Susmita Mohanty is a spaceship designer and serial space entrepreneur. She is the co-founder and CEO of EARTH2ORBIT, India’s first private space start-up. She has co-founded and led two other companies, MOONFRONT in San Francisco [2001-2007] and LIQUIFER in Vienna [2004-ongoing]. She is the only entrepreneur in the world who has started space companies on three different continents.
Before turning entrepreneur, Susmita worked in business development for the International Space Station program at Boeing in California. She also worked on Shuttle-Mir missions at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Since 1998, Susmita has worked with the Americans, Japanese, Europeans, Russians, and Indians in various capacities: employee, consultant, contractor, entrepreneur, and advisor.
In 2005, Susmita was honored on Capitol Hill [Washington, DC] with the International Achievement Award for promoting international cooperation through entrepreneurial space ventures. In 2012, she was voted into Financial Times’ list of “25 Indians to Watch”. In b2016, she was nominated to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Future Council for Space Technologies. In 2017, she was featured on the cover of Fortune Magazine. Educated in India, France, and Sweden, Susmita holds multiple degrees including a PhD.
The Astropreneurs caught up with Susmita at the UNISPACE+50 Conference to talk about serial entrepreneurship and saving planet Earth.
Astropreneurs: What inspired you to become an astropreneur?
Susmita Mohanty: I wanted to change the world (read: status quo). My first venture (MoonFront, San Francisco, 2000-2007) was a learning experience. I was all of 29 and eager to explore what it takes to give up a secure job and join the entrepreneurial bandwagon in California.
The second venture that I co-founded with Barbara Imhof in Vienna (Liquifer Systems Group/LSG) in 2004 has been a game changer. LSG is the only company in the world where architects, industrial designers, engineers, scientists, and others collaborate to design exploration systems i.e. we take a multidisciplinary approach as opposed to the traditional engineering-centric approach used by space agencies and their prime contractors. We believe that a human-centric approach is essential. LSG designs and builds space habitats, rovers, space suits, and other future systems.
My third venture, Earth2Orbit Consulting, which I launched in India after I moved back in 2008, gave American small satellite makers unprecedented access to the Indian rocket, Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), which was not possible earlier due to the 1998 US Embargo and the outdated ITAR export control regime. It took us three years to get the first historic Technical Assistance Agreement (TAA) from the US State Department and another 2 years before we could sign a launch agreement between Skybox and Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Eventually, Skybox was acquired by Google and was renamed Terra Bella. We flew the Terra Bella satellite on the PSLV in 2016. Due to our efforts, today American satellites from Planet and others are able to fly on the PSLV. Full story here.
My fourth venture, Earth2Orbit Analytix, launched in August of 2017 focuses on big data analytics and climate change.
Astropreneurs: You set up three ventures so far, all in quite different domains but with the common denominator of space. How do you go about understanding which business ideas have the most merit and which ones to go for?
Susmita Mohanty: It is a combination of finding a partner who identifies with the cause I want to pursue, a bold and preferably unorthodox problem to solve (a mission impossible of sorts), and the geography I am in.
In that sense, I am more of a passion-preneur rather than an entrepreneur. Besides, when I started my first company, the word ‘start-up’ was not in vogue.
Astropreneurs: How did the idea for Earth2Orbit come about and what is the vision for the company?
Susmita Mohanty: After I moved to India in 2008, I looked at where things were with ISRO in terms of satellite development, rocket launches, applications, and the growing human space program. I should add that I was born in 1971 and grew up amongst the pioneers of the Indian space program, my dad being one of them. Upon my return, I met with ISRO officials at their various centers to get an understanding of what’s going on and to figure out what it was that I wanted to do now that I was back in my home country.
I zeroed in on the PSLV because I had one of my interns from International Space University (ISU) do some quick research and discover that the total mass of foreign payloads that India/ISRO had flown on the PSLV rocket since 1999 added up to a rather modest 1500 or so kilograms (this is not even equal to a single PSLV launch). Most of the payloads were from European nations with whom India has always had good bilateral relations. So, I decided to take up the challenge of getting American and Japanese payloads to fly on the PSLV. We flew a satellite from the Osaka Institute of Technology in 2012 and the Google Terra Bella satellite in 2016.
