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There was a distinct feeling of déjà vu at the second InSpace forum held in Moscow on Friday, where one year after the original event, the main players in Russia’s space industry pondered the same existential questions that had dominated discussions the first time around: how can Russia keep up with its long-term space rival the U.S., and how can state corporations and private startups find a mutually beneficial cooperation model?
Companies working in space-related tech displayed their products in the lobby of the InSpace forum last week. Photo: Sk.ru.
The key to the former question may lie in the second: small, innovative companies can bring their fresh perspective and ideas to state companies that have the means to make them a reality. After all, in the U.S., Elon Musk’s headline-grabbing SpaceX carries out much of its work under contracts with NASA, proponents of Russia’s budding private space industry are quick to point out.
The second question of state and private space companies working together remains a thorny one, as evidenced by lively panel discussion exchanges between Igor Burenkov, communications director of state space corporation Roscosmos, and Sergei Ivanov, head of the private satellite-maker Dauria, which was the first private space company to sign a partnership agreement with Roscosmos.
It was only at the end of 2015 that Roscosmos said it would allow private companies access to the space services market, and only by 2020. At last year’s forum, complaints were voiced about the length of time it takes private companies to get their projects and products certified by Roscosmos. Progress is, however, being made.
“On Feb. 20, there was a meeting between major businesses and state corporations where [Roscosmos director Igor] Komarov expressed a desire to involve private businesses in the implementation of space projects,” Alexei Belyakov, head of the Skolkovo Foundation’s space cluster, told Sk.ru.
“The fact that this meeting took place is already a step in the right direction. The state corporation understands that the involvement of private companies is essential.”
Dauria, a resident of Skolkovo’s space cluster, has state contracts for two MKA-N Earth observation satellites for Roscosmos, and is due to launch them in July, said Ivanov.
“Small private commercial [space] companies are more than capable of finding areas of common interest with Roscosmos where we can cooperate at arm’s length on a mutually beneficial basis,” Ivanov told Sk.ru following Friday’s conference at Technopolis Moscow.
“Roscosmos has drastically changed its rhetoric in regard to cooperation with private companies, and is open to the discussion of joint projects. That’s great, and we will definitely be proposing [more] ideas,” he said.
Dauria's Sergei Ivanov, left, and Skolkovo space cluster director Alexei Belyakov take part in a panel discussion. Photo: Sk.ru
Matchmaking in space
As the only state development institution with a designated space cluster that is home to hundreds of startups working in space technology, Skolkovo can and must play the role of an intermediary between the state corporation and private companies, said Belyakov.
The cluster has already successfully facilitated an agreement between a Skolkovo startup and Roscosmos to conduct experiments on board the Russian sector of the International Space Station (ISS).
3D Bioprinting Solutions, a resident startup of Skolkovo’s biomed cluster that made headlines in 2014 when it printed a functioning construct of a mouse thyroid, is working on a bioprinter that will work in space.
Printing tissue and organ constructs in space will enable scientists to research the effects of space radiation on living creatures over a long period of time, as well as ways to counter that effect. There is also evidence to suggest that cancer research carried out in space could offer vital clues in the fight against the disease.
3D Bioprinting Solutions already has a prototype printer, which will use magnetic force to overcome the microgravity onboard the ISS, its managing partner Yusef Hesuani told the InSpace forum, which was organised in partnership with the Skolkovo Foundation.
“This is an example of productive three-way cooperation,” said Valentin Uvarov, head of manned spacecraft commercial projects at United Rocket and Space Corporation, a state-owned entity that comprises part of Roscosmos and that signed the agreement with 3D Bioprinting Solutions.
Artwork at the forum depicting Skolkovo and Moscow from space, with Dauria's Auriga earth observation system above them. Photo: Sk.ru.
“The initiator of the contact was Alexei Belyakov, who introduced us just over a year ago,” he said, emphasizing that communication channels such as the Skolkovo Foundation are key to improving cooperation between the private and state space industries.
“Roscosmos is taking steps to attract more commercial projects,” said Uvarov.
“Yes, we have less money than our American colleagues … But to develop this area, it’s not always a question of money. It’s primarily a question of communication, of letting interested organisations know what they could do on board the ISS.”
Another two Skolkovo startups – micro-satellite maker Sputnix and 3D printer designer Anisoprint – have teamed up to work on a 3D printer that will be able to print satellites directly in space. They have prepared a detailed proposal and submitted it to the state corporation, and are waiting for it to be reviewed, said Veronika Shteyngardt, who curates the project at Sputnix.
Printing major constructions such as solar panels directly in space may still seem like a dream, but the technology required to do so already exists, Shteyngardt told the forum. Sputnix’s competitors in this endeavor are the private U.S. company Made In Space – which, funded by a contract with NASA, is working on Archinaut, a combined 3D printer and robotic arm designed to build large structures in orbit – and SpiderFab, another system for the on-orbit construction of large, lightweight structures.
“If we can make huge solar panels that don’t need to be folded up in order to send them into space, then we can make bigger space stations,” said Shteyngardt, a graduate of the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech).
Finding a market gap
Like any other industry, the path to creating a successful space product or service is for Roscosmos and private businesses to identify a niche and then develop it, said Vadim Makhov, founder of the Bard Worldwide investment fund.
“Private businesses need a market. We make money for our shareholders and investors, and we’re looking for market gaps in which we can be as competitive as possible,” said Dauria’s Ivanov, echoing Makhov’s words.
Conference participants identified precision agriculture, infrastructure monitoring, insurance and Internet of Things as the most promising areas of use for space technologies. Satellite images of land can be used to allow farmers and insurance companies to assess the state of land, for example.
“The future of the market is in the analysis of data,” said Belyakov. “Companies that work out what to do with the enormous amount of data from space – images, Internet of Things, weather – they will be the richest and most successful on the market.”
He cited the example of Astro Digital, a company that analyses satellite images in real time and streams them to an app. The company, whose co-founder and business development director Katerina Lengold is another Skoltech graduate, announced on Thursday that it had closed $16 million in Series A funding.
“Astro Digital is a promising company because they’re not just focusing on infrastructure: they know what to do with the data,” said Belyakov.
“Their main system is [for use in] precision agriculture, banking and insurance … Lengold correctly identified a niche. The company was developed around the building of a platform for the analysis of satellite data,” he said.
In terms of international expansion, Ivanov identified an advantage of Russian companies: first-class professionals whose expertise is far cheaper than that of foreign specialists.
“Our top aerospace engineers are four or five times cheaper than in the U.S., and three times cheaper than in Europe … For export potential, this is great, for competing with U.S. and European companies in East Asia, Africa and the Middle East – and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.