LONG BEACH, Calif. – Becoming a space sector entrepreneur requires creativity, courage and stamina.
At the Space Tech Expo May 24, space industry executives and startup founders shared advice for fledgling startups.
Entrepreneurs need to understand their prospective customers, said Andre Doumitt, Aerospace Corp. Director of Innovation Development.
“What are they actually trying to get done and how do they do it?” Doumitt asked. “If your product or service can eliminate or reduce friction points in that workflow, quantify it in terms of dollars, time or people. That’s traction.”
In some cases, an entrepreneur may have a great idea, but the timing may wrong.
“Sometimes you can bring the audience along and sometimes you can’t,” said Melissa Rowe, RAND Corp. vice president for global research talent. “Then you may have to pivot. You may have to start working on a different problem that you’re not as interested in before you get to the problem that you are.”
Advisors and mentors can help.
“An entrepreneur coming fresh into the space industry is going to take a long time to figure out the ecosystem,” Doumitt said. “We at Aerospace Corporation as well as the Space Force, SpaceWERX and other government customers can help.”
Jason Achilles Mezilis, owner of startup Zandef Deksit Inc., who moderated the panel, said he relies on the advice of Doumitt, Rowe and Rex Ridenoure, CEO of consulting firm IZUP LLC.
Mezilis, a professional musician, got involved in the space sector in 2016. Through extensive research and cold calls to people at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Mezilis found a role helping design the microphone for the Perseverance Mars rover.
People who don’t have mentors may want to begin contacting people on LinkedIn. First, though, it’s extremely important to do your homework, Rowe said.
Ridenoure received valuable advice decades ago from rocket propulsion engineer Gil Moore of Utah State University who told a group of young engineers, “It’s not all about who you know. It’s about who you know that knows what you know.”
“His point was that you have to know something to bring to the table,” Ridenoure said. “Then, you have to network with other people that know that. If they appreciate what you know, they will plug you in to other people and it just starts snowballing.”
Ali Baghchehsara, founder and president of propulsion startup Plasmos, relies on the expertise of advisors. Dirk Hoke, the former Airbus Defence and Space CEO, who will chair Plasmos’ board, will help the company navigate space and defense. Baghchehsara’s background is in aviation.
For plasma science expertise, Baghchehsara will rely on Plasmos’ new chief scientist Richard Wirz, who leads the University of California, Los Angeles, Plasma and Space Propulsion Laboratory.
“Richard will guide us through the testing and development cycles of the company to get that right faster,” Baghchehsara wrote on LinkedIn. “Plasmos also agrees to purchase certain technologies he has had developed over the years to help the company go faster in its journeys and help plasma propulsion become a solution satellite manufacturing companies will want to use.”
Entrepreneurs also must remain flexible because in many cases startups have to pivot. To make that easier, Rowe suggests that entrepreneurs write personal mission statements.
“It can be that guiding star that also allows you to do those pivots and not feel like you just threw everything away.” Rowe said. “It’s bigger than any single idea.”