From Space Engineer To Raising Millions And Building An IoT Network In Space
Flavia Tata Nardini
Tell us your background and about your startup
My name is Flavia and I am the CEO and co-founder of Fleet Space. I'm originally from Rome (a beautiful city) and I graduated in aerospace before becoming a space engineer.
I worked at the European Space Agency in The Netherlands and lived there for a while doing a lot of cool stuff, including small propulsion systems for nanosatellites (I love nanosatellites!) as well as larger propulsion systems.
Working there and participating in major space missions, I was having the time of my life as a young engineer and project manager. Whilst there, I met my husband and moved to Australia in 2014. At that time, Australia had just one space startup and didn't have a space agency.
It was really hard for me to find a job with my qualifications. A lot of space activity was in the military or in defence where I could not work. And I had 2 kids (they’re now 6 and 5) so I was a pretty qualified housewife which was an interesting experience.
But I just wanted to keep working so I met my co-founder, Matt Pearson, and we founded an educational startup prior to Fleet called Launchbox. At Launchbox, we were launching 3D printed nanosatellites into the stratosphere with schoolkids, which was pretty fun.
We launched many of them and this helped us have cash flow to travel around the world understanding even bigger problems as well as be big advocates of STEM. Launchbox is still sort of going but, since Fleet had its capital raise, it’s taken all of our time. So we had to put that to the side but still do events with students now and then.
In the last few years, a big change happened in Australia and there are a hundred space startups, a space agency based in Adelaide and probably $30 million AUD invested in the industry. With Launchbox, we fell in love with Internet of things (IoT) especially as it related to space.
So we founded Fleet to solve the massive IoT issue and how industries can connect their devices on a massive scale without 3G. We started this journey and got VC money here in Australia and the US a couple of years ago. Fleet has now launched four satellites, we have a good team around the world and are excited to keep moving!
How did the idea come about and what was it like getting started?
We knew at the time when we were running Launchbox that nanosatellites were disrupting several industrie, with Planet disrupting space observation and Pi disrupting AIS and weather. And I had worked with nanosatellites all my life so I knew their potential. But one thing is loving the technology and another is to understand what and who it's actually for.
Nanostatellites are low Earth orbit (LEO) and send a small amount of data. In communications, it’s quite a complex exercise. So when I was at Launchbox travelling around the world, we were speaking with a lot of customers and end users, going to conferences and trying to understand their problems. I didn’t really know about the Internet of things and this was around 2015.
I remember looking into many options and now, if I think about, it’s funny. I was at a conference about smart cities or something like that. Cisco and the other big guys were presenting about industrial IoT, new protocols coming out and the lack of 3G. They were talking about 70 billion devices coming online.
I remember standing up in the conference and asking a question around who is going to connect these sensors and how are they going to do this in the supply chain as it’s outside cities.
I don’t remember why I stood up asking this but I recall that there were 1,000 people and a panelist responded “someone will figure it out”. So, I thought, I'm going to be the one to figure it out!
That was probably the lightbulb moment where I realised that the world was going in that direction and some infrastructure was needed. I came back to my business partner Matt Pearson and remember sitting down and telling him “Hey, I think we got something because, to actually allow connectivity, industries really need a massive scale of sensors for small bits of data. There are a lot of protocols, I think we need to decode them.”.
He thought it was a good idea, so we spent a week looking into the nitty gritty of it! Then, I remember sitting on a couch and he told me had had come up with a name: Fleet.
We started building the specific technology that was needed, doing some testing, understanding what users needed and doing studies, raising angel investment and we moved from there. We spent the first year building the prototype of the tech and launching our first satellites but a lot of it was focused on the business side.
Specifically, most of my time is spent trying to understand the business model and tuning it. When we launched our four satellites, we booked four million sensors. So customers reserved four million sensors in our network within ten days. That was probably after three years of just tuning, just being in the nitty gritty of customers’ lives and understanding their needs. It's hard work talking with so many people and being there every time they did their first trials.
If I look at what we thought the technology was three years ago, it’s completely different to now. So we were not the kind of company that’s been after the technology, but we actually built the technology after years and years of being in the fields.
I’ve got a methodology that I’ve always used over the years which is sitting with people and asking them “Hey, what’s your problem”. I always tell everyone the first year of Fleet was mostly like that. Sitting down with end users and asking them “What is your problem in terms of connectivity? Do you know about Internet of things and are you trying to move to it?"
It was a lot like that. And a lot of coffees! People must've thought "What is she doing asking these questions?!". Even when we raised money, we were sitting with people and asking, again, “What do you want, what would you pay for and what is your price point?"
It took us a long time before we actually put a product on the market. It took us a lot of questions instead of sitting and thinking "We got this". And it turned out to be a good methodology! Very painful but good. I probably looked very stupid to a lot of people who thought that we had nothing but, when we actually built something, it was what people needed.
"On the Moon and Mars, the reality is that tracking and monitoring things is going to be a bigger issue than tracking people."
Why is the problem you are solving important?
Connectivity is just a solution to a bigger problem. If you look at every industry, connectivity is an enabler. Every industry is going through the fourth industrial revolution, which I think we're in the middle of. The reality is we're stuck in the way we do industry, the way we do agriculture and even environmental monitoring.
The big problem is efficiency. There are seven billion people in this world and so much food we have to produce and water we waste. I realised we lose 60% of our food in the supply chain and 60% of the water we have is wasted. If you look at these industries, nothing is automated, and because many of these industries are in the middle of nowhere with no connectivity, everything is pretty still, not automated and done by hands with pen and paper.
