Technology

Ex-Nasa scientist shoots for the stars

Dr Bidushi Bhattacharya with a CubeSat, a palm-sized satellite which costs about $500 now. She wants to bring the cost down to about $150.
Dr Bidushi Bhattacharya with a CubeSat, a palm-sized satellite which costs about $500 now. She wants to bring the cost down to about $150.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Former Nasa scientist Bidushi Bhattacharya, 52, is on a quest to make outer space more accessible to a wider market. Annabeth Leow finds out more from the co-founder and chief executive of Bhattacharya Space Enterprises about her two big dreams - taking small satellites to the mass market, complete with a space-flight simulator, as well as building a start-up incubator for space technology in Singapore.

Q: What are you working on?

A: We're building the space-tech ecosystem through training and education, with the goal of building an incubator in three to five years.

I'll tell you about the project that's actually making the most money right now... We have a contract with the Singapore American School and with Swinburne University of Technology in Australia. The students design and build an experiment that goes up to the International Space Station... And with that money, we're actually able to pay for some of our rent here and small salaries for the people who work on the project.

Most of the money ends up going back for the actual rocket launch and the integrational tests, but that seems to be a solid line of funding right now. But we're on the commercial side. So that is a nice, consistent revenue stream for us and it's really cool because it's getting students involved.

Q: How do CubeSats - the palm-sized satellites that you use in your workshops - fit into your vision?

A: It used to be that you had to be a science or engineering nerd and you worked on huge, multibillion-dollar projects for some government. And now we're in a completely different paradigm, where you've got basically the democratisation of space, you've got affordable satellites so that anybody who can afford a car in Singapore can buy one of these. You can build it and launch it for a quarter of a million dollars.

We want to sell them. Part of what we're doing right now is scoping out how much it will cost to build them, because it's $500, $550 right now - we're hoping to get it down to about $150.

We're also thinking about what we can offer on an online platform that will serve educational institutions and people who have start-ups that want to see what one of these looks like. This is a camera, but you can replace that with any other kind of sensor, or you can put in different kinds of sensors... So we want to sell the cameras, we want to sell some software and we want to scale up to provide a space-flight simulator, like when you have your airplane simulators. We want to be able to provide people with the view from this camera as it is simulating a flight through space. That's the eventual goal.

AFFORDABLE SATELLITES

It used to be that you had to be a science or engineering nerd and you worked on huge, multibillion-dollar projects for some government. And now we're in a completely different paradigm, where you've got basically the democratisation of space, you've got affordable satellites so that anybody who can afford a car in Singapore can buy one of these. You can build it and launch it for a quarter of a million dollars...

 DR BIDUSHI BHATTACHARYA, on being in a new paradigm, which she terms as the democratisation of space.

Q: What have the investment and revenue been like?

A: We are revenue-driven right now. We started out bootstrapping. I'm not taking a salary yet and whatever we get from the workshops goes to these guys (on my team).

We do need, for the project to move to the space-flight simulator online, between $500,000 and $800,000 - depending on how quickly we take that to market. We need to hire some programmers for that. And eventually, for the incubator, we'll need a $10 million venture capital fund.

In the past 15 months, we've brought in about $190,000.

Q: Why did you decide to base your business in Singapore and India?

A: More than regional, I think it's global, because space is, like everything else, part of the global economy. In terms of what we're doing here... This is a very clean place to do business. You can basically set up as you need to and just get your work done. We're trying to bring experts in from the region in general and really focus on research and development here and then do production overseas.

India right now seems to be the best place (for manufacturing) and Bangalore is good because there's a huge legacy of space, because the Indian Space Agency's there and space is part of the national identity, it's part of the culture. So getting space-knowledgeable workers there is much easier than it is in a place like Singapore, because we're still growing (here).

But we're hoping that we can do the more standardised production there, because I think you can achieve a high degree of reliability and at low cost. And we can do the actual design and brainstorming here.

Q: What is the space-tech ecosystem like right now?

A: The big challenges right now, there are two of them. One of them is workforce. We're doing our meet-ups and we're doing all the other recruitment to bring people on board.

The other is going to be funding. They kind of go hand-in-hand, because until you have funding, until people perceive that there is a lot of opportunity here, they won't come on board.

But what we can do that they can't do in, say, Silicon Valley or southern California... or Europe, is that we can offer a huge highly skilled workforce in Asia. Nobody has really started tapping Asia for global space.

Certainly, (Tesla boss Elon Musk) needs to get to Mars by 2030. That's his goal. And to get there, he's going to need a lot of sub-system innovations and a lot of contributions that he can't develop in-house and in his own factories.

And that's where Asia comes in. He's going to need new sensors. He's going to need, possibly, propulsion systems... And we want to bring those kinds of companies into our incubator and have them acquired by the likes of Elon Musk.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2017, with the headline 'Ex-Nasa scientist shoots for the stars'. Print Edition | Subscribe