Launch of Disrupt Space

Small teams driven by their passion with a clear focus can do extraordinary things.

This was the message given by Peter Diamandis at TED in 2012. During his talk he made the case for a future of abundance. A future of clean water and energy, enabled by the ever increasing pace of technological change.

The message was aptly chosen in reflection of his own history. He and two buddies of his, Robert Richards and Todd Hawley focused their passion in 1987 to found the International Space University (ISU). Today like the olympics, a nine-weeks summer program roams to a different country each year bringing together 120 “participants” and almost as many experts, influencers and leaders within the space sector together, regardless of citizenship, gender or background. The program provides its participants a holistic and international view of space treating subjects as diverse as policy and law, business and management, engineering, humanities, life and physical sciences, and space applications. The program ends with three to four intense team projects focusing on subjects that are relevant to the space sector, tackling them from an unique international, interdisciplinary and intercultural (3i) perspective.

In summer 2014, the program was held in Montréal, Canada. 122 participants from 32 countries came to experience this program, I was one of them. Although I was working at the German Aerospace Center at the time designing the next generation of launch vehicles and space planes, arguably a highly innovative activity at a first glance. The reality is that the traditional space sector is surprisingly conservative with a low aptitude for calculated risk. One key puzzle to this conundrum is the predominantly low volume, high value market the sector operates in, a relic from the past 60 years of government controlled activities.

“The traditional space sector is surprisingly conservative with a low aptitude for calculated risk.”

However the space sector today is experiencing a renaissance. New methodologies such as “agile aerospace” is enabling rapid design cycles of complex space systems. Innovative business models are being developed with the aim to commercialize and expand the sector’s value chain. A disruptive change to the industry is happening right now and at an ever quickening pace. But the majority of these activities are occurring in a select part of the US. In the rest of the world, including Europe, a lack of opportunities for innovative ventures in commercial space is still a common perception held by the new generation of space professionals.

Hence I was in Montréal. One of the team projects during the summer program that year dealt with the topic of “open innovation” and its application to the space sector. Open innovation, a buzzword coined by an American organizational theorist named Henry Chesbrough in 2003 promotes collaborative sharing of ideas, processes, and resources between sectors, organizations, and individuals as a means to reduce costs, diversify risk, reduce development time, and to spur innovation. Examples of open innovation include crowd-sourcing, crowd-funding, prize competitions and open source.

The work performed during the summer program at ISU shows that although open innovation within the terrestrial sectors have become a global phenomena through initiatives spearheaded by Tesla, Google, Facebook among many others, the space sector has only recently caught on this trend. We realized that the disruptive change currently happening where mainly driven by the sector opening up to leverage ideas and best practices from other sectors, including the software and consumer electronic industries. Leading companies such as SpaceX are recruiting game developers to write the software of their rockets and space capsules! 

Following that summer program and with new friends, we set out on the grand challenge of trying systematically break down the current barriers that encapsulate the traditional space sector outside of that small part of the US. We knew that working within the walls of existing organizations through a top-down approach would be ineffective. The speed and scope of change needed require the kind of decision making and execution process that would otherwise be stymied within the organizational structure of a large company or agency. The change needs to come from bottom up. It needs to be a grassroots movement.

“We set out on the grand challenge of trying to systematically break down the current barriers that encapsulate the traditional space sector.” 

To kickstart this movement, we gathered together two volunteer teams, one in Bremen, Germany and one in Shanghai, China. Looking outside the space sector, we investigated various formats that could spur the development of entrepreneurial grassroots communities. One model that stood out is the Startup Weekend model.

Startup Weekends are weekend long events spanning 54 hours. Starting Friday evening, every participant receives an opportunity to pitch a business idea. The resulting pitches are voted on by the participants with teams formed around a subset of the best ideas. Industry experts and entrepreneurs join the event on Saturday and Sunday to act as mentors, providing feedback and direction to the teams. On Sunday evening, the teams wrap up their activities and present their work to a panel of judges consisting of investors, successful entrepreneurs and technical experts. Core startup methodologies and philosophies applied within the modern technology sector such as lean startup, business model canvas, design thinking and open innovation are prevalently discussed and applied during the events.

The result was two three-day events occurring on the 10-12th April, 2015. People with backgrounds outside of space were especially encouraged to participate. We gathered several leaders in the global space community – including entrepreneurs, academics, policy experts, technical experts, and business managers – and asked them to serve as mentors.

The events fulfilled the objective of kickstarting an international grassroots movement with 81 participants from 18 countries attending the Bremen event and 43 participants from 12 countries attending the Shanghai event. The first edition of this format acted as a platform to launch several innovative early-stage space startup projects of which currently four international teams formed during the event are continuing to make headway in bringing their products and services to market.

With the foundation of an international grassroots movement in place, I am happy to announce the next step: The Disrupt Space summit. The summit will act as a kickoff platform for new projects by providing aspiring entrepreneurs an opportunity to tackle challenges proposed by select organizations using space. Furthermore, a number of select early-stage startups will showcase their products and services. Most importantly however will be the attendance of corporates, government representatives and investors, many from outside the space sector. The summit therefore seeks to provide these decision makers a platform to understand the potential and act on opportunities in the space sector.

Just like the team that followed their passion and created ISU, we therefore invite you regardless of your citizenship, gender or background to join in the next step of making space our backyard.

Let’s play!