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How Oxford Space Systems Are Building Revolutionary Space Structures

Mike Lawton explains how he took his idea for "origami" style space structures and turned it into an award-winning startup with nearly 50 staff and £20 million in funding.
Mike Lawton
  • Focus
  • 🌍
  • Employees
  • 11-50
  • Country
  • Founded
  • 2013

Tell us your background and about your startup

I've got a pretty eclectic career, having worked for the BBC in a former life and actually run a small chain of bars. So, I've been in a whole range of actually different industries and careers.

But my professional qualification is in electronics and electrical engineering and I've always been a tech geek. I grew up on a diet of Star Wars and Star Trek and always wanted to work in a high-tech environment, plus have a lot of fun along the way.

I ended up working in high-end product development environments in consumer & commercial electronics and worked in the space industry before founding Oxford Space Systems (OSS).

At OSS, the tagline is we're working on a new generation of deployable antennas and structures for the new space age, i.e. structures that are essential to unlock the utility of a satellite. We’re an upstream company; we're exclusively focussed with making hardware that goes into space. So, we're doing the toughest part of the space industry, producing hardware rather than software; the latter tends to be a lot cheaper and quicker to commercialise. And of course, we want to do it in space, with all the joys and the pain that comes with it.

It's about a new generation of space hardware. And what sets us apart is the fact that our products are made from our own unique proprietary materials that we're developing in-house. So, we don't just have engineers on our team, we have material scientists developing novel materials for us to then turn into products.

How did the idea come about and what was it like getting started?

The idea came about from observing the trend in satellites getting smaller and smaller. I spotted the fact that companies were obsessed with optimising the bus size, or the main satellite itself. But the things that hang off the side of the satellite, like antennas and solar arrays, always seem to be the unloved and forgotten areas of space technology.

There was never a company around, in my opinion, at least, just really focusing on optimising or wanting to be the leaders in that niche area. And the laws of physics prevail in as much as, even if you make your satellite smaller, you still need to communicate with the Earth. Crunch the numbers and the math tells you that you need antennas of a certain size and if your satellite is getting smaller, then things like your antennas become even more critical, especially in the areas of cost and stowage efficiency.

If I could only ever use the same materials that have only ever flown before, and only hire the same type of talent that was already there, how would I ever differentiate OSS?

So, things like storage volume, their mass, and how they're going to survive in the space environment or a much smaller platform, all become absolutely critical. And therefore, that was the opportunity I spotted. If I can work on a new generation of deployables, specifically optimising things like storage efficiency and their ability to be made in volume (to address the so-called ‘mega constellations’), then that's probably my niche because I can't see somebody else out there doing that.

The next part of the problem is, how am I going to do that? This is where I thought we're going to need some pretty smart and novel materials, otherwise we'll only ever be a ‘me-too’ company. If I could only ever use the same materials that have only ever flown before, and only hire the same type of talent that was typical to the industry, how would I ever differentiate OSS? So, the key was to develop our own novel materials to unlock some unique capabilities.

I was actually working at another space business called ABSL Space Products and they specialised in making space batteries. I was hired as an entrepreneur-in-residence, that was a neat position to be in. I was tasked with coming up with a new idea to help grow their business. So, I actually hit on the potential for deployables whilst at ABSL.

Just when we were getting going and just as I was pulling together a nascent team, ABSL was acquired by a very large American company. It was bought by another battery company, and you didn't need an MBA from Harvard to work out that one battery company, buying another battery company probably isn't interested in deployable structures in space.

So, I managed to engineer my exit and take the IP that was of no interest to a battery business and a couple of the core team with me. It was a great outcome: I had freedom to operate and explore my ideas.

So, it's our technology that's essentially powering and unlocking the potential of that new generation of space hardware that's going to provide this new generation of services. This benefits those of us living on the surface of the Earth.

After realising there was potential and seizing the opportunity to exit this company being acquired, I then had a kind of pre-packed business with an idea and a small team, and that's what I took to the investment community.

How did you fund the company initially?

I knocked on a lot of investors' doors. I wasn't desperate to go earn a wage as I didn't need to earn money at that point in time. So, I took the idea around the investment community, seeing if I could get some traction.

And the two guys, who I call my co-founders, actually stayed on in employment at ABSL whilst I sought to secure our seed investment. They agreed to work on a long notice period and told me "Mike go and convince the investment community, if you secure funding then we'll terminate our jobs and come and join you".

So, I was essentially on my own for month or two, trying to convince investors in the potential of OSS. I got lucky, which meant I could then tell the guys: Juan Reveles who's now OSS CTO and Vincent Fraux who's Head of Design, "Look guys, I've got enough money to pay us for a year.".

