“The whole point is to make people comfortable with the concept of spacetech. There’s nothing like handling a spacecraft. There’s nothing like plugging it into your own laptop and typing in commands to turn on some LEDs or deploy the antennas. We are setting up this platform to help people see that all the stuff they think is very difficult, is not as hard as they think and anybody can do it.” – Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya
As a scientist, engineer, and entrepreneur, Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya is the Co-Founder of Astropreneurs HUB and Founder and CEO of Bhattacharya Space Enterprises (BSE), both Singapore based startups. Dr. Bhattacharya has worked at NASA as a scientist and engineer for over two decades. Astropreneurs HUB is the first space technology incubator in Southeast Asia. They aim to meet the growing demand in commercial space by accelerating time-to-market for startups. Astropreneurs HUB offers technical and business mentoring to facilitate the companies in the development and testing, as well as launch of the subsystems to space.
Bhattacharya Space Enterprises is a startup that aims to educate and train space technologists at all levels, starting from passionate high school students to inspired college graduates and working professionals. The startup conducts various workshops all over the globe to engage students in STEM education through the development, launch, and use of space technology. They recently launched their first space experiment to International Space Station (ISS).
Singapore has not traditionally been known for its vibrant space industry, but things have started to change in the last five years. In 2013, the Economic Development Board started its Office for Space Technology and Industry (OSTIn) to promote and develop the commercial space sector. And in the past few years, the industry has seen a number of successful space startups either originating in Singapore or moving to Singapore due to the government policies that encourage companies to set up their business ventures in this country. Equatorial Space Industries, Transcelestial Technologies, Gilmour Space Technologies, and Spire are some of the exciting space startups to look out for in this region.
Our Astropreneurs sat down with Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya to get more insight into her startups and her thoughts on the state of commercial space sector in Singapore.
Astropreneurs: Tell us something about Astropreneurs HUB and BSE? What are the goals it aims to serve in NewSpace Economy?
Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya: I’m an ex-NASA scientist and having worked on the government side for huge multi-dollar missions per year, I feel like we’re at a stage now where the entire sector needs to be expanded in a way that government can’t. So, the commercial space industry is really important. When I look around me, I see the focus of the workforce seems to be in North America and Europe, which excludes billions of people on the other side of the planet who could participate. There’s no issue in trying to get people involved in STEM in many Asian countries; you have the technical capability and interest, but people haven’t had the ability to pursue careers due to lack of training and information. I figured that Singapore is a good hub for the rest of Asia. It’s a nice place for people to come into, it’s a central location, and it’s an easy place to run your money through. I figured that it would be a good place to establish a workforce development opportunity. BSE does a couple things, including educational engagement with the ISS. We have clients that have built experiments and sent them up to the ISS, where the astronauts install the hardware and download data couple of times a week. We’re working on a new product in which we have software sent up to the ISS and no longer have to rely on rocket launches. Users can build a kit and send something up to the ISS, where the software runs. These products are primarily for education and training at the school and the university level. Many people think of space as an unattainable, super difficult, and just beyond their reach – we are trying to normalize the concept of access to space. That’s what we do at BSE.
