"I’m Ivan Kosenkov. I’m a space lawyer – a specialist in deciphering the legal, political, and economic rules governing space activities."
"Smooth intro," I thought when I met Ivan at Russia’s technology fair Open Innovations Forum in October.
Ivan was the first Russian to enroll at the Institute of Space and Telecommunications Law (IDEST) in Paris, he says. IDEST is one of the few academic institutions around the globe that offers this kind of specialization. Ivan interned at the European Space Agency, and worked at Russia’s space agency Roscosmos in a research position. Now, he’s writing a dissertation on space debris, while also working with some of Russia’s most interesting up-and-coming space tech companies.
It wasn’t always this way. Ivan started out studying at Novosibirsk State University’s law faculty like many others. But the future seemed boring. One day, it hit him.
The crazy idea came to my head during an International Public Law course. There was one line in the book — ’Law of outer space’. It sounded big, interesting, and new. I found out that the domain of law regulating space-related activities is recent and still forming. There is still room for creativity and a possibility to make an impact. Not to mention that space activities are kind of a national idea for Russian people.
’We’re in the middle of a space renaissance’
Any visitor to Moscow will notice how much space travel means to the nation. Monuments erected throughout the city celebrate the era of Sputnik and Gagarin. Among them are the majestic "Monument to the Conquerors of Space," the colossal Hotel Cosmos, or the futuristic statue of Yuri Gagarin, all located in central Moscow.
Even today, Russia is one of the most active space-faring nations. Of the six people in space right now – all of them are aboard the International Space Station – three are Russian.
State agencies like Roscosmos and Nasa are no longer the only space explorers. Space tech innovation is increasingly driven by the private sector and its commercial interests. High-profile companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX demonstrated that comparatively small teams, with a startup mindset adopted from Silicon Valley, can perform rocket science.
The US is home to a number of young companies defining the new frontier of space tech. Take for example NanoRacks, a five-year old company that essentially operates a space lab and coordinates and performs space experiments on assignment basis. Another big name in the fledgling commercial space exploration industry is Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. A number of startups, like Planet Labs and Skybox are in the business of launching fleets of small satellites into orbit.
What we’re witnessing at the moment, Ivan says, is a space renaissance led by nimble, private companies. Russia wants to take part in it.
Skolkovo space cluster
Like most startup-related activities, the hub for next-generation space tech startups in Russia is the innovation center Skolkovo. Skolkovo’s space cluster houses 141 early-stage companies. Other clusters are IT, bio technology, nuclear energy, and energy efficiency. Skolkovo sits on the outskirts of Moscow and attracts startups as well as established tech firms with the promise of access to high-end facilities, tax cuts, and funding. Skolkovo is also home to a technical university. Industry and science, space and bio tech co-exist here in close proximity.
See: 12 things you need to know about Russia’s tech scene Ivan isn’t associated with any one of space cluster startups directly. He’s part of the Skolkovo foundation and acts as a sort of free agent, connecting ideas born at Skolkovo with potential industrial partners. He also hosts events or helps researchers find commercial applications for their findings.
"We are creating an ecosystem of private space companies in Russia, a phenomenon that never existed in Russia. Before 2010, the year the cluster began its work, space activities were considered strictly a public affair in Russia. We were able to change this," Ivan explains.
Promising fields and startups
Space tech startups today generally fall into two categories, Ivan says. The first group are those who operate with well-known technologies, working to achieve incremental but important growth of products and their characteristics.
An example are advancements in satellite communications and navigation, Ivan explains. This can include enhancing signal accuracy or compatibility with other systems. Startups developing nano- or microsatellites also fall into this category.
The second group explores technologies on a new level, and works toward long-term goals of space exploration and utilization.
Making launch vehicles reusable is one such long-term challenge, as this would significantly decrease costs of space expedition. Other promising, emerging fields are zero-gravity space manufacturing, development of space infrastructure, robotic removal of space debris, mining of raw materials from comets and asteroids, and space tourism.
Sokolkovo’s space tech startups are addressing nearly all these fields. One of the more prominent ones is Dauria Aerospace, a company in the burgeoning micro- and nanosatellite business.
Others worth mentioning are CosmoCourse, which develops the reusable suborbital launch vehicle for tourism and scientific experiments, and Lin Industries, which is developing a family of light launch vehicles for small satellites.
Another domain of excellence of Skolkovo’s space cluster are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) technologies. Aerob, for instance, develops an adaptive control system for UAVs with artificial intelligence elements.
Russia’s tech startups are not necessarily world leading. In fact, Dauria has had to scale back its operations in the US and Europe earlier this year, saying it was not able to compete with other private companies there, which had better access to funding. Russia’s space sector is suffering from the consequences of Russia’s politically isolated position.
The startups have collectively generated US$25 million in revenues in 2014, a Skolkovo brochure declares. They have raised a total of US$8.5 million in private capital. That figure is tiny compared to what space startups can raise in the US. US-based Skybox, a satellite company founded in 2009, alone raised US$91 million to date, and in 2014, was acquired by Google.
Despite setbacks, Skolkovo is determined to continue building its space startups. The way this is being done at Skolkovo, by bringing many startups into close proximity with each other, is unique in the world, according to Ivan.
Skolkovo is a government funded institution, which gives it the power to pull strings at the national space agency Roscosmos. Skolkovo now offers its startups a direct link to the Russian segment of the International Space Station (ISS). This means space tech startups in Skolkovo can plan for using ISS facilities in fairly frequent intervals, for example test equipment in space, launch nanosatellites, and conduct experiments. Getting access on this level could take startups without government backing months or years.
"For 70 years private entrepreneurship activity in Russia was banned as illegal by Soviets. That’s why the big part of scientists and engineers, especially the older generation, can hardly understand how to make business out of their R&D," Ivan explains.
"In fact, big part of our work [at Skolkovo] is to transform the environment, make the people embrace new models of thinking. We are optimistic and we have the reasons to be, as we see the ecosystem emerging from scratch and the practices of venture business explored, adapted and transformed by companies," he adds.
There are signs that Russia’s tech startups can compete on global level. While it had to reduce activities in the US and Europe, Dauria Aerospace secured a US$70 million project from Chinese investment fund Cybernaut this October. Dauria Aerospace will develop and launch 10 satellites to monitor life in some of the largest cities in the world, primarily those located on a new Silk Road. The Russian-Chinese investment fund set up by Skolkovo and Cyberagent totals US$200 million, which it plans to invest in other Skolkovo startups.
Skolkovo’s 2015 tech cluster brochure will have a significantly higher figure of total capital raised to boast of.
(Disclosure: The Open Innovations Forum invited Tech in Asia to attend the event, sponsoring flight and accommodation.)
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