From first meeting with Longwall Venture to getting a £600,000 seed in the bank, took just under eight weeks. This money enabled us to hire our first employees. So, we had a core team of around about five guys within a couple of months, which enabled us to move into our first premises at Harwell Space Cluster. It also enabled us to start our first materials development. So, we started a very long journey of working on our first concepts and first materials in early 2014.

Bringing the investment story up to date, we’ve completed a couple of subsequent rounds which brought on board other VCs and a ‘long tail’ of high net worth individuals. Total external investment is just under £20 million, being a mix of equity funding and grants from the UK Government and ESA.

What is the problem you're solving and why is it important?

The problem we're solving is unlocking the utility of small satellites. So, as I said earlier, the smaller the spacecraft, the bigger the challenge for things like deployable structures. They generate challenges with stowage efficiency, mass and cost; our unique antennas and structures allow us to fully unlock the utility of much smaller spacecraft.

In terms of helping humanity and society, it's clear that we need to develop and deliver the next range of spaceborne services, e.g. Earth observation. This can help us track things like weather patterns, soil erosion, transportation, illegal land use and illegal fishing. These are things that you can do much, much better, from orbit. All those services need a new generation of highly cost competitive satellites to provide high re-visit times. So, it's our technology that's essentially unlocking the potential of a new generation of satellites that's going to provide this new generation of beneficial services.

You can also imagine if you are building a spacecraft to go and explore other planets, it's highly likely that, that configuration will take some form of orbiting spacecraft, with a probe being sent to the surface of the planet, before any human would follow. This is what we're currently doing with Mars. We sent a lot of robotic rovers, a lot of autonomous systems to first map out and make sure it's safe for humans to follow. Deployable antennas and structures are critical pieces of hardware that underpin this activity.

In the case of a probe exploring the planets, with our boom material, we can extend that with very long boom systems so it can allow the rover to potentially reach locations it can't currently reach.

And if you've seen any rover that's ever been to the Moon or Mars, they always have some form of deployable antenna and it's normally a parabolic dish. It’s all about size, weight and efficiency. The sort of deployable antennas OSS is working on could give a new generation of planetary explorers higher quality communications.

In the case of a probe exploring the planets, our novel AstroTube™ material enables very long extendible booms, allowing a rover to potentially reach locations it can't currently reach. We can embed various sensors inside our composite AstroTube material which allows the deployment of a sensor rich measurement system. So, if you wanted to measure magnetic fields at various radii from the rover, or perhaps moisture levels, ambient light levels or radiation levels, those sensors can be built along the complete length of our AstroTube Boom.

So, really, we're just limited by the imagination of science teams and the particular technical challenge they need to overcome in what we can do with the sort of technologies we're developing.

What are some achievements you're proud of?

The first big achievement was a successful formulation of what we call a high strain composite - our Astrotube™. The idea is the formulation of carbon fiber such that it could be incredibly flexible to the point that you can roll it up on itself, like a builder's tape measure. Getting the formulation correct was the first big breakthrough, But we realized that we needed to move incredibly quickly because we were burning through our investment capital, so we only had a certain length of the runway.

To formulate the material quickly to appoint we were confident we could fly it on orbit, we needed non-standard thinking. If we went to (say) NASA od the European Space Agency (ESA), they would probably tell us to engage with their composite experts and, five years later, we’d probably still be evaluating initial formulations, i.e. still working at a low maturity level. It's just the pace at which traditional space tends to move.

The breakthrough was thinking laterally, "who does really smart things with carbon fiber and quickly?" So we ended up working with a Formula 1 composite house. We said that we wanted to formulate a proprietary formulation of carbon fiber and asked if they’d be interested in working with us. They were really excited, “great, we can work in space, this is going to be really cool”.  These guys could work at an incredible pace, literally turning around an iteration in 48 hours! For us, it was a phenomenal pace of development because they said to us, “Look, if a customer crashes a car on a Friday, we’ve got to have a new canopy ready for Monday morning. We know how to make carbon fiber quickly, therefore we can iterate formulations very quickly."

So, within the course of about three months, we'd worked through about 40 iterations to get to a formulation that we believed was working, and it’s now the formulation we ended up flying. We set a world record; going from company formation to formulating this new material – our AstroTube™ - then demonstrating it successfully on orbit in less than 30 months.  In reality we had little choice but to move this fast. We were going to run out of money, we had to demonstrate to the VC community that we could do space a lot faster than it had even been done before. Therefore, it was incredibly high risk but a high return that came good.

You can imagine the European Space Agency, that's never the way they would turn that product, and fly it. Maybe, in 10 years’ time, it would have been signed off as, "okay, you can now design a proper product from this.". But we had no choice. We were going to run out of money, we had to demonstrate to the VC community that we could do this a lot faster than it had even been done before. Therefore, it was incredibly high risk but a high return.

