Rise of the Astropreneurs: A New Race in Space

Outer space is an infinite source of optimism, learning, and imagination that unites us all.

The intrigue of the-great-beyond is something that brands have been tapping into for decades. The visual splendour of the cosmos is interlaced with so much of our daily lives — from the ultramodern, minimalistic and utility-driven design of furniture and gadgets we can’t live without, to the sleek, streamlined bodies and interiors of the vehicles we drive, and the fashions we wear. Outer space is the inspiration for so much of what we strive to be.

It’s the very notion of envisioning a life beyond this planet that is galvanizing brands and consumers alike.

While life on Mars — and beyond — may represent a far-off future, tapping into a tomorrow we can barely conceive of today has all the elements of a great brand interaction. Designing space-inspired experiences, stories, and products takes our minds to a place where creativity flourishes — where we’re tasked with thinking differently about ourselves — and our future.

The industrialization of outer space still sounds like the stuff of science fiction. The very idea that a business could turn a profit amongst the stars is still, to many, an alien notion. Skepticism aside, experts insist that exploration of the universe beyond our planet will usher in a new era of historic human achievement and advancement — even within the next decade.

Over the past fifteen years, many of the most forward-thinking companies on the planet have set their sights on the next frontier. Private sector interests have wrestled the reins of space travel and endeavour from government control — each with their own ambitious plans to build bigger rockets and establish colonies on far-flung planets. Trailblazers like Elon Musk, Sir Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos have become household names — and business is booming.

Granted, the industry is still niche — and expectations continue to outpace reality— for now. Outer space is widely regarded as a playground for billionaire tech-tycoons with a penchant for PR stunts — like rigging a cherry-red Tesla convertible to a rocket bound for Mars — but the success of these high-profile companies has inspired hundreds of other entrepreneurs — or astropreneurs — to take a stab at achieving something unique for themselves in the new space race.

Exploring new horizons.

The bewildering nature of all that exists beyond our world is great kindling for ideas and ingenuity. As businesses evolve and begin to look skyward for new inspiration, resourceful partners will be a necessary part of that evolution. As emergent astropreneurs and tech firms march forward into a brave new spaceconomy, this shift will undoubtedly influence client rosters for years to come.

To be sure, there is no grander vista of possibility and opportunity than outer space. As we endeavour to discover our place in the universe, our focus on emerging trends and technologies will endure — to augment our insights and enrich our perspectives.

Small satellites, big data.

Small satellites first garnered attention over a decade ago, when academic institutions began encouraging students to build nanosatellites — like CubeSats — miniature satellites, ranging from a few ounces to several hundred pounds — that could travel out of orbit to gather scientific data.

Over the past few years, private sector astropreneurs have been eager to develop small satellites of their own, to gather business intelligence and test out new technologies.

Small satellites are being used to more accurately detect weather patterns, closely monitor oil inventory levels, provide real-time images of Earth, track cargo ships, study deforestation—and even identify how many cars are in the parking lot of a retailer. These new data streams from space help generate unique insights and economic activity across a myriad of industries and sectors.

By analyzing shadows inside oil storage tanks (floating lids indicate the volume level inside), satellite data can be used to estimate oil inventory trends.

By counting the number of cars in retail parking lots over time, satellite data can be used to predict sales trends before they’re reported to financial markets.

Big data is transforming the way many of our clients do business — and the way we do business with them. At Sawhorse, we’re helping our partners in the insurance industry evolve through new digital tools and tactics, and they’re exploring new technologies — like looking at satellite weather analytics to better understand and monitor natural catastrophes and assess damage — in near real-time. Our clients in the retail sector are also benefitting from satellite weather data — with hyper-accurate, super-localized forecasting, companies are gaining valuable lead time — particularly when scaled across hundreds or thousands of locations — and taking advantage of shifting climate patterns before the competition catches wind.

Take, for example, Wal-Mart — according to sales data, consumers don’t like buying berries during hot, windy days. By utilizing advanced weather data analytics from satellites, Wal-Mart reacted and shifted its retail strategy — boosting ads for berries in locations experiencing low wind and mild temperatures, and reducing berry supply in areas where conditions were less favourable. The result — store sales of berries in temperate areas as much as tripled.