At Astropreneurs HUB, we are building a space-tech incubator, not just for Singapore and South-east Asia, but for the rest of the world as well. Space is a global market and we really want to tap into it on a global basis. I’m trying secure funding right now so we can fully bring teams on board and build a partnership that is more than informal advising. The idea is to partner with teams for more than 90 days or 6 months, which is only enough time to teach how to write a business plan and the basics of spacetech. We want to ensure that the tech flies. The last thing I want to see is a prototype sitting on a lab floor for 3-4 years. Microgravity is a game-changer and being outside the Van-Allen belts is a game changer, both present all sorts of issues. Every mission I’ve ever worked on, we had to re-calibrate instruments, no matter how much we tested them on the ground. It’s essential to fly to see how your experiments perform and use that as an opportunity to reduce the risk for investors. When you get to the next step and can say that you have prototypes that have been in space, it’s a game changer for investors. That’s what we are trying to do with Astropreneurs HUB. And right now, in order to monetize, we have a CubeSat workshop that we do. It’s basically a CubeSat that you plug into your laptop and then you simulate launch and mission operations with the system. The idea is to provide a basic understanding of space systems engineering and development using a very simple platform of a CubeSat. CubeSats are the standard of the shop technology and people can understand them fairly easily. The course that we offer tailors the course material to the level of understanding of the student. We basically explain the different modules and subsystems in the context of each of the little components, but the amount of detail depends on our audience. We have taught everywhere from the International Space University (ISU) to professionals to all the way to student level to age about 14. The whole point is to make people comfortable with the concept of spacetech. My hope is that people who come out of our workshops are much more comfortable going into the sector. In fact, we have already had a couple of startups form after participating in our workshop. One of them won an international award at the UAE space agency! Another one got a couple of million dollars in funding to proceed with its goals. That’s exactly what we want to do. We want to get people excited and we want to get people going. And once these startups get going, hopefully, we’ll have funding and we’ll be able to get them into our incubator.
Astropreneurs: How important is the space sector to Singapore?
Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya: I think there’s an entire economy that is forming around the space sector. Aside from the immediate benefits of data analytics, Singapore has a huge maritime industry that would benefit greatly. But remember Singapore is a country of 5.5 million people and our goal is not to limit ourselves to one nation. It’s a global platform, it’s a global marketplace. Looking beyond Singapore, there’s agriculture. South-east Asia has a large amount of agriculture that could benefit. Additionally, you can do supply chain management.
Astropreneurs: How did you go about your mission when you arrived here in Singapore?
Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya: I arrived in Singapore and started looking and building the sector in 2013. One of the first things I did was look at ways to build the community. I put in a lot of effort in education and outreach and I set up a Singapore Astropreneurs meetup group, offered our workshops for free, and set up a WhatsApp group. All these things provide social connections for people who have the interest but didn’t necessarily know how to express it. It’s a positive feedback loop. I also brought in NASA commander Jeff Williams, a NASA Astronaut, to Singapore. The visibility was actually super-helpful in terms of getting public interest going. He gave a lot of talks all over Singapore. The various things that I have started have taken up a life of their own and people feel socially connected and they share ideas. It’s just a very dynamic sector at this point in Singapore and it’s pretty exciting.
Astropreneurs: What’s the recent trend like? What kind of ideas do people come up with regarding their startup?
Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya: We have had over 30 startups approach us with ideas. I would say the primary interest seems to be in special subsystem development – hardware systems. We’ve got everything from testing materials for astronauts’ suit to synthetic aperture radar imaging to ground systems. It’s kind of all over the place.
Astropreneurs: What can the Singapore government do to help the space startup sector?
Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya: I think they can provide investments for startups. They can provide seed funding. I think it’s critical to the growth of this sector, otherwise, Singapore will be passed up and we’ll fall behind other countries that do the same.
Astropreneurs: What are the challenges to scaling a startup from the idea to execution stage?
Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya: I think one of the barriers that get people stuck is funding. When you have a lot of people coming into the sector as newcomers, they don’t realize how much they are taking on. For example, startups claim they are going to build a spacecraft or a full system to do a lot of different things and it’s much more complex than what they realize. If you have experience in the sector you know to break-off what you can handle, but I think people who come in are super ambitious. The ambition can cause them to take on too much and then they don’t get the money that they need, so they fail. I think the answer is to really understand the scope of what you’re going to do, how much it’s going to cost, and how many people you are going to need. A lot of that knowledge comes from experience in the industry. You need to talk to people and see if what you’re trying to do makes sense to the experts in that particular field.
Astropreneurs: How do you plan to expand what you are doing both with Astropreneurs HUB and BSE?
Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya: We are looking to scale up through funding and we are using our CubeSat workshops as a source of income. As we monetize, we plan to continue to build the sector in terms of workforce development and to fund the incubator. We’re also having discussion about setting up a branch in Bangalore (India), Southern California (US), UAE, and the UK.
As far as the services we provide, exactly what direction we go will depend on what the market is asking for. This is the same problem that all startups have; we just don’t have the funding to really jump in, in the way we would like to. I can’t tell you exactly where we are going, other than to make sure that the ecosystem keeps growing.
Astropreneurs: What technology trends are you most excited about?
Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya: I’m super excited about space mining. That’s probably my favorite topic right now. We have so much of the tech developed already. We have had asteroid flyby missions and we have lander missions. We also had the Japanese Hayabusa mission bringing back samples. We have done so much already in that sector, now somebody has to put it together and start bringing material back. Within 10-15 years, if we continue our current rate of growth, it is realistic to believe that we will be going to the Moon and asteroids to mine the materials.
Astropreneurs: You have worked for NASA. How is working in a government agency any different from working for a space startup?
Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya: I think they are very different. When you work for a government agency, you are working on technology in a very profound way, doing things humanity hasn’t done before. Also, sometimes you’ve got multi-billion dollar budgets. You have a huge team where you become a specialist in a small area and those jobs for the government sector are hard to come by. There are limitations based on residency and citizenships. There’s just no way that the government can employ everyone that is interested in space. On the commercial side, you’ve got large companies that are securing their space in the industry, but I think of the startups as much more agile. If you’re a kind of person who wants to be able to think for yourself and is willing to take on all kinds of jobs, I think a startup is the place to be.
Astropreneurs: What’s the total number of people involved in this mission?
Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya: I’m the only one who’s full time. The other people work back and forth between the companies. I’ll say at any given time, we have 8-10 part-time employees who are either working in a dedicated way or ad-hoc basis on our workshop. They’re all over the world. Particularly, I have had interns from India, US, and many more.
Astropreneurs: How does one apply to your incubator? And what are the possible metrics that help you in deciding which startups to take in?
Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya: The easiest way to apply at Astropreneurs HUB is to send me an email. Usually what I do is ask them to send me their pitch deck and then we talk and see how far along they are. We make a decision based on the initial conversations and evaluate their readiness, and then we decide how to take it from there. Of course, it helps to have funding. Unfortunately, not everybody has funding and that’s where the government needs to step in.
What we look for is the team and how realistic they are about being able to get their prototype into space in a few years. You have to have some kind of sensor system and subsystem to launch. At this point, we are mentoring to get the team going, but without funding, I can’t say that we have a formal application process. What I usually do is talk to the team and get a feel of where they are and then put them into my “Yes” pile, “Maybe” pile or “No” pile, accordingly. Maybe once we get funded, we can connect with them. At the moment, we had just a handful we’re actively working with and trying to get them funded. I have had conversation with over 30 startups, 5-6 of which are pretty solid. We would like these startups to be on board as soon as we have funding. In the meantime, we are working with the promising teams to get their momentum going. Just because we have a lack of funding, doesn’t mean that these companies should stop moving ahead.
Astropreneurs: What kind of future would you like to see for Astropreneurs HUB and BSE?
Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya: I think they all under the same umbrella. BSE has been our way to monetize. We’ve used the funding for the workshop and the ISS projects to pay for the co-working space, operations costs, keeping our engineers on a small salary, and so on. But I think they all fall under the same workforce and tech development umbrella. In 5 years, I really hope that we have at least 10-15 companies that we put through our business model development and prototype development process. A the end of five years, we’re hoping that at least 3-4 of our startups have their prototypes on a launch manifest for preliminary flight concept.
Astropreneurs: What would be your advice for future space entrepreneurs in one line?
Dr. Bidushi Bhattacharya: Read everything you can, find what inspires you and join the sector.
Posted by Gourav Namta