Silicon Valley space tech start-up Leo Aerospace has relocated to Melbourne to participate in Blackbird Ventures’ Startmate program, in a significant coup for the local accelerator as it bids for global recognition.
The company, which launched in January, is aiming to make it quicker and easier to send CubeSats (miniature satellites designed for space research) into space, by developing a dedicated launch service using rocket-balloon hybrid technology.
At the moment CubeSats need to “hitchhike” their way to space, riding on shuttles with larger payloads.
It is the first overseas-based company to move to Melbourne to participate in Startmate, and Leo Aerospace’s co-founder and chief executive Dane Rudy said Startmate’s new partnership with start-up consultancy Moonshot Labs and the federal government’s recent commitment to fund the country’s first space agency had driven its participation in the Startmate program.
“We thought about this decision in terms of two questions – why Startmate and why Australia,” he told The Australian Financial Review.
“The defining factor was how incredibly involved the mentors and the community are. Often the mentors in accelerators aren’t very involved or invested in the companies and really aren’t that interested in coaching them along the way.
“Then in terms of the second question, the answer was around the timing in Australia for the space industry and also around regulation. There’s a fantastic renaissance for space in Australia that’s got a commercial focus.”
In the May budget the federal government committed $41 million of funding for the establishment of the country’s first space agency, which is led by former CSIRO boss Dr Megan Clark.
At the time Fleet Space Technologies chief executive Flavia Tata Nardini said in 20 years society would look back on this moment as “one of the most transformational in Australian history”.
Leo Aerospace was founded by a group of university friends, after meeting a student doing his PhD who had to change his idea because the launch he’d hitched a ride on was delayed.
Mr Rudy said there was a huge issue with supply and demand in the space industry and most CubeSat owners he had spoken to had expressed a willingness to pay the same amount, or more, for a service that could get them to space in six months rather than almost three years.
“About 68 per cent of CubeSats didn’t even go to space last year, they just sat on the ground,” he said.
“Pricing is something we’re digging into … There’s huge ranges from $US50,000 to $US100,000 per kilogram.
“A big driving factor behind the industry is we want to see the price go down, but at the same time when talking to our customers they see the value our system can bring in launching within six months, not three years, and they are willing to pay more for that because it lets them get to revenue quicker.”
Once Startmate is complete, Leo Aerospace intends to keep its tech development and design teams in the US but have a long-term base in Australia where it will conduct space launches.
Startmate chief executive James Tynan said the increasing recognition of Startmate in the US stemmed from its successful alumni which were now raising capital from overseas funds.
“We’ve had companies like Bugcrowd and UpGuard which have raised money from US investors that now have valuations in the tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars range,” he said.
“Our Sydney 2018 cohort broke all our records, with three our of 10 companies raising near million-dollar rounds while the program was still running.”
Joining Leo Aerospace in this cohort of start-ups are 12 other companies such as electricity start-up Amber, discounted excess food marketplace Bring Me Home, 3D presentation software firm JigSpace and legal services automation platform Josef.
Last year Startmate vowed to improve the diversity of its accelerator participants, revealing in a blog post that of its intake of 12 companies in its Melbourne program, only two had female co-founders.
But this year the program has done no better, with only three out of 13 teams having female co-founders, these being edtech start-up Shiftsimple, cyber security company Serinus Security and Bring Me Home.
Mr Tynan said it was clear the accelerator still had a lot of work to do to improve the diversity of its participants.
“We really need to keep pushing on this front … We haven’t done enough yet and there’s a lot more we want to do in this space to improve inclusivity across all lines,” he said.