We set a world record, with company formation to formulating this new material, then demonstrating it on orbit - we did all that in less than 30 months.

I'm interested in volume, the idea of productising the building satellites and structures in the same way we can volume equally complex products such as cars.  The new space age means satellites in low Earth orbit are going to last for a relatively short period of time. And there's no one's life depending on this hardware: I don't have astronauts’ lives depending on my technology. Space technology has to be developed in a new, highly commercially focussed way. We need a new mindset.

Whereas ESA and NASA are often hamstrung with the old mindset, where ‘failure is not an option’ and, if it does go wrong, you could kill somebody. That's not what space is now. With a satellite costing less than the price of a family car in some cases, all those restrictions, all those quality procedures, all that documentation - you really don't need that anymore. It's about finding that right mindset, not just to understand space engineering, but understand where you can intelligently cut corners. That's the trick.

My next proudest achievement is actually directly related to our record time to orbit with our first boom. Even before we demonstrated it on orbit, Airbus Defense & Space bought a replica of our AstroTube boom to shoot on orbit with a ‘space harpoon’ on the RemoveDEBRIS satellite. We were gob-smacked when Airbus wanted to know what would happen if they shot our boom on orbit!  We said, "guys, what are you talking about?". It tuned out that they wanted to deploy a target using our boom then shoot a harpoon through the target that the boom deployed into line of sight of the harpoon gun. The idea was to demonstrate UK space debris removal technologies.

Our AstroTube boom had never been designed to be shot at and we didn’t know whether it was going to survive 10 months of on orbit storage before operation or even deploy without bending. There was no higher risk way of evaluating our boom in reality. Airbus purchased a boom that had never been designed to operate in this way - but it worked!

We’ve got a great video of the boom deploying beautifully and putting the target exactly where we needed it to be. Then there’s a dramatic video of a harpoon being shot through the target (see resources at the end), and it actually snaps the tip of the boom off, but Airbus – and OSS – considered this a really successful mission because the target is penetrated by the harpoon close to the bulls-eye.

We got a great high definition video we can share: it was a great inflection point in our credibility. We were approached by several potential investors saying we were doing something really interesting and they wanted to invest in us. RemoveDebris was a great high for me and the team.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you've faced? How did you overcome them?

Developing hardware for space is expensive. Investment money is there and I can go and raise more, but every time I do that, it dilutes the shares of the people in the business. So, our challenge is maturing the technology and getting to positive revenues, before we effectively run out of equity. The business is unlikely to run out of money, because I know we could raise more but, for me, it's more personal. We’d be running out of equity before we run out of ‘runway’.

We're also working on large deployable antennas up to 12 meters in diameter - these are huge antennas. A press release came out from the UK Ministry of Defence saying that it had awarded Oxford Space Systems the largest ever contract for a first time supplier to develop a specific type of antenna called a wrapped-rib antenna. They gave us the challenge of getting this antenna in orbit in less than 24 months. If we achieve that then that will be another record - but that's a phenomenal challenge.

So, in terms of what challenges we're facing, it's maturing our technology against really aggressive time frames. The UK MoD is a live contract which has some significant technical and scheduled challenges. We know we can solve the technical problems eventually, but can we do it fast enough and with the budget that’s been awarded?   We've already demonstrated a basic prototype which profiles the key principles. The challenge now is to ensure that we can build upon this, and that it will survive the space environment. Getting anything through formal qualification is tough.  You're subjecting your product to thermal vacuum cycling and vibration testing. And of course, the big challenge of any material that has stored energy is, if it's stored for any length of time, especially on orbit, will it still release and behave in the way that it behaves on Earth? That's the big challenge and often impossible to fully verify down here on Earth.

I think the biggest business challenge example is raising that first seed investment, getting that first investor to believe in you. That is always the biggest challenge and it tends to follow a herd instinct. Once one credible investor is on board you’re off. They tend to hunt in packs and there's normally a bit of a stampede for second place! But the challenge is always getting that first investor to part with their cash.

My advice to anybody looking for money is always start with what seems like a small amount to go and raise. If your business plan says you need $50 million or $20 million, no one is going to write that size of check for a completely unknown team with no track record. It just doesn't – or very rarely - happens. You need to break your plan down and your ambition into small tangible steps. If you can show that you can achieve something credible, some tangible inflexion point, in the next six to nine months and you can achieve that for less than a million dollars, then you’ll have the ear of the investment community.

If you can show in your business plan that you can achieve something in the next six to nine months and you can achieve that for less than a million dollars, then you stand a really high chance of unlocking that first seed investment.

