Credit: NewSpace Nexus

The nonprofit, previously known as NewSpace New Mexico, runs an incubator for space startups around the country called NewSpace Ignitor. Working with the Defense Innovation Unit, U.S. Space Force and Air Force Research Laboratory, NewSpace Nexus also hosts annual conferences and workshops.

Casey DeRaad, founder and CEO of NewSpace Nexus

NewSpace Nexus’ claim to fame, though, is Unite and Ignite Space, a “co-innovation hub” in Albuquerque funded by the State of New Mexico, Virgin Galactic, AFRL and the Space Force Rapid Capabilities Office. There, startups gain access to facilities, equipment, networking events and guidance. Entrepreneurs can learn, for example, how to pitch their ideas to investors or find potential government customers.

SpaceNews caught up with Casey DeRaad, the energetic founder and CEO of NewSpace Nexus. Prior to NewSpace Nexus, DeRaad led AFRL’s Tech Engagement Office, which links industry, academia and government agencies with AFRL scientists and engineers. Along with AFRL colleagues, DeRaad won the 2013 STEM Team Award from the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer.

What is NewSpace Nexus? And why is it no longer called NewSpace New Mexico?

Newspace Nexus is accelerating the pace of space innovation. We do this by both uniting and igniting the space industry. We bring together all the stakeholders to break down walls in collaborations. We also lead the State of the Space Industrial Base conferences and workshops. On the ignite side, thanks to some grants through the Air Force Research Lab and congressional funding, we’re able to help companies innovate faster. We’re trying to grow the commercial space innovation base from New Mexico for the nation.

Your organization was called NewSpace New Mexico. Why did you change the name?

We work with a number of companies to create this innovation pipeline. When we were called NewSpace New Mexico, a lot of people thought we only worked with New Mexico companies. Also, in leading these national industrial base conferences, some folks thought we were only talking about New Mexico. Even though our name changed, our vision remains the same: helping to put resources in place to grow the space industry. With our national efforts, we’re still doing a lot to grow the space industry here in New Mexico.

What is the NewSpace Ignitor?

New Mexico has a lot of great research and development, but companies need to get beyond research and development. With congressional funding, we set up collaborative facilities with workspaces, prototyping and conference areas. We also set up Ignitor, an industry demonstrator program. We help companies take their concepts to products and sales.

When companies come in, we do an assessment to figure out what resources they need. We are helping a couple of companies get rideshares. And we showcase companies to the money sources, whether that might be government contracts, investors or even large partners like primes.

We are concluding our first year of Ignitor. We have 23 space companies at different levels: Ignitor AA, Ignitor AAA and Ignitor Elite. We track attributable wins for companies. The 23 companies have gotten $17.7 million in government contracts or investments.

What is the NewSpace Alliance?

The NewSpace Alliance, one of our first initiatives that began in 2019, brings together space stakeholders: space companies; government, educational and research organizations; economic development and industry associations. Currently, there are 250 member organizations with 140 space companies. We have options for U.S. corporate members and individuals. We’ll start a global option in the next few months.

We have a growing list of individual members of the NewSpace Alliance. This is mainly to build a list for a future workforce connector on our website. The plan is that our Alliance organizations can post their job opportunities, and it will generate an email to the individual alliance list.

NewSpace Nexus CEO Casey DeRaad at NewSpace Ignitor AAA Pitch Day with Col. Joseph Roth, Space Systems Center Innovation and Prototyping director (right) and Dan Crouch, Innovation and Prototyping Delta deputy director.

What are the opportunities for New Mexico’s space sector?

There are a lot of assets here. There’s a diverse workforce pipeline. New Mexico’s three research universities have 40 percent STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] graduates of color. There’s amazing intellectual property with the Los Alamos National Lab and Sandia National Lab. There are three space organizations with the Air Force Research Lab Space Vehicles Directorate, Space Systems Command’s Prototyping and Innovation Directorate and the Space Rapid Capabilities Office. Those three space organizations probably have at least a $2 billion budget.

Then, we have the Spaceport America. In our Ignitor program, we’ve had a number of innovative launch companies. We connect them to the Spaceport. It’s abutted to the White Sands Missile Range. Having that no-fly zone is another asset. There’s also the NASA White Sands Test Facility.

The bottom line is that there are lots of assets, lots of customers and a great workforce pipeline.

What challenges does New Mexico face in recruiting people to work in the space industry?

We’re a smaller state. We have a smaller population. Yet at the same time, New Mexico has the highest number of PhDs per capita. So, there’s access to a lot of brainpower.

Another challenge is awareness of the opportunity. We have an Intern Day. We bring together interns from New Mexico companies and organizations to show them that there’s a lot going on here. Rocket Lab is here. Virgin Galactic is here. Air Force Research Lab is here. One of the biggest challenges is telling the story of what all we have here. And we have to keep telling it.

The other challenge is with the space industry growing so much, there’s a lot of need for workforce. STEM is a big part, but we need all the different workforce areas. We need to get to that pipeline. We need to really expand that aperture to recruit our whole available workforce.

How is NewSpace Nexus trying to expand the workforce?

We’re leading a program called Pathways to the Stars. We’re trying to create the space industry sector’s first complete pathway from early education through early career. It includes participant support and industry engagement at each of the stages.

When I was at AFRL, I led their STEM outreach program. We had an internship program. We funded the University Nanosatellite Program. There were little pockets of great programs. With Pathways to the Stars, we’re starting in New Mexico, but the plan is that it can be expanded. We are first assessing what programs are in place, where there are gaps and where we might add programming. Or where there are good programs that we can amplify with more funding.

AFRL has an amazing K through 12 program. We wouldn’t reinvent that. We would work with the folks there and say, “How do we start putting in this structure to connect these different programs?”

We’re getting private companies to help support it. And we’re talking to the state. We have access to this whole industry innovation pipeline between our Ignitor companies, our NewSpace Alliance and all the companies that come to our Space Industrial Base conferences and workshops.

I tell the companies, “You can’t just think about the workforce when you’re doing job placement. You need to get in the trenches with us, whether you help with funding or with mentoring.” A number of companies are ready to start working with us.

You led the workforce study for the State of the Space Industrial Base report. What are some of the key takeaways?

We need this North Star vision for our national space workforce. It needs an all-of-government approach, and industry needs to be part of it as well. The National Science and Technology Council Committee on STEM education put together an interagency roadmap. It’s promising because it’s a government-wide look at how we deal with space-related STEM education and workforce.

We also need to be looking at new ways of getting the word out that there are many ways to get the right qualifications to make it into the space workforce. The four-year STEM degree is still important. But there are other ways.

One of the recommendations put forward is that we start implementing this Pathways to the Stars. Start in New Mexico but expand regionally. We’ve been running these Space Industrial Base conferences. We partnered with Space Northwest and Space Florida. NewSpace Nexus reached out to a number of organizations to put together a Space Industrial Base Council. We’re just getting it up and running.

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...