This month, with the help of insider Tomoya Mori, we peeked under the shiny hood at team HAKUTO. The ambitious crew is engaged in one of the most exciting competitions that our planet has to offer: the Google Lunar XPRIZE. This lunar exploration challenge is threefold in nature. First land a spacecraft on the moon, second travel 500m, and third, send HD video and images back home to Earth. No biggie right? Catalyzed by the XPRIZE, our very own 21st century space race is now well underway. Just 5 of the original 34 privately funded players remain. These teams are edging ever closer towards their launch dates, the US$20M grand prize and of course, the priceless bragging rights.

Hailing from Japan, HAKUTO was formed in 2010 by an eager group of ambitious volunteers. The team comprises of members from Tohoku University, Pro Bono experts and ispace Inc., where Tomoya Mori is a business development officer.

Humble Beginnings

Mori recalls how the early days at HAKUTO resembled scenes that many aspiring entrepreneurs will recognize; “At the time, [we] didn’t have an office, so we rented conference rooms, gathered at coffee shops or crashed at a member’s house. Each member chipped in their pocket money to develop and promote the project.” Slowly, over time they yielded significant developments with their rover prototypes and engineering models which won them the Google Lunar XPRIZE Mobility Milestone Prize. This recognition provided HAKUTO with both cash and significant promotion, attracting more members. Today there are in excess of 170 members supporting the project. In addition to the much needed expertise on the ground, HAKUTO have partnered with nearly 30 sponsors. These strategic partners are crucial in supporting both the technical and financial aspects of the project. The largest of which is au/KDDI, a Japanese telecommunication company who is supporting the team with its technology and expertise. But not all of HAKUTO’s sponsors are obvious choices for a lunar mission.

From eyeglasses to lunar wheels

Team HAKUTO has skilfully brought several non-traditional space players into its universe. Forging partnerships outside of the space industry is continuously helping them to achieve their ambitious goals. “We understand that innovation comes from the fusion of different disciplines, our rover is built upon the accumulation of cutting-edge technologies of Japanese companies.” explains Mori. What may appear like unusual pairings are in fact the culmination of years of creative thinking, strategic business meetings, and countless instances of the cross pollination of ideas.

For example, Zoff, a renowned Japanese eyeglasses company, is providing ULTEM plastic [which] is extremely light but incredibly durable” says Mori. The pliable resin has proven itself to be the ideal material for both glasses frames and now, lunar rover wheels! This unique partnership has given HAKUTO a material which can stand up to the tough UV, heat, and abrasive regolith conditions on the lunar surface. Similarly, Cemedine, an adhesive manufacturing company, is providing the team with a special adhesive to attach solar panels to the sides of the rover, which will withstand lunar conditions.

Mori advises aspiring entrepreneurs to “know the fundamental element of your business or your vision, then, find companies, regardless of their industries, who resonate with that element. [For HAKUTO] it was a spirit of challenge.” This approach has proven successful for the team, resulting in partnerships with major brands such as SUZUKI and CITIZEN. Mori explains that while “SUZUKI resonated with [their] approach to develop small and lightweight rover… CITIZEN decided to partner as the key message of their new product Promaster was to ‘Go Beyond.’ HAKUTO is also ‘going beyond’ the planet and reaching for the Moon.” But how are they actually going to get there?

Fraternizing with the ‘enemy’

HAKUTO has not been immune to setbacks on its journey. When its original ride-share partner dropped out of the race, the team needed to find a replacement and fast.  “After talking with several other teams remaining in the competition, we believed that TeamIndus had the most promising technology and progress to bring us to the Moon. [They’ve even] been awarded the Google Lunar XPRIZE Milestone prize in the landing category” Mori recalls.

The Japanese team is covering part of TeamIndus’ launch cost, and in return, gets to hitch a ride with them aboard the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. The rocket is developed by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Both rovers will share a friendly 384,400km journey to our Moon but once they land on its surface, all bets are off and they’ll revert to being rivals. “We think the most important aspect of this partnership is that this represents an example of a cooperative competition…the process relies on an international collaboration between the two private companies and a national space agency (ISRO). This, we believe, is how the future of space exploration should and will be” reflects Mori.

