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Astropreneurs meet Joerg Kreisel + iBOSS

Standardization has become a critical success factor in the space industry. The introduction of CubeSats illustrates the disruptive and synergetic potential that standardization offers for the business landscape. The iBOSS project is pushing the standardization to larger systems and higher orbits, through its hardware and software developments.  The modular approach provides a degree of freedom that is novel to the conventional “one-of-a-kind” spacecraft design. The Astropreneurs met with iBOSS GmbH Chairman and Co-Founder Joerg Kreisel, also CEO of JKIC – a long-term space commercialization expert – to talk about commercialization of technology, business potentials of modularity, and advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Before sharing the interview, let us introduce the iBOSS (Intelligent Building Blocks for On-Orbit Satellite Servicing and Assembly) project. In 2010, iBOSS began as a collaborative research project between several reknown German research institutions (iBOSS consortium) and funded by the German Aerospace Center DLR Space Administration, ultimately leading to the foundation of the iBOSS GmbH in 2017 (a German entity type for a limited liability company, thus a private entity, similar to LLC in the US). The iBOSS GmbH’s role is to pursue the commercialization of core iBOSS technologies through leveraging an international patent and via licensing other iBOSS technologies. In parallel ground qualification or these core iBOSS technologies is currently underway and carried out by the iBOSS consortium, and a first in-orbit demonstration mission (IOD) is on the agenda end 2019, both backed by DLR Space Administration.

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Overview of iBOSS-related entities (R&D, Engineering, Industrialization, Commercialization) development and commercialization.

Core iBOSS technologies comprise the intelligent Space System Interface (iSSI) and modular functional Building Blocks (iBLOCK). Together, both technologies enable achieving true modularity for spacecraft and other space infrastructure. Their application spans from orbital to planetary back to terrestrial application, everywhere, where modularity is needed.

The iBLOCKs are 40x40x40cm boxes made of thermally-stable carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP), each having three to six iSSI connectors. The iBLOCK provides enough space to accommodate almost all major satellite subsystem components. Segmenting the satellite systems into iBLOCKs simplifies the configuration, reconfiguration, and exchange of the both the entire satellite and its components to subsystems. This modularity provides flexibility towards recovering valuable functional units or replacing damaged subsystems from a damaged satellite that may otherwise be considered dead. The idea is to also reduce AIT effort via pre-qualified iBLOCKs and thereby also nable for entirely new systems and missions. The iSSI connects the iBLOCKs to form a functional satellite entity. The iSSI is a four-in-one interface providing thermal, electrical, and data connectivity on top of being the structurally-integrating element. The interface has no predominant attachment direction and is fail-and-safe, meaning that the iBLOCKs can be disconnected in contingency cases. As such, the iSSI is the key element for connecting the blocks and providing an attachment point for robotic manipulator arms or function as robotic end-effector.

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iBOSS core technologies comprising (left) the iSSI standard intelligent space system interface and (right) the standard modular functional building blocks iBLOCKs.

Astropreneurs: Can you tell us about iBOSS, your key products, and your business model?

Joerg Kreisel: Products. iBOSS is about making innovative products and services available to the global space space community. Our first product aims at providing our internationally patented intelligent space system interface (iSSI) to the space market by 2020. Around the same time, or shortly afterwards, we will make the first iBLOCKs available to the market. To give you a timeframe, we are qualifying these two items in space in 2019, early 2020 through a dedicated free-flyer in-orbit demonstration mission (IOD).
Our short-term vision is to provide the iSSI as a standard selfstanding interface, as sort of a USB in space, but not only for space applications. The long-term vision is to achieve modularity in space enabling a plug-and-play approach, like LEGO in space, opening the design space to a variety of actors and stakeholders. In the far future, companies may use the iBOSS technology to develop their technologies based on the standards provided by us. Like the AppStore, these products could add to and being sold through a catalog. To facilitate that, our partner entity iBOSS solutions GmbH provides engineering services to other companies that want to leverage on the iBOSS standards and support plug-and-play.
Business model. The iBOSS GmbH will supply the iSSI interface to all customers, partners, resellers, and engineering or R&D institutions. By partnering with Heggeman AG, a top-class manufacturer, we will deliver the interface at the best conditions possible to our customers and other stakeholders.
For the iBLOCKs, we believe that in the long-term business is for those who add value to the product. For instance, those who offer dedicated iBLOCKs, hence special functionalities for plug-and-play. In this regard, the iBOSS GmbH will provide structures or basic iBLOCKs to those who want to offer iBOSS-based products and license the rest, such that others could improve their business by using the iBOSS standards. The licensees could further develop the product creating elements for the future catalog, a broad and universal building set.
In a nutshell, we will offer the standards that enable others to do their business.

