Startups Fuel Aussie Space Race Ambitions

This week's announcement that South Korean company Perigee Aerospace will launch satellites from a new remote facility in the South Australian outback was a big win for the state's ambition to be the center of the developing Australian space industry.

Under the deal, Perigee has signed a Launch Facilities Agreement with local company Southern Launch, which is developing a remote site called Whaler's Way on the Eyre Peninsula.

The Perigee story is not a standalone announcement. It is also not merely confined to Australia's newly rediscovered commitment to the space industry, with ambitions to tripling its size to USD 8.1 trillion by 2030.

Beyond this, the bigger story is about South Australia's ambitions to be more than a center for space and defense industries. It also wants to be a significant startup hub for companies with products which have much broader application than space.

E.T. or Existential Threat

For a remote location at the bottom of the world, the high-tech ambitions are a response to an existential threat.

On the one hand, South Australia would love to be Australia’s next Silicon Valley. But if it fails, it will become another rust bucket destination with a declining population and a sinking economy.

It was a center for the automotive industry until manufacturing ceased earlier this decade. Before the space industry arrived, the major pivot was towards defense, as the Australian Navy’s new AUD 50 billion submarine building program is centered at Port Adelaide.

The state also had a historic place in the space industry as the Woomera facility in the far north was used by the U.K. and the U.S. for missile tests and rocket launches in the 1960s and 1970s. This was one of the reasons it was chosen as the center for the new Australian Space Agency last year.

Space Wars Go Statewide

South Australia faces competition from Queensland and the Northern Territory, which also have plans for launch facilities and their own space industries. Still, the early signs are that South Australia – and its state capital in Adelaide – are winning the race to create a bona fide high-tech cluster combining industry with academic research.

An old hospital site in the city center – right next to the University of Adelaide -  is being repurposed into a startup hub called the Defence and Space Landing Pad. So far, the roll call is quite impressive.

U.S. company Tyvak, for example, has announced it will set up a manufacturing facility for the integration and testing of space vehicles.

Tyvak is one of 70 companies which has been attracted to the cluster. And they are not all strictly about space either.

Aerometrex, for example, is a mapping service using imagery from satellite and aerial sources, whose work has multiple applications. Greenhouse Gas Monitor Australia is developing space and terrestrial technology to detect trace gases.

Myriota is an Internet of Things communication service provider, while Nodesat is a data aggregator and interpreter.

Some companies are partnering up with larger and well-known corporates. They are also moving toward the commercialization of their Intellectual Property. 

Major Players Jump In

In July, major defense and security company Thales joined forces with Micro-X. The latter is combining carbon nanotubes with artificial intelligence to develop new X-ray equipment. If fully developed and applied, airport passengers will no longer have to queue up for security checks, saving airports space and money.

The space cluster is attracting other startups. One of the leading startup hubs in Australia is called Stone & Chalk, and it was established in Sydney in 2015 and has now spread to a second hub in Melbourne.

In June, Stone & Chalk announced it would expand to a new hub in Adelaide, also on the Lot Fourteen site at the old hospital.

The idea is that the Adelaide hub will be a connector for startups seeking investors, academic experts, researchers, and expertise.

Adelaide Has an Edge

So far, Adelaide seems to be doing things right as it seeks to reinvent itself. Of course, there is another element beyond startups, and that is inspiring young people.

Australia is desperately trying to increase the percentage of young people studying Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics, the so-called ‘STEM’ subjects. It is becoming a competitive differentiator as the country struggles to keep up with societies such as Singapore where such education is prioritized.

National Science Week in Australia this year had a focus on the 1969 Moon Landing. It looked not only back to what had happened in the past, but also to what might be possible in the future.

Science teachers all report that the idea of space is a significant inspiration for young children and teenagers. This can be channeled into STEM learning and an interest in critical 21st-century skills such as coding.

This is the much bigger game that South Australia is playing as it shoots for a long-term future. A vibrant space industry will attract a critical mass of high-tech sectors and inspire the participation of the next generation.

South Australia has had a successful launch, and the hope is that the state is on track for a successful landing.