Interview: Mike Lawton, chief executive, Oxford Space Systems
March 22, 2017
LONDON — Oxford Space Systems has been on everyone’s Most Likely to Succeed list of European space startups for a couple of years now. The specialist in satellite deployable booms and antennas using proprietary materials dreams of the day it competes directly with Harris Corp. and Northrop Grumman.
That day will not be for a couple of years yet. In the meantime, OSS has flight-proven its first boom and is readying the launch later this year of a second. After that, Chief Executive Mike Lawton says, an in-orbit demonstration through the European Space Agency should be the next step.
Lawton made his remarks during the Satellite Finance Network Conference on March 20.
Your early financing has been a mix of public and private. What can the UK government do to further help?
A venture capital-backed business can never move fast enough when you have VCs investing in your business. What makes the UK attractive is that we can access co-funding from the government. However, roughly 80 percent of that co-funding available to SMEs is funneled by the European Space Agency.
If you’re working on genuinely disruptive technology or businesses we have to get ESA in their comfort zone to agree to the scope of work and to release that money. I find it considerably easier to access money at a national level from the UK Space Agency and Innovate UK than I do going through ESA.
As an example, I started a negotiation with ESA, which is still running — it’s in month 16 — and in that time we designed, developed and flew a product in space. All we’ve managed to do with the agency in that time is trade documents.
So the biggest thing we can do to help SMEs is to unshackle the bureaucratic burden of releasing the money from the ESA.
Your first launch, in September 2016, was a boom on an Algerian government satellite, developed with the UK, on an Indian rocket. What’s its status?
It’s doing very well. We’re now into month six of that mission. We have deployed and retracted the world’s longest [cubesat] boom a number of times under hot and cold conditions. We are validating our material and proving some of the claims we have made for it.
When is your next flight?
Our next launch is September or October of this year, on the Indian rocket, for the Kazakh Institute of Technology. We are designing and developing a new range of deployable structures and what sets us apart and the reason we’ve been able to attract VC money is that we do use conventional materials but we’re designing and developing our own proprietary materials, which means our structures are lighter and less complex and more stowage efficient than what is out there.
We’re very much targeting commercial applications and NewSpace, where competition and price is the eternal concern. To our knowledge we set a world record in going from a design to a product, the deployable boom, and getting that into orbit in less than 30 months.
What’s the difference between the boom launched in September 2016 and the one to fly next autumn?
The one currently in orbit is materials demonstration. The one we are going to be launching is commercial and is going to be deploying a payload for the customer and doing something that is going to earn them money. The one that is launching in September is a 3u [three-unit] cubesat.
They are collecting data from an instrument they are going to deploy and they have a customer for that data.
What will it take to get traction in the commercial market?
Developing space technology is not for the fainthearted. It’s incredibly expensive and there are lots of technical challenges.
There’s a reason there’s only Harris Corp. and Northrop Grumman out there. This is incredibly tough technology to get right. We operate in the UK and we’re VC backed but access to the level of funding we need means we can only have a piecemeal approach. We can only apply for a certain chunk of funding to get us to the next level rather than having 20 million in the bank and just allowing engineers to solve tough problems.
We’ve got to go through this application stage. It’s a stepping-stone approach. That slows us down. The other barrier to proving technology in such a risk-averse industry is getting someone to risk a mission on a huge deployable antenna, which is the primary payload on this mission. That means we need a smart way of validating this technology in space. So we need hosted payload opportunity to prove it in a noncritical application before the risk-averse telecoms market will adopt it.
Earth observation satellites use deployable antennas too.
Absolutely. But I cannot get investors excited about purely Earth observation opportunities. It’s about where the volume is, and that’s in telecoms. But telecoms is a risk-averse sector.
So you have the 20 million in the bank?
I’d like to. We could go and access it believe it or not. In fact we have been in the privileged position of turning away offers of investment from Asia and from the U.S., simply because we haven't built enough value in the business to avoid the level of dilution that I can be comfortable with.
You’ve done a Series A fundraising. What’s next?
We’ve done Series A and we’re coming up toward Series B towards the end of the year. And what we’re currently negotiating is a bridging round. There are significant contracts we are negotiating. I just need a little bit of money to get us through the next six to nine months to increase the value of the business and then we’ll go out and raise the big money.
You’re in the various ESA ARTES telecoms research programs?
We are in the early-stage ARTES programs. Then we’ll come into the zone what the ESA ATLAS program where we can talk about an IOD [in-orbit demonstration] possibility. We’re still about three years away from deploying a large unfurlable on orbit.
Besides the two Americans, who are your direct competitors in deployable booms and unfurlable antenna structures?
In Europe we have a direct competitor that’s come from an academic market but they are solely dependent on ESA funding. They are not VC backed, which means we can move a lot quicker. And their architecture is really more of a replica of what you see from Harris, whereas we are pushing the envelope by using our novel proprietary materials.
Who are they?
A company in Germany called Large Space Structures, LSS. They have been working on their design for nearly 12 years and we are in some areas ahead of what they’re doing.
Peter B. de Selding