space heritage”, McCann explains.
But in the modern era of space-tech, he suggests that actually works to our advantage.
He points to a shift about ten years ago that started to change the way space innovation was approached all over the world.
The cost of space hardware is dropping, and more and more rocket launches via private companies means it’s easier to gain access to space.
Instead of putting one, $500,000 rocket up at a time, businesses can put multiple low-cost satellites into orbit, and create new iterations of those satellites in a relatively short space of time.
“The whole economic situation about how we use space has totally shifted,” he explains.
“That gave Australia a bit of a leg up, because we had that blank slate.”
Moonshot was around before the Australian Space Agency existed, he notes. While other nations had to try to change the direction of their existing programs, Australia was starting from scratch. And so some of the earliest pioneers of space tech are here.
McCann compares the space industry now to the internet in the 90s. And that’s not something he says lightly.
First it was an inaccessible thing that not many people understood. Then, it became more accessible and more affordable. Soon, we had social media and all the cloud-based infrastructure of today.
In space, “the infrastructure is being put there so we can launch easily and commercialise Earth’s orbit”, he explains.
“These are real commercial opportunities, we’re not dealing with science fiction.
“It’s an incredible new world we’re living in, and it’s happening so rapidly that it’s really hard to break away from this idea of space being just about science fiction and this false promise of the last century.”