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Astropreneurs: Your vision entails robotic servicers building, refurbishing, and dismantling satellites in space. iBOSS will provide the necessary building blocks and robotic interfaces. Are you aiming at becoming a full-service provider or are you reaching out to other companies for partnerships?

Joerg Kreisel: First, we should distinguish between active and passive On-Orbit Servicing (OOS):

  • Passive OOS involves modular elements, building blocks, and interfaces. These technologies represent, in other words, “cooperative design,” which is a prerequisite for any OOS.
  • Active OOS comprises the servicers, robotic manipulation, the management and logistics of warehouses, etc., changing units in orbit, assembly and the upgrading of systems.

The iBOSS playground is the passive OOS domain. We provide the standards to enable the full OOS spectrum and the active side to conduct OOS in the first place. Therefore, our partnerships will not be in the sense of conducting the OOS, but working with those who want to do that and enable their capabilities and business, but also provide solutions to owners and operators of space infrastructure to allow their assets to be serviced.
Currently, we are in initial discussion with very re-known satellite operators and manufacturers as well as OOS providers, who show interest in the iBOSS concept and our first products.

Astropreneurs: Standardization has been the critical success factor for CubeSats, lowering launch costs and creating a flourishing market for standardized nanosatellite components. How will iBOSS contribute to the disruption of the space sector? 

Joerg Kreisel: First, iBOSS is not addressing the CubeSat domain but will contribute to similar disruptions in the medium and large satellite class and for other space systems. In general, iBOSS provides options never seen before for space systems and adds to the flexibility of operations by enabling coupling, decoupling, maintenance, and upgrade, and late changes or contingency interactions in particular.
We also receive requests from the CubeSat community and thus, we consider scaling the iSSI interface down to the CubeSat size (U-unit size). Thus, iBOSS could also provide solutions that feed into the CubeSat domain. Imagine an array of CubeSats being prepared for launch, but sometime shortly before the start an experiment is not ready. In that case, you would need to demount the whole structure to exchange parts – the so-called late loading issue. An iBOSS-based solution would enable you to quickly click-off an experiment and take aboard another one. The standardization opens the possibility for satellite software solutions, like the intelligent Computer Aided Satellite Design (iCASD) that enable the design plug-and-play solutions quickly and, more importantly, verify them via full simulations and digital twins in virtual testbeds.

Astropreneurs: CubeSats lowered the cost of accessing space. As a result, it is typically cheaper to launch frequently and replace damaged satellites by new ones. Where is the potential for On-Orbit Servicing (OOS) in this changing landscape? Where do you see target markets for OOS?

Joerg Kreisel: From a current perspective, it is certainly right that for CubeSats and the LEO mega-constellations OOS would not make sense from an economic standpoint. However, the iBOSS concept and design principles could be adopted by the booming LEO community, as I indicated in the previous question. Obvious advantages are flexibility, deferred decision making and reconfiguration as well as the option for entirely new systems.
The modular approach with its maintenance option will be very useful for everything we want to do in higher orbits involving larger spacecraft and other in-orbit infrastructure and ranging from GEO to deep space, and planetary missions.
The key benefit is the possibility to change the missions as they are underway and do on-orbit assembly for larger structures. This enables achieving the same thing that you mentioned in your question: getting things cheaper to space. We could benefit from the cost-efficiency of flying often because the modular iBOSS approach enables to build spacecraft on orbit. In fact, deep space and planetary mission are challenged by bringing their systems to orbit. If you use the modular iBOSS philosophy, however, it doesn’t matter what you put to orbit because you can assemble it in-situ and make chunks of the systems fit best launch options. This opens the possibility to use the cheap small- and medium-sized launchers. Through warehouse and logistic concepts, you can then gradually build up your system in space, and even change or service it later.