As the orbital environment becomes increasingly crowded, taking advantage of this satellite data will become paramount — not only to ensure we’re deriving the maximum benefit from space-bound technology, but also to ensure the safe deployment of these devices.

Breaking through the space clutter.

As these in-space assets continue to grow in number, the problem of space debris — rocket remains, obsolete satellites, and other abandoned objects in orbit — will become increasingly evident. While a certain level of inevitable space junk is necessary to the business goals of private satellite astropreneurs, there is general consensus within the small-sat industry that steps must be taken to mitigate unnecessary risk to fragile orbiting instruments.

Entrepreneurial space companies are stepping in to offer novel solutions to this pressing problem by providing sophisticated, highly-precise debris tracking services. Other astropreneurs are developing satellite propulsion systems — enabling the small-sats to better avoid detectable, trackable space debris. Beyond these new tracking and mapping systems, there are also efforts to physically remove debris from orbit. Dozens of private companies are developing technical solutions to clear a path for the future.

At Sawhorse, we take great pride in helping our clients discover, validate, and implement inventive ideas for new products, services, and processes. Our Strategy Series brand exists unreservedly as a springboard for transformative, actionable thinking and doing. As a human-centred service, rooted in design thinking, we act as a catalyst for continuous change, helping our partners envision, evaluate, and iteratively implement meaningful, impactful, game-changing concepts and designs.

Space Angels — a blessing in the skies.

Astronomical launch costs aside — once a business is already up and running — one of the biggest hurdles to overcome for newcomers in the space sector is access to capital. In the past few years, space start-ups have benefited from crowdfunding as a means of filling their coffers. Investments by way of private equity and venture capital — space angels — have also grown from a trickle to a steady stream–paving the way to viability for many astropreneurs.

Space-industry accelerators and incubators are also emerging in the market — as facilitators of growth in space-focused start-ups. Although they vary in how they work, they can be instrumental in helping start-ups avoid common pitfalls, and grow their businesses rapidly.

Located in the heart of downtown Toronto, MaRS Discovery District — one of the world’s largest urban incubator hubs — plays a fundamental role in connecting budding astropreneurs with angel investors through the MaRS Innovation initiative. Part tech accelerator, part seed fund-raiser — MaRS provides an easy gateway for backers to finance young enterprises and recruit experienced entrepreneurs in the space industry. The largest initiative of it’s kind in Canada, MaRS has fast-tracked the growth of more than 1,000 up-starts whose technologies and solutions can meaningfully improve lives.

Fly me to the moon.

Less than ten years ago, to purchase a single round-trip ticket to the moon — at $30M a pop — was a fantasy reserved exclusively for the extremely wealthy and eccentric. Today, pre-bookings start at $100K. These trips promise to deliver aspiring astropreneurs the sensation of floating — gravity-free — and a view from 120 kilometres above the Earth’s surface.

Another giant leap towards the future of space tourism practicality is the reusability of launch vessels. The capabilities of rocket technology being developed by big players like SpaceXBlue Origin, and Virgin Galactic will significantly decrease launch costs, and increase the number of missions one vessel can undertake.

Although we’re not sending anyone into space just yet, we do understand that the age of consumer passivity is long gone. Prospective travellers, both real-world and virtual, demand immersive experiences. With many of our clients in the tourism industry clamouring to offer authenticity and cultural exploration, we use digital tools, technologies and content to deliver distinctive physical experiences and creative virtual interactions.

To infinity — and beyond.

We live in an age where yesterday’s unknown can quickly become today’s major disruptor. Space technology is just the latest in a growing list of once-implausible innovations — joining the likes of artificial intelligence, blockchain, and virtual reality.

Today’s space endeavours strike both competitive and collaborative tones. Nations that once viewed each other as mortal adversaries now cooperate toward mutual ends. American, Japanese, European, and Canadian astronauts live, work, and play with Russian cosmonauts on the International Space Station — which is itself built on international cooperation.

This readiness to work together — despite ongoing political tension on Earth — gives many pundits hope that the current spirit of partnership in space will continue to influence the future of humanity — wherever we may go.