“It just struck me that I was spending a lot of time on Google trying to search for information about components, subsystems, and systems, which seemed to me a colossal waste of time. My primary motivation to start satsearch was, if nothing else, to solve my own problem.” Kartik Kumar, cofounder at satsearch.

And thus, satsearch was born.

In fact, if you look closely enough, that’s how most successful startups are born. Somebody is faced with a problem. The entrepreneur identifies the problem and tries to fix it by finding a solution, and then slowly but surely, scales it up to something that can be used by millions of people all around the world, making money in the process, and fixing the problem once and for all. Uber and Airbnb started this way. And so did satsearch. And while Uber and Airbnb have proved their mettle and are now considered very successful, satsearch is still in the process of figuring out a path to success by digitalizing the global space supply chain, creating an independent, up-to-date, parametric search engine for space products, services, and technologies offered by suppliers all over the world. Currently incubated at ESA BIC in Noordwijk in the Netherlands, satsearch already has quite a few accolades to its name, including winning 1st prize at the Inaugural International Space University Startup Pitch Competition 2016 and 2nd prize at Startup Weekend Bremen 2015.

Astropreneurs sat down with one of the co-founders of satsearch, Kartik Kumar, to learn more about their journey and the challenges faced along the way.

Kartik Kumar, co-founder of satsearch is also an Analog Astronaut for the Austrian Space Forum
Credit: OeWF / Florian Voggeneder

Astropreneurs: How did you come up with the idea for satsearch? What was the main motivation behind it?

Kartik Kumar: It actually started with a very simple thought experiment. I’m a space engineer by training, so I had the experience of working on preliminary design projects for different mission concepts. It struck me that I was spending a lot of time on Google trying to find information about components, subsystems, and systems, which seemed to me a colossal waste of time. If you can search for a laptop, cellphone, or a refrigerator online today through websites like Amazon or Alibaba, why can’t you do this for components in the space industry?

I talked to a friend of mine and asked him if he would be interested to hack on a project to solve this. It was not a startup at that point and we had no real idea to start one. It was simply a small project that we thought would be fun to work on while imagining that kind of workflow (i.e., “Amazon search” kind of workflow) for space engineers. The primary motivation was that I just wanted to solve my own problem, so that I could spend more of my time solving the really tough engineering challenges.

Astropreneurs: You’ve talked about the missing data layer in the space industry. Why do you think it’s an issue specific to the space industry (that’s about 60 years old) and how would the access to data help in future?

Kartik Kumar: I think there’s a multi-faceted answer to that. I should clarify that when I say data in this regard, I’m specifically talking about supply chain data, procurement data and similar. I’m not talking about downstream data.

Space is still quite a fledgling industry. Although you correctly pointed out that it is many decades old, the actual drive to deal with data has only emerged in the last couple of decades. And that primarily stems from the fact that the way the industry is being funded is changing considerably. We’ve gone from a government-dominated, cost-plus funding environment to people looking to fund competitive ventures that are driven by fixed-price contracts. When you’re given a fixed-price contract, it forces you to look at ways to maximise your profits for your shareholders by reducing cost and maximizing revenue. As a consequence, it becomes more pertinent to start looking around at who’s producing what, how reliable they are, how good they are at delivery, etc. 

That kind of data is largely missing or siloed within traditional, large space companies; effectively resulting in a significant barrier for new entrants in the market. What we are doing at satsearch has been tried before. For example, space agencies like ESA and NASA have built portals that collect and serve data on the supply chain. However, I think one of the important reasons why this has not worked before is that nobody has realized that building and maintaining a supply chain database is in itself a full-time job. Additionally, these databases are typically regionally focussed, meaning that they only partially solve the problem. Our goal is to consolidate the supply chain at global scale. A number of suppliers have built web shops  to provide product information, however these solutions present a couple of problems. One is conflict of interest, the other is that they run these projects as an add-on and not as their main activity, meaning that they don’t have the resources to scale their websites to cover the global supply chain

We’re coming at it from the angle of a neutral third party, fully dedicated to this task. We’re bringing ideas from outside the space industry to solve the “data problem”. It is both an opportunity and a challenge. On one side, it’s an opportunity to do things in a much more effective manner, but on other side, you have people in the space industry who have never worked in the way we are proposing. So we have to convince them that the future is digital and cloud-based. And that’s the most difficult part of the story. There’s a process of education here.

Astropreneurs: How does satsearch work at the backend level? For example, tell us what happens when there is an order on satsearch.

Kartik Kumar: It’s not an optimized process yet, as we are still working on fleshing out the end-to-end workflow. Firstly, we have over 5000 products listed on the website, so there’s a good chance that you can get the information you are looking for through a search on the website. If, for instance, you are looking for a product datasheet, in most cases you’ll find it on satsearch. We actually see users coming to the website every day for that purpose. Second, we realised that there is an information channel missing between buyers and sellers of components, therefore our Request for Information (RFI) engine, which we launched very recently, bridges the gap by ensuring that the user can trust that there is going to be an action to contact the supplier, while the supplier can trust that when they get an email from satsearch, it is a legitimate request.

The home page of satsearch.co

Astropreneurs: We’ve read that being the ‘Amazon for space’ is one of the directions satsearch is heading to. Considering organizations such as Morgan Stanley have mentioned that space industry will be a trillion-dollar industry in the coming decades, what role do you see satsearch play in that economy? And how is something like satsearch different or similar from a normal e-commerce website like Amazon?