Astropreneurs: iBOSS started as a collaborative research project with support from the German Aerospace Center DLR Space Administration (DLR). When did you decide to commercialize the technology and at what stage did you set up the company?

Joerg Kreisel: Already back in 2015, I proposed the idea of a commercial entity paving the way for getting iBOSS into the real space market, considering long lead periods to establish these technologies and built up a space business. The idea was taken up by DLR and the consortium and, with some delay we were able to start commercializing the technology in early 2017 when we saw that the technology matured. The ground qualification of key iBOSS technologies will be finalized in 2018 and demonstration in orbit following in a manageable timeframe.

Astropreneurs: iBOSS will also continue as a research project in the iBOSS consortium. The overlap between institutional and commercial side of the project is not only in content but also in the staff. How do you deal with this overlap, especially concerning Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)?

Joerg Kreisel: Actually, the setup is rather simple. The iBOSS GmbH as THE commercial entity is the face in marketplace and active marketer – developing the market and business including the management of IPR and building related partnerships. For instance, the partnership with the iSSI top tietearr manufacturer enables us to cope with production engineering and best supply mass-produced iBOSS products.
iBOSS technology activities will continue at a project level in different ways and areas and with regards to the envisaged in-orbit demonstration (IOD) missions and beyond. The engineering activities include industrialization and further developing the iBOSS products and services. The recently formed iBOSS solutions GmbH will offer such associated engineering services based on industry and customer feedback. Current iBOSS staff at the consortium institutes can transfer to iBOSS solutions GmbH or partner industries to maintain expertise in the long term.
With that structure, we clearly organized the roles and responsibilities. This will ensure proper supply of know-how, engineering services, and product delivery.

Astropreneurs: What steps are necessary to commercialize a technology that has been developed in a university and government-supported research project? 

Joerg Kreisel: First, we have to distinguish whether a technology is developed for the application in space or if it is a technology transfer for respective markets on Earth. For space products, it is mandatory to space-qualify, hence demonstrate and validate the technology in the harsh environment of space. Therefore, IOD is mandatory for space technologies.
The qualification is a challenge since the continuation of funding after the technology development is often uncertain. In case of iBOSS, we are fortunate to have possibilities for the mandatory IOD activities via DLR.
With regards to terrestrial commercialization and technology transfer, it is essential to have good partners in the respective markets. Regardless of what technology is envisioned to be commercialized, the most critical elements are both business acumen and execution. These types of commercialization – space and terrestrial – require different set-ups both regarding organizational structure and workforce. It takes different people to create a business compared to developing a smart technology.

Astropreneurs: What would you recommend researchers and students that want to commercialize technologies developed from the educational environment?

Joerg Kreisel: The major difference between university research and R&D compared to commercialization and doing business is the culture and speed. As I mentioned before, in commercialization it is all about business acumen, execution, and delivery. The moment you commercialize a technology, the boundary conditions change significantly. A different pace, as well as priorities, are on the agenda, while during the technology development programmatic, technical and other academic factors play a role. However, when developing a business, the technology itself is of lesser importance.  

Astropreneurs: What do you see as the biggest hurdles and challenges?

Joerg Kreisel: Major hurdles for students and young graduates with regards to commercialization is to understand the different boundary conditions between technology developments and business creation. I would still recommend everyone who is interested to give it a chance. Provided, however, that proper homework is done and one tries to understand the new business creation environment, including the financial aspect.

Astropreneurs: On the other side, what do you think is the biggest opportunity?

Joerg Kreisel: The biggest opportunity exists for those who have the skills and genes and wish to do something on their own even though it is not easy but entirely new spheres insights and experiences. Those who did consider it quite an enrichment.

Posted by Timo Rühl