An interview with Elburz Sorkhabi
Astropreneurs: Thank you for taking the time for an interview with Astropreneurs today. I would like to start with your impressive portfolio as a serial entrepreneur. Could you tell our readers about your background and how you got started with your first startup?
Elburz Sorkhabi: Thank you for having me, the pleasure is mine. My background is quite varied. I started my career as a professional musician. I studied classical music in university and was a classical trombone soloist for a number of years. Although it wasn’t my first startup, my first entrepreneurial experiences come from the life of being a touring and freelance musician. Booking gigs, working with teams, negotiating rates, and finding work have been skills that I learned early and have stuck with me ever since.
My first startup experience happened organically. I was finding the classical music world less and less engaging, especially when it comes to new and progressive things. There’s an old joke: “Classic music is young people playing dead people’s music for old people.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that per se, but you have to be happy doing that for the rest of your life to have a lifetime career. So, I decided to see what other opportunities existed with my skills. I’m always keeping my eyes and ears open to new opportunities, as there’s no shortage of them in the world. I became more involved with electronic music production and then delved further into the technology side of things. I developed some technical solutions for the live performances of my colleagues and decided to start nVoid, a company that would specialize in developing technology in the arts fields.
That was about approximately six years ago now. In that time, we’ve become one of the premiere companies in the world and have worked all over the world with leading brands, but it has definitely been a grind.
Astropreneurs: And what would you say were the most important resources that you had in the beginning?
Elburz Sorkhabi: The single most beneficial resource I had was a great business partner/mentor. On the one hand, being a business partner, he would help manage a lot of the business and managerial duties while I focused on technical and creative elements. On the other hand, as a mentor, he was a sounding board, offer advice on many difficult business decisions, clarify overall strategy, make sure we were getting paid fairly, and much more.
Astropreneurs: What are the most important dos and don’ts when entering New Space in the current stage as compared to other sectors?
Elburz Sorkhabi: DO: Have a partner of some sort. The startup life is a tough one and doing it alone only makes it tougher. Having a partner not only lightens the work load (which is unimaginable), but also provides you with emotional support when the times get tough. If your business partner’s skills complement your own, even better!
DON’T: Scale too soon. In many other sectors, you should try to build scaling into your product and company from the beginning. New Space is such cutting-edge territory that development times are generally longer than what they might be in other sectors. New Space developments are also more expensive and almost always require large capital just to really get going. With these things in mind, it’s more effective to focus on a single product (or in most cases, a single prototype) or a small/loyal customer base. These two things will validate your product in the eyes of potential investors and get you the capital that would be required to even begin scaling.
Astropreneurs: You are quite active around the globe. Could you tell us on the decisions you have made for the location of your businesses, the cons and pros, and your experience so far?
Elburz Sorkhabi: International business is a funny thing. I find more time is often spent on the trivialities like work visas, moving money around, and other similar legalities than they are on the actual work you’re being paid for. I have companies located in different jurisdictions ranging from Canada, the US, the Caribbean, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Every region has incentives and benefits that need to be weighed against the negative elements of that region. That’s before saying that incorporating in many locations can also be expensive and requires maintenance time/effort. With that said, I always recommend finding one thing to optimize in your company (the biggest advantage that would benefit you) for international businesses, because you can’t optimize everything from the start.
Are you trying to optimize business expenses and taxes on cash-flow companies? Regions like the Caribbean or British Virgin Islands can be good regions to investigate, but they come at the trade-off of being isolated from many modern services and your partners. Are you trying to forge strong relationships with Chinese manufacturers and suppliers? Regions like Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Singapore can be strong regions to consider because of their proximity to Shenzhen, but they are quite expensive, difficult to setup for foreigners, and require a lot of upkeep. Are you trying to optimize for R&D grants and funding? Jurisdictions like Toronto, Canada, have very strong R&D funding and tax credit programs, but they come at the expensive of higher operating expenses. Are you trying to optimize for partnerships with agencies like NASA or acquisitions/investments from venture capital firms? The US is a strong region to consider to be local to investors and because of the legalities of working with government agencies like NASA, but those come at a higher operating expense.
Astropreneurs: Let us talk about your latest endeavours: you mentioned function(core), which includes Moonshot projects. Could you tell us more about Moonshot projects in New Space context?
Elburz Sorkhabi: function(core) is involved in the development of processes that enable the rapid development of Moonshot projects. Moonshots are projects that use new technologies to create a high amount of impact. A good example would be a project like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. function(core) has a New Space Moonshot in development named project Aggaros, which is based on plug-and-play satellite components built for on-orbit repair and retrofitting. We’re quite excited about the possibilities of combining standard interfaces, streamlined component production, and on-orbit servicing all with the goal of supporting innovation and risk tolerance of other on-orbit activities and economic projects.
NewSpace is a ripe sector for Moonshots because it benefits heavily from technical breakthroughs and applications. This is especially true in the data layers of New Space. As with many sectors, there is an abundance of data that needs to be turned into actionable insight. This is even more true for space data because the same types of Earth observation data can be interpreted in many different ways to serve sectors ranging from agriculture, shipping, business intelligence, climate sciences, and more.
Astropreneurs: What are your thoughts on the future of New Space? Are there specific technologies, business practices, or corporate structures that you believe will play a dominant role on the future development of this exciting industry?
Elburz Sorkhabi: I think there are a few different factors that can play an interesting role in the development of New Space. As I mentioned, unlocking the data layers of space applications will create a huge influx of capital in the private sector. Enabling insight in the data layers using machine learning is a particularly low-hanging fruit.
Corporate structures are interesting as we see more and more companies evolve into complex organizations. We’ve been researching complex organizations extensively at function(core) and there are clear signals that these will become the de facto type of company over the next five years. These organizations have remote workforces, work internationally from their inception, benefit from multiple corporate jurisdictions, and more. I think this will be quite exciting for the space sector, but there will also be a number of legal hurdles (import/export regulations, for example) that will need to be overcome for these complex organizations to truly flourish.
Astropreneurs: Finally, what is next for you? Could you give us a teaser of the next project you have in store?
Elburz Sorkhabi: I’ve got a number of projects currently active. nVoid continues to grow and service the biggest brands in the world. function(core) has been involved in a number of future-strategy developments for some high-end firms as we continue to strive for a more open innovation landscape. We’re undertaking development of our Moonshot projects and creating infrastructure to aid the impending waves of complex organizations. There are a few other projects I’m involved with, such as Gods Or Devils, but those are quite in their early stages, so I can only say to keep your eyes out!
Posted by Shafa Aria