A lot of things are very unsafe to do and these methods don't give you insight in how to operate, which means you cannot improve efficiency. If you look at agriculture, the way they operate without being able to monitor anything, the water is wasted because of weather conditions or leakages. The food is wasted because you cannot control the process properly. Animals that travel are not properly tracked.
In every single case, the benefits are gigantic. I think that connectivity is the layer that takes humanity to the next step and lets us reach the next level. Given Internet of things, it will allow so much insight into everything we do. For customers, it's not an issue that started recently, it’s been going on for a long time! But the technology is now ready and can provide a service.
When we started with photons and computers, people’s minds could not grasp what we were doing with computers. Internet of things is going to be the same. First, we’re trying to solve the basic issues like people creating 3G and internet. Once that's done, the potential is huge and the impact will be incredible.
On the Moon and Mars, the reality is that tracking and monitoring things is going to be a bigger issue than tracking people. If you look at the exploration goals of the biggest space entrepreneur we have, they're going to move things to Mars before we have any people there.
So having the ability to control the process of managing robots, I would not be surprised if there's a fleet of nanosatellites around Mars continuously checking and monitoring. That’s how we’re going to colonise. We’re not going to colonise with people but with robots, otherwise it will be very unsafe.
What are some achievements you're proud of?
So last year, Fleet launched four satellites which was pretty exciting and we launched all of them in a short period of time. Two were launched on Electron by Rocket Lab, a launch company in New Zealand, which was super cool, as well as SpaceX's Falcon 9. It was pretty intense to launch four satellites for a small startup like us in the matter of just three weeks. I was very proud of that. The team worked really hard and they've built an amazing IoT around satellites.
What I’m also proud of is when we announced in a conference in January 2019 that our technology was open to reservations. We booked four million sensors! All the satellite companies put together don’t connect four million sensors.
It's very exciting. The vision of creating a solution that will connect a million things. It was a big vision and we waited a long time to see it happening, so we were super excited when that happened.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you've faced? How did you overcome them?
I don’t even remember if I did not have a challenge at some point! A startup is really hard work. When you have both a tech startup and a space startup, I think it’s next level.
At Fleet, we’re going to do a new round of investment so I’ve been flat out busy over the last few months for that. I didn’t even have a chance to stop and think recently about all of the challenges that we have overcome and did not overcome.
Just yesterday I was thinking that the only way to survive as a co-founder is to learn things very fast. In any new phase, when the company grows, when the company struggles and it’s out of your comfort zone, it could be expansion, marketing or you name it, whatever. The only way to survive is learning as fast as you can. But learning lessons is a challenge. When you’re a co-founder and the world goes very very fast, it’s hard to do that.
We always think to make it big or go home. We’re not just here to build a little company. We really want to make an impact, change the world and make some new technology. That’s hard because for a space startup, to make it real, you really have to get a lot of customers and do it properly. So it’s tricky, with a lot of challenges but I think I haven’t even scratched the surface of all of the challenges I’ve seen.
This is how I’d summarise a startup. In the first two years, you really need to know what to do and focus on. There are a lot of failures, one after the other, so you learn in a fast way. You fail constantly with the first product then the second and you fail again and again.
The problem with this process is, because you’re understanding what the market wants and failing and failing, a lot of people lose hope. Because you keep failing your team, your teammates, your customers, your investors. You are investigating, so you need to be clear with everyone around you that you’re going to keep failing and you’re going to get it wrong.
But when you hit the point when you understand what you’re doing, another big lesson learned for us was when you’ve solved the “what” part is the “who” part comes next. Who is going to do it for you and which team members are going to bring this company to the next level? I always say to Matt now, it’s not “what” anymore but it’s “who”. That’s the phase where you have to hire really great people.
Those are the two big lessons. Just digest that a lot of people will lose faith in you in the first year because they are just not used to it.
What are your next steps?
I think the next two years are going to be key for Fleet. We’re going to make it or break it. We’re capital raising now, we’re doing quite a strategic raise to put a few satellites in the sky. This is seriously where I want to start seeing big revenue and a lot of things have to come together for that to happen.
These few months will be an interesting journey for Fleet. So in the next four months, I need to hire for the “who is going to do it”. So we’re launching those satellites soon but I just really want to see customers happy and show everyone that the Internet of things is actually a thing.
What advice do you have for aspiring space entrepreneurs?
Don’t do it.
Just joking! The biggest advice I would give is, no matter what technologies you like, work on your customers for a few years so you can understand the problem. You need a lot of business intelligence to build a startup. If you think you don’t have it, then partner with someone because both of the tech and the business make it work.
Just technology on its own is not enough. Sometimes, I see co-founders going out of money, just four engineers building something is very tricky. I mean it’s tricky but it can happen for special teams. I always say to everyone “don't do it” but only the craziest will actually do it.
"We’re not just here to build a little company. We really want to make an impact, change the world and make some new technology."
What’s the best way for the public to support you in your mission?
At Fleet, we’ve got a lot of fans and have had for a long time, so sometimes we do events and it’s nice for people to help.
I would say create awareness about what space can change in people’s lives. So having the public actually understanding why we’re doing things is so important. Because space needs to be brought down to Earth and explained to everyone how it changes people’s lives. So I wish that all of the public will become more aware. Maybe sign up to the mailing list to understand what we do.
And keep supporting companies that do this high level tech because it’s super cool!
We also do have a few jobs so it will be great for people to take a look and come work for us. We’ll be putting out a few positions in the next few months.
Where can people find out more about you and follow along?
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