NEW HEIGHTS

Idealog - - PROFILE -

In Sil­i­con Val­ley, there’s been a bil­lion dol­lars i nvested i n space start- ups. There’s huge po­ten­tial and i t’s one of those things that i s ge­o­graph­i­cally ag­nos­tic, i t doesn’t mat­ter where you do that from – New Zealand or Sil­i­con Val­ley. You don’t need any re­serves or re­sources other than bright peo­ple.

While James Cameron is re­sid­ing in New Zealand for six months of the year as he works on the up­com­ing Avatar films in Welling­ton (just a quick he­li­copter ride away from his Feather­ston home, he says), he was born and bred in the US. Luck­ily, we have many of our own home­grown ex­plor­ers to call our own – and one whose sights are firmly fixed on a fron­tier out­side planet Earth is Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck.

Like Cameron, he has also po­ten­tially put his life in jeop­ardy to ex­per­i­ment and in­no­vate. His de­sire to build rock­ets was so strong that in 2000, while work­ing at Fisher & Paykel with the help of some col­leagues, he built a rocket-pow­ered bi­cy­cle that he demon­strated to the amused pub­lic with a 140 kmh blast down Dunedin’s Princes St.

But fol­low­ing the usual av­enues into space ex­plo­ration wasn’t for him. When he fi­nally got his crack at ful­fill­ing a boy­hood dream of go­ing to work for NASA and Lock­heed Martin in the US, he was dis­ap­pointed to dis­cover an in­dus­try that was cloaked in bu­reau­cracy and re­stric­tions.

“I started talk­ing to these guys and they go ‘You don't want to work here’,” Beck pre­vi­ously told Idea­log. “I re­alised that I was just go­ing to be a tiny gear in a gi­ant bu­reau­cratic ma­chine. And even if I made it re­ally, re­ally big in one of these or­gan­i­sa­tions, then I was still not go­ing to do what I wanted – launch rock­ets.”

On his flight home, he checked to see if Rocket Lab was taken, reg­is­tered it and went out on his own. Beck’s bold plan? Democratis­ing space through af­ford­able 3D-printed, bat­tery­pow­ered rock­ets that can send small satel­lites up into space at a far more fre­quent rate than what had been seen be­fore.

That cost re­duc­tion, for con­trast: in 2016, the US went to space 21 times and the av­er­age cost of a mis­sion was $221 mil­lion. Rocket Lab’s goal was to launch one rocket per week from just $7.2 mil­lion.

Beck’s tale of Kiwi in­ge­nu­ity has been told in Sil­i­con Val­ley board­rooms and proudly at New Zealand awards nights. The com­pany re­cently had a suc­cess­ful lift off on Jan­uary 21, with its Elec­tron rocket tak­ing off from Rocket Lab's Launch Com­plex 1 on the Māhia Penin­sula in New Zealand at 2:43pm lo­cal time.

It reached or­bit some eight min­utes later and suc­cess­fully de­ployed its pay­load of three satel­lites – as well as an undis­closed satel­lite called the Hu­man­ity Star. The three­foot-wide car­bon fi­bre sphere made up of 65 pan­els re­flect­ing the sun’s light made head­lines around the world and was meant to cre­ate a shared ex­pe­ri­ence for hu­mankind, who could look up and marvel at the night’s sky. It caused quite a ruckus in na­tional me­dia, with some prais­ing it, some call­ing it a stunt and sev­eral as­trol­o­gists say­ing the light pol­lu­tion was the in­ter­ga­lac­tic ver­sion of graf­fiti (they needn’t have wor­ried, as it fell out of or­bit and was de­stroyed just two months later).

Such feats are all in a day’s work for Beck, who is liv­ing out his dream of build­ing rock­ets ev­ery day – and he says the in­dus­try is just get­ting started, as there is no holds barred now that fledg­ling com­pa­nies can en­ter the game.