The amount of businesses and entrepreneurs I see struggling and it all comes back to the same thing when I talked to them and look at their business plans. They've convinced themselves they can't get out of bed for less than $10 million and they can't show their investors anything for three years. No investor is going to have that level of faith in you if they don't know you and you have no track record to leverage.

So break it down, give them something in six months that you can point at and show that you know what you’re doing. Once you establish credibility, then raising or unlocking the much larger amounts becomes a lot easier. You’ll stand a really high chance of unlocking that first seed investment if you’re more realistic in the eyes of an investor than if you asked for $20m and saying you’ll have nothing to show for 3 years.

What are your next steps?

We're currently chasing a significant antenna contract in Asia that, if we secure that deal, it means we would have displaced some of the very large incumbents in the industry who have convinced themselves there's no way OSS is credible enough to win this type of contract yet. Should we win, we will be certainly giving some very well-known names in our industry a bit of a bloody nose!

I flew a few of the team over to Asia last week to look the potential client in the eye and convince them that OSS knows what its doing, we can develop the antenna technology they need. Sure, we don't yet have a fantastic heritage but we're the team that can develop the antenna needed, within budget and schedule – we’re better than their next best option. And the reports back were from the end customer, and I quote, "you've convinced us technically, now come back with a detailed, costed schedule that we can sign up to".

Be absolutely convinced that this is what you wanted to do. This is not something you do on a whim.

I'm too long enough in the tooth to know that until it's signed, there’s no deal. So, at the moment it's looking good but until it's signed, you don't have a deal. Within the next 10 to 12 weeks, I'd be disappointed if we're not able to get a press release out on this deal or something of equal magnitude. That's my target.

What advice do you have for aspiring space entrepreneurs?

Be absolutely convinced that this is what you wanted to do. This is not something you do on a whim. And if you're competing other ideas in your head, you need to be absolutely convinced this is where your passion lies, because you're going to live and breathe this for the next 7,10, 12 years of your life. I get friends and even my wife saying, "you do far too many hours, you know - you're crazy", but it doesn't feel like work to me. It doesn't, it's a real buzz, a real high. That's kind of an unwritten cardinal rule: be absolutely convinced this is what you want to do because an investor will sense that you’re not passionate about your idea.

What’s the best way for the public to support you in your mission?

By following us on Twitter and retweeting, following us on LinkedIn and, sharing our content. I think the space industry is one of the unsung hero sectors. And I really do believe that most people just don't realise just how dependent their lives are on space technology. Anybody who watches the news or a weather forecast, uses the internet or GPS: all this uses space technology.

Our modern lives would be completely different and much less rich, if there wasn't any space technology. But the space industry has been, I think, pretty poor at promoting how it supports and enables modern society. People can really help the industry - and help OSS - by sharing content we put out about our technology & activities. Just sharing really helps raise the profile of this fantastic global industry.

As space becomes more commercial, and less the domain of large entities like NASA and nation states, the more the public I think will become aware. SpaceX is a great example of capturing the public's interest and imagination. We need more Space X’s – hopefully OSS in the course to be that UK name.

I also feel it's part of my job, and others like me in the industry, to make people aware of the fantastic employment opportunities in our sector. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to work in the space industry! We need people in finance, we need project managers, we need people in human resources. We need every range of skills that every terrestrial business needs as well.

The industry is growing as fast as it’s hamstrung by access to talent: one of my biggest barriers to growing OSS is getting hold of the right type of talent.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to work in the space industry. We need people in finance, we need project managers, we need people in human resources. We need every range of skills that every terrestrial business needs as well.

People who want to get into the space industry may work in a sector that they think is completely irrelevant - that's not true. Look for transferable skills: what can you bring to the table? I'm actually slightly biased against just hiring purely space people. Invariably, where we currently are with the industry, they will probably be coming from some of the large incumbents, the Boings or Airbuses of the world. They'll probably come with what I call the ‘old space’ mindset, the idea that its OK for things to take 10 years to develop and have a really risk adverse, highly linear approach approach.

Bringing in people that are from outside the industry with the skillset of working in a fast-paced technically demanding environment: that's something really valuable to the space industry. We need people to teach us how to do things faster. People may think they don't have a relevant skillset, but chances are there’s probably something in your skillset that could be incredibly valuable to the new space industry.

Where can people find out more about you and follow along?

You can read more about OSS on our website.

Here are links to some of the things I've mentioned:

OSS AstroTube Boom being shot at on orbit by Airbus Defense & Space harpoon on RemoveDebris mission: https://vimeo.com/320156810  (extended video)

Mission details on the BBC here: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-47252304

Largest ever first time supplier contract award from the MoD for our wrapped-rib antenna: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-47030052

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