Aussie space tech startup Fleet has finally sent its first two microsatellites into orbit, with the help of US and New Zealand spacecraft company Rocket Lab.
The launch in Auckland yesterday was Rocket Lab’s first commercial take off, with the rocket — aptly named It’s Business Time— deploying six small satellites into space, including Fleet Space’s Proxima I and II.
Fleet was founded in 2015, by space engineer and chief executive Flavia Tata Nardini, along with Matthew Tetlow and Matt Pearson.
In April last year, it raised $5 million in a Series A round, led by Blackbird Ventures and also including Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes, Earth Space Robotics and Silicon Valley’s Horizon Partners.
Since then, the startup has grown to 20 people, opened offices in Europe and Los Angeles, and opened its nanosatellite ground station and mission control centre in Adelaide.
It has also forged partnerships with Seattle spacecraft company Spaceflight and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Through launching nanosatellites — roughly the size of a shoebox and weighing less than 10kg — into space, Fleet Space is striving to create a global Internet of Things (IoT) network to connect sensors across the world. Ultimately, this connectivity could improve efficiencies in areas such as agriculture, mining and logistics.
Fleet had originally scheduled to launch its first two nanosatellites, Centauri I and II, on a SpaceX rocket in February this year, but when the launch was delayed, Tata Nardini says the team chose to start commercialising their product anyway.
The startup’s Portal product is connected through existing satellites, and allows clients to “connect sensors at a very low cost”, Tata Nardini says.
Soon, the sensors were being sold all over the world.
“It was unexpected because our satellites were not in space yet, but it was great to start entering the market — we could do what we wanted to do.”
Already, customers are demanding more services — proof, Tata Nardini says, IoT has changed the way clients are operating their businesses as “they need more services dedicated to IoT, with lower costs”.
In September, Tata Nardini found out Rocket Lab had space available, and the team started preparing again.
The first two satellites took more than a year to build, Tata Nardini says. This time “we built the satellites, had licencing in place, did all the testing, all within one-and-a-half months”, she says.
“It’s incredibly crazy, but that’s what new space is — it’s very fast,” she adds.
Fleet may have reached a milestone, but Tata Nardini is not resting on her laurels. The startup is overseeing two more launches within the next two weeks, before starting to scale up and “attack the market quicker”, she says.
“I’m not going to take a break, not this year,” she says.
The nano space race
Although Rocket Lab has got a Fleet Space satellite into orbit before SpaceX could, Tata Nardini stresses the two are very different companies, with different priorities.
Rocket Lab is dedicated entirely to getting nanosatellites and microsatellites into space. They’re relatively small rockets, but with high-frequency launches.
The New Zealand company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the US parent company, has a licence to launch up to 120 times next year.
“They’re catered to new types of satellites, and to new space,” Tata Nardini says.
This all leads to a better customer journey, she adds. If Rocket Lab provides a good experience to Fleet, getting more satellites into orbit quickly, then Fleet can start providing a better experience for its own users.
“It’s a chain that has to move fast,” she says. IoT technology is moving so quickly, that “if we have to wait a year … we miss it”, she adds.
“It’s a kind of bottleneck that we’re trying to unlock,” she says,
Running any startup is complicated, but “space startups are double complicated”, Tata Nardini says.
While on the one hand, the challenges of understanding your customers, securing funding and trying to scale are similar, it’s also something of a niche.
“You have to go on top of a rocket to reach space,” she says. “Either you’re the one building the rocket or you have to wait for someone else.”
Often this means “you have to wait months to demonstrate what you’re doing”, which leads to the biggest problem of all, according to Tata Nardini, which is “to get into revenue before your space infrastructure is there”.
However, “likely this is going to be unlocked by quicker access to space”, she adds.
The journey to space is not an easy one, but if Tata Nardini has one piece of advice for other startup founders looking to embark upon their own mission, it’s just to keep moving.
“Find a way to go fast — try things, get to space fast, get to revenue fast,” she says.
“Reach your customers as soon as possible,” she adds. “Anything that can get you off the ground, go for it.”