The sky's the limit for entrepreneurs who want to use new technologies to solve the world's problems. Singapore start-up Astroscale is focusing on the problem of space debris. An astonishing 29,000 objects larger than 10cm in diameter are estimated to be currently orbiting the earth, posing a real risk of serious damage to satellites in the event of a collision. We talk to founder Nobu Okada, who has a finance background and who has worked for companies including McKinsey and Bain Capital before launching his own ambitious start-up. We ask about his fascination for space, and how he manages global research teams from his office in Singapore.
1. How did you and the founding team come up with the idea of developing active space debris removal technology and what inspired your passion for the field?
My passion comes from my days at NASA as a teenager. I got to meet Mr Mohri, a pioneering Japanese astronaut who gave me a note saying “the challenge of space awaits you.” From that moment, I kept studying hard to achieve my goal of being involved in the space industry and making a difference.
Before starting this company last year, I was still something of an outsider.
Until then, I would attend various space conferences as a member of the general audience to learn about the latest developments and meet the most powerful people in the industry. I am really lucky to have built great relationships with other private space-related companies and engineers through those conferences. Some of them are now my partners and colleagues and have helped in turning my hypothesis into an actual project. Before meeting the professionals I work with now, I had pretty much nothing, only a passion for space and probably enormous audacity.
2. What do you tell the doubters you encounter?
I take the negative opinions seriously only when people tell me in person. My company mostly does things that have never been done before, so it requires a lot of energy to convince others why the work is so relevant and worth the money and time we invest. Again, I am lucky to have a strong alliance of different professionals who support our company and our mission.
3. Why did you choose Singapore as your main location and is Astroscale receiving any government grants or funds?
I was living in Singapore before starting the company, but I also feel the country’s potential for “incubating” new ideas and young talent. We are a multi-cultural, multi-disciplined team and in that way we reflect Singapore too. In order to develop our complicated satellite system, we need to work closely with many engineers and researchers in other countries and being in Singapore allows us the necessary access and convenience.
4. When outsourcing R&D projects, how many teams from around the world do you work with and what incentives encourage them to develop technologies for Astroscale?
At the moment, we work very closely with a team in the US and one in Japan. Some teams work on the components and others help us with research and analysis. As for the incentives, each team provides us with a cost estimate, which I suppose is the same in most other businesses. We are very lucky to have linked up with good professionals, and when we propose a certain idea, they usually come up with really innovative solutions.
5. To keep developing, presumably Astroscale will need to work with government space programmes and organisations like the European Space Agency. Will that lead to more bureaucracy and affect the company’s culture?
I worked in a Japanese ministry after graduating from college, so I know how organisations like that works and what kind of issues they face every day. Astroscale has an advisory board with members from international organisations and space agencies, who provide support for international collaboration and policy-making. Although we are a private company, we try to maintain good relationships with various government sectors.
6. Why are your engineers expected to read the Japanese manga Planetes, which features stories on space debris removal?
Although it is a sci-fi manga, I always encourage my staff to have passion and a certain sense of playfulness. We are in this adventure together and passion for the job is what keeps us going.