Kartik Kumar: I have started steering away from calling us “Amazon for space”, because the idea of Amazon is at the end of the day that you can pull out your credit card and make a purchase. Satsearch, instead, is not a B2C website: we’re building a B2B website. Hence, it is better to compare it to industry platforms or portals that are focused on brokering B2B processes.

We are building digital tools to broker the communication process across the supply chain through software and human intelligence to streamline transactions. At its core, our vision is to become the supply chain management system of the space industry. Essentially, if you want to know something about a supplier, we want users to immediately use satsearch, the same way we now use Google to search the internet. So that’s the kind of future we are aiming for. 

We’ve noticed that a lot of supply chain information is available, however it’s typically highly unstructured and either inside people’s heads or captured within unstructured documents. Our job is to try to unlock all of that and bring it into a platform that allows democratic access to the global supply chain. 

Moreover, we are working on software integrations that will enable users to “drag-and-drop” products within engineering software design tools, by embedding supply chain information directly in the engineering workflow. An engineer who drags and drops components, gets all of the specifications imported into the design. That is an example of something we are trying to bring to the market which will be a game-changer, because it will replace the arduous task of searching for product datasheets in Google and copy-pasting of numbers from technical documents.

Astropreneurs: What are the barriers you faced in setting up satsearch?

Kartik Kumar: The number one challenge was that myself and my co-founder Alberto, who I started the project with, were first-time founders. Narayan, who joined us later, had previous experience building a space startup in India, which has helped us to navigate the challenges that we face. Mostly, it’s just a steep learning curve. It takes time to really understand what matters so that you don’t get distracted. And there are a lot of very very good resources out there so we’ve had the fortune of having good mentors and advisors, but it has taken us a while to appreciate what it actually means to build a startup. We ended up doing a lot of things we shouldn’t have. But in that process we learnt what matters. 

Number two is funding. Funding is not easy to come by in general for startups, and even more so for a niche application like ours. If you look at funding deals in the space sector, they currently focus on building hardware, rockets and satellites. What we are doing is very different and it’s not something that investors are immediately drawn towards. So it’s been somewhat of a struggle to understand how we should communicate our vision to people (not just private investors, but also in grant applications). 

In our case we are doing something that is disrupting the way the industry works today. People in the space industry are not particularly used to the idea that digital transformation is important. At the core, we are trying to change people’s behaviour, which is not easy. So I think we underestimated the extent to which we were requiring change to happen in the industry. However, this transformation is happening in a lot of other industries, for example the aviation sector is going through this change, so we know that it’s coming for space, although these ideas have not yet taken hold. So we’re also battling the timing issue, although we see evidence that we’re on the right path. It’s just that we have to work really hard to bring that change about in the sector.

The satsearch team

Astropreneurs: For something like satsearch to work, it is important to have a global reach. You have signed various MoUs with many organizations. Could you tell us how that helps satsearch in reaching the suppliers around the world?

Kartik Kumar: First of all, being a internet startup means that we can use digital marketing tools and methods to reach a global audience, e.g., SEO, social media, content marketing. This has been very effective in spreading awareness of our services and driving traffic to our site. There’s tons of resources out there on these topics and we just have to do what every single Silicon Valley company has been doing for last 25 years to reach users all over the world.

In addition, the partnerships you mention are very interesting because on one side they bring us into an environment in which we can build cutting edge tools and work with partners that are doing interesting projects. On the other side, it is a way of raising awareness. It builds our brand value. Through these partnerships, people understand that we are serious. So they add value in multiple ways. Partnerships can take a long time to develop, they don’t happen overnight. So it comes down to developing relationships, reaching out to people, meeting them whenever possible at conferences, events and sharing your vision. That’s how those partnerships have come about.

Finally, we raise awareness among suppliers through the methods listed above. We spend time reaching out to suppliers, talking to them, understanding their business, raising awareness of what we are doing, demonstrating that we are here to help their business grow and expand rather than posing a threat.

Astropreneurs: What is the one piece of advice you have for aspiring Astropreneurs?

“… there are some things that seem like productive work, that make you feel like you are really working hard, that are actually not productive work within a startup. The most important thing is to identify those things so you can avoid them.”

Kartik Kumar: We are not yet a successful company that has exited, so take my advice with a pinch of salt. But if I’ve learnt anything in the last two years, it’s this – “do not get distracted”. There are things that seem like productive work, that make you feel like you are really working hard, that are actually not productive work within a startup. It’s critical to identify those things so you can avoid them. It has taken us two years to figure out what is work and what is not work for our startup. 

Actually there are very few things that are ‘work’ for a startup. They mostly revolve around finding product-market fit. In other words, build something that somebody wants. That’s all it is. And there are a million things we can do that have nothing to do with building something that somebody wants. The simple idea of ‘building something that somebody wants’ has a lot of aspects to it. That means you need to know what people want. That means you need to build something. That means you need to test it. In other words, build, ship, test, rinse and repeat. That’s all a startup needs to do. 

What that means is that many things you think are good idea to do,are probably not. That includes going to events, conferences, talking to lots of people, which in the end may feel like doing a lot of work but that may not bring you closer to your product-market fit.

Posted by Gourav Namta