Government relations: a word of warning

ispace, which operates HAKUTO, is no stranger to working with national agencies and has signed a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) with the Luxembourg Government earlier this year. PPP is now a term frequently heard in the space industry and something we’ve discussed before in our Galactic Guide to Space Entrepreneurship handbook. Mori recognizes that such arrangements can be successful; “each party can take its own risks and accelerate the process in a more efficient manner. In a PPP, government can not only invest in R&D activities of a private company, but also purchase their products or service, and provide feedback as an early customer.” While this can facilitate early iteration and increase revenue, he also warns that “a key consideration when working with governments over non-government players is the amount of time required to work with all the necessary stakeholders. [They] can have much larger and more complex decision-making systems and one must understand how to properly navigate to access decision makers.”

Leveraging a ‘vortex’ for growth

Accessing the decision makers in a company, coaxing them on board, and then sustaining engagement can be a tricky business. For the team, one challenge is how to keep supporters engaged during the quieter periods. To overcome this, the team publicly communicates every step, process, and upcoming technical or mission milestone with rich media content. “Information delivered through HAKUTO, together with the brand value of our sponsors, contains inspirational messages that cannot be described through words, along with real stories of real people working on such an ambitious project” explains Mori. Joint events with partners, competitors, and the public all get shared alongside rover design announcements and technical tests.

Mori attributes HAKUTO’s ‘Process Media’ method for its successes here; “think of the process media as a giant vortex. The center of the vortex is the development process, and with each milestone, we engulf more sponsors and individuals, and continue growing. 7 years have passed since the beginning of the project, and the vortex has grown huge. The project has made tremendous impact on not only Japanese but also global private space industry.” Creating partnerships with the media such as Asahi Shimbun and TBS has also increased the team’s visibility while attracting more media and public attention.

Challenges with making the world’s smallest rover

The biggest challenges for team HAKUTO are fundraising and the rover development itself. The many sponsors contribute greatly to the financial aspects of the project, in addition to crowdfunding, merchandise, and receiving the XPRIZE milestone award worth US$500k. Mori explains that “HAKUTO’s solution is to optimize the development cost and mission performance of the rover. To reduce launch costs, we need to make our rover as light and small as possible. At the same time, however, the rover must meet the requirements to successfully accomplish [the] mission.” To combat these limiting costs, there is a need for smaller, smarter, lighter, and more robust materials. By using both their own micro-robotics technology and commercial off the shelf products, HAKUTO has reduced its mass from 10kg to just 4kg; currently making it the world’s smallest planetary exploration rover.

Mori is confident that lessons learned during this competition will help HAKUTO’s managing company ispace to “develop a lunar resource utilization business and establish an economy in cislunar space… [ispace] plan to provide a low-cost and frequent transportation service to and on the Moon.”

Advice for space faring entrepreneurs (aka astropreneurs)

“By commercializing the space industry, we can open more opportunities for non-traditional industries to join space exploration. [The] XPRIZE turned dreamers all around the world into visionaries and entrepreneurs. Participating teams see this competition as a mere first step to achieving a greater vision; in our case, the vision is to establish an economy in space and extend human presence into the solar system. “Whatever business you are trying to build, stay strong and have your unique vision for an ideal future. There are always ways to overcome challenges, and the inspirations often come from fields outside of your speciality. HAKUTO began in a small apartment in Tokyo, initially operated by a couple volunteers. A small team with an ambitious vision can shape the future of mankind.”

– Team HAKUTO

Thank you to Tomoya Mori and team for their time. So what does ‘HAKUTO’ actually mean? Check out this video to find out the unexpected answer.

If you want to support HAKUTO you can join them as a supporter or crew member here and stay updated on Facebook or Twitter.

Posted by Niamh Higgins