Among the New Space companies present at UNISPACE+50, the Astropreneurs sat down with Daniel Barok and Blandina Baranes of SpacePharma to hear about the future compounds that will be manufactured in space, how to sell space to non-space sectors, and how to assemble a great entrepreneurial team.

Astropreneurs: Tell us about SpacePharma

SpacePharma: Six years ago, our founder, Yossi Yamin, took his first steps in the civilian world after a military career. The first thing he did was take a sabbatical year, where he read and thought about what he wanted to do next. He stumbled onto the fact that there were many crystallization experiments performed on the International Space Station, mainly for pharmaceutical processes. It was very hard to give the necessary continuous attention to the experiments, as the astronauts had many different tasks to carry out on board. That’s how the idea for SpacePharma’s first product came about: an autonomous, self-contained and miniaturised lab on a chip that contains a “labyrinth” specifically designed for each experiment. Everything is done in a micro-fluidic environment comprising a reservoir for the liquid, a transportation mechanism, drainage mechanisms, a light source, instrumentation such as microscopes and spectrometers, and also real-time communication with a smartphone on Earth. Scientists can receive the results and have direct control on changing key parameters according to how the experiment is progressing.

Lab on a Chip; Credits: SpacePharma

Astropreneurs: Which applications do you foresee for your product?

SpacePharma: The changes we made to the process have made it truly interesting for the pharmaceutical industry to perform R&D in space, where microgravity makes it possible to create compounds that don’t exist on Earth. We have learnt, for example, that the drug crystals in inhalers are often ejected by the human body, making the drugs less effective. In space, we can make these compounds in the shape of a needle, ensuring they remain in the body. We can also make medicines more effective. Bacteria grow much faster in space, and this makes R&D cycles faster as well. There are additional applications also for the cosmetics industry. For example, we know that skin ages much faster in space than on Earth and this makes the space setting an interesting one also for this industry.

Left: Crystals grown on Earth; Right: Crystals grown in Space Credits: SpacePharma

Astropreneurs: Have you already tested your products in space?

SpacePharma: We first ran tests in a Random Positioning Machine (RPM) and then on parabolic flights. Then, we performed two missions in space in 2017. One mission went on a nano-satellite with four very successful experiments. The other mission was to send our lab to the ISS, proving we can be complementary to the experiments already performed aboard, with no burden on the astronauts. We are still having issues with the return of the samples both for temperature and physical shocks. We are therefore very interested in soft landing vehicles (e.g. dream chaser, space rider) as future suppliers of re-entry services.

Astropreneurs: What are the next steps?

SpacePharma: We are hoping to partner with governments and space agencies to further prove our solution. We believe that initial investments should come from taxpayers as this will help us prove ourselves to the pharma industry. Since we are ultimately supporting R&D and the creation of better drugs, we see this as a socially useful goal. The model would be that the agencies issue calls for proposals, that we help them select, and pay for the experiments. This will enable us to create an initial market demand. But our vision is much broader. We would like to ultimately create pharmaceutical factories in space, because once the materials have been discovered, we should be able to manufacture them in space and bring them back to Earth. The lab is only the first step, and we are already working on a demonstrator. Up until 2019 we have additional six missions planned, and we are currently working on partnerships. We believe that in two years we will be able to produce in space already. We are very flexible as we don’t need to have fixed structures in space, we can also use suborbital flights or short duration missions.

The evolution of life sciences in Microgravity; Credits: SpacePharma

Astropreneurs: How did you assemble your core team starting from the idea of the CEO?

SpacePharma: The advantage of Israel is that it’s a small country and networking is easy. The initial step was to assemble a team of ex-army veterans around the idea. In Israel, people who have a professional career in the army retire quite early, in their forties, and then have a new career in civil society. They are usually very well educated and well-trained and have excellent skills for integration into the workforce. All the initial team had knowledge in the space field, but were looking for something new. We integrated that team with experts from the pharmaceutical industry, especially in micro-fluidics and lab-on-a-chip solutions. Now we have 24 employees comprising engineers and scientists. We have three sites, the headquarters and a ground station in Switzerland through which we can access European markets. The R&D is done in Israel, and we have a daughter company in the USA that gives us access to the US market and the ISS.

Astropreneurs: Most space companies are also selling to other space companies or space-enthusiasts. Instead, you have a completely different industry as your customer. How do you sell space to non-space companies?

SpacePharma: For me it was initially quite a challenging opportunity because I was used to talking to space people, and I realized that I had to learn an entirely new language. For example, I was used to NASA’s budget being the gold standard as far as budgets go. Then I went to look up the budget of the National Institutes of Health and found it was twice that of NASA! For this purpose, I have a team of people who come from the pharmaceutical sector who speak the right language. As a business developer I make initial contacts and open the door, but then I make sure the people in the room know the language. Our key message is that space is a platform, a medium to achieve their objectives. That’s the meaning of New Space, you are not serving space, but space is serving you.

Posted by Paola Belingheri