Working in the university sector, I meet incredible people and discover mind-blowing work going on behind closed doors. And this is how I met Troy. Searching for content for an alumni magazine, I came across a group of students, (led by Troy) working to strengthen the Australian aerospace sector. Knowing little about the space industry, I found his deep knowledge and unwavering passion for the sector intriguing. When I learnt of Troy’s new project, I was excited to hear more and we happened to cross paths in New York. Learning how ingrained space is in our day to day lives over beers under the Brooklyn Bridge was nothing short of surreal. And since our chat, Troy has started to raise a significant space venture fund and will be launching his Gemini program in more than 15 cities next month. This project is one to keep an eye on!
“When I was about seven years old my grandmother bought me a little telescope. I remember looking at the moon and seeing all the craters on its surface. It was no longer this thing floating high above me, it was suddenly very real. My world became much bigger and I was interested in space from that moment.
Living in Australia, where we didn’t have a space agency until this year, I never had dreams of becoming an astronaut. I studied astronomy as an elective during my engineering degree but I never imagined it could go anywhere.
Then in 2014, I got together with a group of 20 electrical engineering students at Melbourne University with the ambition of building and launching CubeSats –miniature satellites that use mobile phone technology. We drew some inspiration from a team of five students who built Australia’s first satellite in 1966 – Australis OSCAR 5!
The biggest complication was Space Law, which sounds like something out of Star Wars, but is actually a stipulation that to launch anything into space, you need to be covered for $750 million worth of damage. This is a much higher barrier to entry than many other countries.
Because we were dealing with Space Law, we got a team of law students involved and we continued to grow from there. We had teams studying to be teachers who would engage students at local schools. We had marketing students working on our promotional materials. Students from all over the university were coming together.
In August of 2016, we ran a Final Frontier Festival – five days of hackathons, school programs, guest speakers and collaborations. After the festival, I decided to move on from the Melbourne Space Program to focus on getting more people interested in the space industry more broadly.
Space isn’t just about rockets and satellites. Space technology underpins all of our major economic sectors and exists in every pillar of society – not just aerospace, but agriculture, mining, defense, education and logistics. I want to challenge the notion that there is a barrier between us and space. I want people to see that it’s all around us and ranges from Pokemon Go to GPS navigation.
My first break came when I won a scholarship to speak at the Creative Innovation Conference. I was given one minute to pitch my vision for space in Australia. This was the catalyst for putting a framework around all of the ideas I’d been having and it is how MoonshotX was born.
There are around 40 space startups around the country and all of the components for a space ecosystem. But, none of these components are talking to each other which is problem number one. Problem number two is that there are no mechanisms for these startups to mature.
So, MoonshotX is all about providing some structure and giving these startups the connections, knowledge and skills they need to be successful.
As a first step, I approached the central organisers of the Space Apps Challenge in New York City, a global hackathon run by NASA each year. Unfortunately, what often happens during these hackathons is that people solve an issue, they pitch their solution but then put it on the shelf, never to be seen again. I proposed that MoonshotX would support any teams in Australia who had a viable business model and wanted to explore their idea after the hackathon. The Space Apps organisers loved this and we ended up with 24 participants around the country. That was the start of MoonshotX’s Gemini Space Entrepreneurship Incubator.
I put together 12 sessions for these startups and we recently finished with the first cohort. It’s all about getting diversity in the space industry. For example, a couple from Hungary who were travelling around the Australian outback and stumbled across Space Apps, ended up getting into our program. They participated from the back of their van in the middle of the desert, visiting remote towns and gauging whether they could address any local issues with their satellites. This is what we’re all about!
We’re now looking to scale up the Gemini program and expand it to other countries. We have 15 cities onboard for the next round. If we can build a global community that provides people with access to connections, mentors, technology and services then we can accelerate the entire industry as opposed to individual companies. It’s all about getting people from different backgrounds and locations to collide with their ideas. I’m in New York at the moment on a road show, “It’s not Rocket Science,” running info sessions and establishing my main points of contact globally.
We’re gaining some great traction with international contacts. For example, last year I attended Mars: The Live Experience where Buzz Aldrin (my hero) was speaking. I had the opportunity to go to a VIP function beforehand where I wound up in an elevator with him, telling my story — giving a literal elevator pitch to an Apollo 11 astronaut! Incredibly, he ended up introducing me to his son who has a very similar vision for the space industry. So, Andy Aldrin is now our main contact in Florida.
We’ve got 35-40 people in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Canada and the States who are working with us in some capacity. It’s a pretty powerful network and we’re hoping that by next year we will have grown to engage 45 cities around the world.
The space industry is going through such a massive shift and Australia has been proving our capability to the world. We were at the forefront of the initial space race with two satellite launches before the end of 1970 (one by a group of students). We did a lot of early research for the European Space Agency at the Woomera Range Complex in South Australia. We’ve got some of the best mining companies here in the world so space mining is a natural progression and we’ve just announced plans for an Australian space agency. We have such an impressive space history and we have the capacity to move forward as a leader.
A lot of people, particularly my mother, don’t understand why I studied engineering for so long. I still consider myself an engineer at heart. I like to solve complex issues. While I could have started my own space startup to solve a specific problem, I’m interested in addressing the barriers to the space industry in this country first. If I can help remove some of these barriers, get 1000 startups adding value in different areas, then I’d be pretty happy with my contribution to the industry!”