Now I have moved on.
After spending nearly 15+ years designing exploration systems for living in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), on Moon and Mars, and participating in a couple of rocket launches, I am now focusing on our home planet – the pale blue dot which has gotten paler. I think if we humans do not get our act together, the earth won’t be very habitable a couple of generations from now.
I am worried about climate change and have committed myself to becoming a climate ambassador and help make human activities both urban and rural climate smart. So, in August 2017, I launched my fourth venture Earth2Orbit Analytix (E2O). E2O leverages Earth Observation (EO) data + other relevant big data and machine learning algorithms to deliver actionable intelligence for social, business, and environmental impact. E2O and its partners create smart solutions for cities, agriculture, water security, renewable energy, and insurance. We factor in climate variability, provide accurate modelling and forecasting, and predict risk.
Astropreneurs: What were some of the most important resources you found along the way to support your entrepreneurial efforts?
Susmita Mohanty: The first most important resource is people. I have a life partner who supports all of my crazy (ad)ventures. I have co-founded all of my ventures with friends who believe in the cause that we pursue together. That’s important because all of my ventures are value-driven and not valuation-driven.
The second most important resource is funding. The US and Europe have multiple avenues for funding start-ups and small businesses. India, on the other hand is a difficult place to start a space venture because the funding ecosystem has yet to materialize. India puts too much emphasis on IT and has missed out entirely on leveraging its space successes through entrepreneurs. It is starting to change, but it will take another 5-10 years to get there.
The third, but somewhat unusual resource is geography. Cross-border entrepreneurs need to make the best of what various countries have to offer and leverage that to make the world a better place.
Astropreneurs: Earth2Orbit has many alliances with different types of companies, could you explain how those alliances helped your firm grow and succeed?
Susmita Mohanty: Alliances have been important for all of my ventures. Some are formal alliances and some informal. Alliances include companies, space agencies, research organizations, and academia. Alliances can also include people in decision making roles who have vision and are willing to champion endeavors they believe in.
Astropreneurs: What do you believe is currently missing from the space industry and space institutions to support more entrepreneurs in this space?
Susmita Mohanty: The space industry is still largely controlled by the big space agencies and mega-corporations. The bureaucracy of these massive organizations, complex procurement cycles, monopolistic tendencies, and exorbitant space qualification requirements are holding back the progress of the space world. It still is a big money play. Even newer players such as Elon Musk get their billions from NASA and DoD, i.e. taxpayer money. The era of private space is yet to arrive. Even companies such as Skybox and Planet that were among the first to raise venture funds had a hard time finding private clients – at the end of the day, the biggest client is still the government.
To support space entrepreneurs, we need greater allocation of government funds, we need venture capitalists to take more risk and embrace space ventures, and we need accelerator programs which offer money (not just cues on how to do things). We need to simplify procedures and reduce red tape. We also need to go beyond nationalistic ambitions and encourage cross-border entrepreneurship to create a happier, healthier planet.
Also, space entrepreneurs need to step outside of their exclusive space bubbles and cross pollinate with other sectors such as IT, biotech, nano tech, clean tech, agricultural tech, big data, small data, and climate-tech.
Astropreneurs: What would you advise to future astropreneurs as they set about making their ideas a reality?
Susmita Mohanty: Work for a company or a space agency for a couple of years so you get to know the nature of the beast that we call the ‘space industry’. Get a grasp of the policy and political aspects of space programs in the geography you are in.
Save up some money if you can before you take the entrepreneurial plunge such that you can survive for at least a year if not two on your savings while you go out and raise money for your endeavour. Find your true calling, don’t just pursue space for the sake of making a quick buck.
And most important of all – don’t monetize the hell out of the planet you inhabit or will visit in the future. Take an environmentally responsible approach to whatever you do.
Posted by Paola Belingheri