“It’s an in­cred­i­ble time for the space in­dus­try at the mo­ment, as no longer do you have to be govern­ment to be able to do any­thing mean­ing­ful – or even a large or­gan­i­sa­tion,” he says. “There are tonnes of small com­pa­nies hav­ing dis­rup­tive ef­fects on the in­dus­try and we’re right at the be­gin­ning of the in­dus­try with re­spect to com­mer­cial in­flu­ence and you see that all around the world.

“In Sil­i­con Val­ley, there’s been a bil­lion dol­lars in­vested in space start-ups. There’s huge po­ten­tial and it’s one of those things that is ge­o­graph­i­cally ag­nos­tic, it doesn’t mat­ter where you do that from – New Zealand or Sil­i­con Val­ley. You don’t need any re­serves or re­sources other than bright peo­ple. New Zealand has a re­ally ex­cit­ing fu­ture there within the space in­dus­try.”

Rocket Lab now has the afore­men­tioned Māhia Penin­sula site, which is the world’s only pri­vate launch site (lo­cated on the North Is­land’s East coast), as well as two sites in the US: Cape Canaveral in Florida and Pa­cific Space­port Com­plex in Alaska. It also raised US$75 mil­lion in ven­ture fund­ing last year.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port from US-based in­vest­ment firm Space An­gels, in­vestors put a record US$3.9

bil­lion into com­mer­cial space com­pa­nies in 2017.

As well as this, the com­pany re­ports that over the last eight years, in­vestors and founders have made US$25 bil­lion in ex­its fol­low­ing ac­qui­si­tions and pub­lic of­fer­ings, said Space An­gels. It counts 303 com­pa­nies in the space sec­tor glob­ally. And ac­cord­ing to Kevin Jenk­ins of pro­fes­sional ser­vice firm Mart­inJenk­ins, in 2018, there are now around 70 dif­fer­ent space-re­lated busi­nesses and other en­ti­ties in New Zealand.

So apart from the com­mer­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties, what ex­cites Beck the most about the fron­tier of space? For one, it’s not the ac­tual rocket tak­ing off – although that is a visual marvel in it­self. It’s what hap­pens af­ter lift-off.

He says de­spite all the ad­vance­ments in hu­mankind’s his­tory, the pos­si­bil­i­ties for what can be ac­com­plished in space are yet to be fully re­alised, as well as the ef­fect these de­vel­op­ments can have on our day-to-day lives, busi­nesses and re­sources.

“Think of the in­ter­net when we’d just be­gun. All you did was send an email, right? If you went back to that time and looked at the things the in­ter­net was go­ing to en­able, it’s the same with space. We’ve lit­er­ally sent our first email – that’s where we’re at,” he says.

“The big­gest thing that’s go­ing to be done in space and that we’re all go­ing to look back on is yet to be done. There’s a huge op­por­tu­nity for Rocket Lab and for mankind.”

He says a few of these de­vel­op­ments are al­ready in the process of oc­cur­ring, such as in­ter­net from space.

“That’s go­ing to dis­sem­i­nate the in­ter­net to ev­ery sin­gle per­son on this planet, and for a de­vel­op­ing na­tion, that’s use­ful,” he says. “You can go take univer­sity cour­ses on­line and it doesn’t mat­ter if you live in a mud hut. As a species, that’s very trans­for­ma­tional.”

An­other ex­am­ple is weather satel­lites, which can pro­vide life­sav­ing data on nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, such as a cy­clone bar­relling to­wards the coast of New Zealand.

“Amer­ica has 30 weather satel­lites as a coun­try,” Beck says. “With cli­mate change, what hap­pens if you have 30,000 watch­ing the weather? What hap­pens if you turn them out to look into the cos­mos? It’s an in­cred­i­bly dis­rup­tive time within the in­dus­try and we’re go­ing to see amaz­ing things.”

So what’s stop­ping our ap­petite for ex­plo­ration? One fac­tor hold­ing us back might be that although New Zealand prides it­self on pro­duc­ing world-class in­no­va­tors like Beck, cul­tur­ally, we can hin­der our­selves when it comes to open­ing up new in­dus­tries and cash­ing in on them.

Beck says New Zealan­ders can of­ten have an in­cred­u­lous at­ti­tude to what can be ac­com­plished.

