From the pandemic to going public: Space startups face hiring challenges
For many companies in the industry, filling job openings can seem as difficult as rocket science. For others, it simply involves rockets.
SpaceX often uses its launch webcasts as recruiting tools, taking advantage of an audience of thousands who will tune in at all hours to see a rocket launch and landing. Webcasts hosts will casually mention the company is hiring, directing people to their website to browse the current openings. Sometimes they will be very specific in their requests: during the webcast of a rideshare mission launching to polar orbit in January, the host noted SpaceX had openings at its Vandenberg Air Force Base site, where it does most of its polar orbit launches.
Not everyone in the industry — almost no one, really — has that sort of marketing muscle. Near the opposite end of the space industry from SpaceX is Isotropic Systems. The startup, with about 70 employees, is developing flat-panel antennas: essential, but not high-profile, hardware for satellite communications.
“We’re just about on track,” John Finney, chief executive of Isotropic, said of his company’s recruitment effort. Some positions, like software and traditional radio-frequency engineering, are relatively easy to fill. “But in specialist areas, like semiconductor chipset development, those hires are hard to find.”
In an interview, Finney said that Isotropic was able to hire people who had been laid off from other companies during the pandemic last year, including from OneWeb after it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “We’re in a pretty bright place. We’re trying to scale up as fast as we can,” he said. “There’s a lot of talent becoming available that we might not have otherwise accessed.”
The company, though, needs to scale up those hiring efforts. The company closed a $42 million funding round Feb. 8 and plans to grow to 110 employees by the end of the year as it opens a new facility near its headquarters in Reading, England.
“We’ve stepped up in a lot of areas” to recruit those additional employees, he said. “It’s a war for talent at the end of the day.”
The new funding round is led by satellite operator SES and includes participation from the British government, which Finney said should help the company recruit those new employees. “That gives people a lot of confidence to join the company,” he said, easing any concerns they have about a company still in its early phases of development. “We couldn’t be better supported.”
Isotropic also has an office in the United States to work with U.S. government customers. The hiring situation there is a little different. “It always seems like it’s a challenge when we’re hiring,” he said. “We’ve got a great team with fantastic knowledge over there, but the hiring process does tend to be a little bit longer.”
Finney chalks that up to much bigger competition. That U.S. office is located in Maryland, amid office parks between Washington and Baltimore filled with aerospace and defense contractors. “We are competing for the best engineers from some of the biggest players out there,” he said, noting that the company is next door to a Northrop Grumman facility. “It’s a matter of attracting people that want to come and do something new.”
That challenge is magnified when you’re not able, or at least willing, to talk publicly about what you’re doing. In its first few years, small launch vehicle developer Astra kept a low profile, without a public website or other discussion. The company called itself “Stealth Space Company” in its online job listings.
“We worked really hard to bring people in here,” Chris Kemp, co-founder and chief executive of Astra, said in an interview of those early hiring efforts. “But we literally had to bring people in here and show them the place.”
That became easier about a year ago, when Astra unveiled a website and started talking more openly about its work. On Feb. 2, the company announced it was merging with Holicity, a special-purpose acquisition company, allowing it to go public and providing it with nearly $500 million in cash to fund its expansion.
Going public, Kemp said, will help the company recruit new employees. “There are some really talented people at big publicly traded companies where they have the ability to give their employees liquidity,” he said. “It does restrict the kind of talent that you can bring in.”
Once Astra becomes publicly traded on the Nasdaq exchange, it will be able to make the same offers to its employees. “We’re having a whole new set of conversations with a whole new level of people,” he said, including both engineers and executives.
Private companies can still attract talent from publicly traded firms. Commercial imaging company Satellogic announced Feb. 11 it hired a former Maxar executive, Thomas VanMatre, as its vice president of global business development. He held a similar position at Maxar and previously worked at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
Satellogic, which is just starting to build out its constellation of high-resolution imaging satellites, has an unusually global presence for a company of its size, with offices in the United States, Latin America, Israel and China, tapping local expertise in software, satellite manufacturing and business development.
“We are growing extremely fast,” Emiliano Kargieman, chief executive of Satellogic, said in an interview. The company has more than 200 employees now, and he said he expects to hire 70 people in this quarter. The company’s website lists dozens of job openings, primarily in Argentina, Uruguay and Spain.
That hiring pace “is a function of trying to match the demand that we’re seeing in the market,” with strong interest from government and commercial customers for Satellogic’s imagery, he said. The company secured a launch contract last month with SpaceX, making that company its “preferred” launch provider through a series of rideshare missions through next year.
“We’re feeling strongly that this is the time for us to double down and scale,” he said. Despite the economic fallout of the pandemic, “2020 was the best year in the history of the company, and we’re expecting a very strong 2021.”
Perhaps, if they run into difficulties hiring, they can get their new launch partner, SpaceX, to put in a plug for them on a launch webcast.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 15, 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.