“I was very open in the fact that my in­ten­tion was to build a large bil­lion-dol­lar-or­gan­i­sa­tion and be the best at de­liv­er­ing small space­craft to or­bit,” Beck says. “It al­ways amazed me – I get that peo­ple would have scep­ti­cism about the space bit – but that they would also have scep­ti­cism about build­ing a bil­lion-dol­lar-com­pany.”

New Zealand needs to scale its ideas in what it wants to achieve to be big­ger, he says – not from an in­no­va­tion stand­point, be­cause we do tend to have a lot of great ideas, but about how far we can take them and how much they’re worth. Be­sides, with a glass ceil­ing over­top of great ideas, how can any­one aim for the stars – or send a Hu­man­ity Star up into space, for that mat­ter?

“I think that it is drawn into deep cul­ture here in New Zealand,” Beck says. “When I go to start-up events and lis­ten to en­trepreneurs talk, they talk about how they can’t wait to make their first mil­lion, while the same group of en­trepreneurs in Amer­ica are talk­ing about how they can’t wait to make their first bil­lion. There’s a scale is­sue and a cul­tural shift that needs to oc­cur.”

And the other is­sue hold­ing us back from break­ing new ground in ar­eas like the space sec­tor? Ven­ture cap­i­tal.

“Let’s not beat around the bush – in New Zealand, there is no ven­ture cap­i­tal com­mu­nity here,” Beck says. “You’ve got folks like Steven Tin­dall try­ing to make a dif­fer­ence and do­ing a good job, but apart from that, the ven­ture cap­i­tal in­dus­try in New Zealand is shock­ing. I’ve seen so many good com­pa­nies de­stroyed by VC, as they’re not pro­vid­ing what good VC does well: rec­om­men­da­tions, in­for­ma­tion, knowl­edge, and the abil­ity to reach out to a new net­work.”

Plus, when a com­pany does even­tu­ally move off­shore in search of the money, he says it be­comes a case of lament­ing ‘we lost an­other one’ in­stead of cel­e­brat­ing the suc­cess of a New Zealand com­pany that’s gone global.

His ad­vice to en­trepreneurs and ex­plor­ers like him­self that are on the verge of a new fron­tier is to first and fore­most, set the com­pany up for global suc­cess, so the rest will come easy.

“It’s about bring­ing in in­cred­i­bly knowl­edge­able, well-con­nected cap­i­tal, cap­i­tal that’s used to build­ing large or­gan­i­sa­tions and that can pick up the phone and call any­one on the planet you need to talk to,” he says.

As for New Zealand’s bur­geon­ing space in­dus­try, it seems it’s just get­ting started. Beck says there’s op­por­tu­nity for new space re­search, in­fra­struc­ture and anal­y­sis along­side launches, while de­vel­op­ments in this area will have ap­pli­ca­tions for other in­dus­tries too, such as agritech, cli­mate change mod­el­ling, oceanog­ra­phy and struc­tural plan­ning.

But per­haps most in­ter­est­ingly, the space sec­tor has a unique ad­van­tage. Un­like tech com­pa­nies in other in­dus­tries that have forged ahead of rules and reg­u­la­tion, caus­ing the law to have to make amends and play catch-up (think Uber and Airbnb), when Rocket Lab was founded, there was no space reg­u­la­tory regime in New Zealand to work off.

The com­pany played a part in help­ing the govern­ment draw it up from scratch, mean­ing it is fu­ture-proofed for decades to come – and it’s es­pe­cially de­signed to not only man­age as­so­ci­ated risks and en­sure New Zealand meets its treaty obli­ga­tions with the US, but to also en­cour­age the in­no­va­tion and devel­op­ment of a New Zealand space in­dus­try. It’s even in the ti­tle, Beck says. “That’s no bet­ter ti­tle than ‘to grow and reg­u­late’ a space in­dus­try – usu­ally the frame­work would just be to reg­u­late a space in­dus­try. It’s a very unique po­si­tion for New Zealand to be in.”

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