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September 25, 2013

Danish entrepreneurs unleash a new age of open source space exploration

When one thinks of space exploration, most people think of NASA, Boeing or the space tourism ventures of ultra-rich mavericks like Richard Branson and Elon Musk. Branson is on the verge of sending 600 wealthy tourists into space for three hours for $200,000 a seat. Musk figures he can best Branson by offering a return trip to Mars for half a million. The founder of Tesla Motors and PayPal would ultimately like to establish the first human colony on the red planet and envisions up to 80,000 people living there in his lifetime.

Rocket LaunchOver in Copenhagen, Kristian von Bengston and Peter Madsen are taking a different route to space: building suborbital space vehicles with the intention of offering manned spaced flights using micro-sized spacecraft. Unlike other entrants in the space race, Copenhagen Suborbitals is open source and non-profit, a positioning that the founders adopted to attract as much talent to the project as possible. Working out of a 300 square metre workshop in an abandoned, yet historic shipyard, the team has so far completed three iterations of its spacecraft design, 45 engine tests, and five rocket launches—all with the aide of a brigade of volunteer space entrepreneurs and hundreds of thousands in financing crowdsourced from over two thousand supporters. Seven hundred of these supporters have pledged $20 per month in continuous funding in exchange for an opportunity to engage with the project and its founders.

2013 has been a productive year for the DIY space exploration outfit. It designed, built and tested its own space suit in collaboration with partners in the US. It finalized the designs for its manned spacecraft, the HEAT 1600, which you can download for free from their website. And in June, the team made another big leap forward with the successful launch of its Sapphire hybrid rocket in the Baltic Sea, which demonstrated the efficacy of its guidance system for the first time. Bengston, Madsen and company will repeat the test next summer with a bigger rocket that will travel 100km into space.

Sure, Copenhagen Suborbitals’ spending may be small change in an industry where Branson is investing $100 million to get his space tourism company Virgin Galactic off the ground. But crowdfunded space ventures such as Copenhagen Suborbitals prove that space exploration is no longer the exclusive domain of deep-pocketed governments and billionaire private investors. Indeed, the new entrants into the space race aren’t anything like the incumbents of past decades. Lean, entrepreneurial and more open to public engagement, with a proclivity to rapidly prototype and test their hypotheses to avoid billion dollar boondoggles down the road. While lacking in generous government grants or formal academic affiliations, they have deep technical smarts and the ability to mobilize a large crowd of enthusiasts around the notion that distributed innovation and small-scale enterprise are part of the new ecosystem that will help launch humanity into unchartered frontiers.

In a forthcoming report, the DEEP Centre will explain how the emerging age of entrepreneurial space exploration highlights a fundamental and lasting transformation currently underway in the global economy—one that has heightened both the importance of entrepreneurship and the role technology plays in driving in job creation, innovation and prosperity. Whether searching for capital to fund an expansion or sourcing low-cost manufacturing options, virtually every aspect of starting and running a company has changed beyond recognition in recent years.[i] Gone are the days when entrepreneurs had to painstakingly build-up their business infrastructure from scratch. With the aid of Internet-based business platforms, SMEs can now go global from day one, reaching overseas markets and talent pools with a few clicks. Modern collaboration technologies not only put a much larger and more diverse talent pool within reach of any entrepreneur starting or scaling a business; they allow talented individuals to work together in a seamless, global operation, despite being separated by time zones and geography. Savvy business owners can even manufacture and distribute entirely new product lines without having to own a physical plant or manage inventory. Thanks to contract manufacturing in China and affordable 3D printing, virtual micro-factories now make everything from bike components to bespoke furniture in any design you can imagine.

Two main implications follow from these recent developments– implications that go well beyond the realm of space exploration. The first is that economic might and size are no longer tightly correlated. Indeed, you no longer need to be a large organization with thousands of people on your payroll to design, develop and market excellent products and services on a global basis. The corollary is that being small is no longer a liability – it’s an asset, especially when you consider the fact that large companies are typically weighed down by bureaucracy, legacy costs, and dysfunctional hierarchies.

Put simply, modern communications technologies, and the cutting-edge business practices they engender, are radically reshaping the economic landscape, enabling a new breed of global enterprises that are leaner, more agile, and more capable of exporting their products and services across borders in a way that changes the rules of competition and competitive advantage. These globe trotting ‘micro-multinationals’ are important new engines of prosperity, innovation and job creation. Over time, they will profoundly alter the nature of work, the shape of organizations and even the geography of innovation. Perhaps most importantly, they offer a novel and very promising way out of the current global economic malaise by empowering individuals to turn their ideas into entrepreneurial businesses that will be the cornerstone of employment and our economy in the 21st Century.

[i] Ann Mettler and Anthony D. Williams, The Rise of the Micro-Multinational: How Freelancers and Technology-Savvy Start-Ups Are Driving Growth, Jobs and Innovation (Brussels: Lisbon Council, 2011).

[ii] Google, The Decisive Decade. How the Acceleration of Ideas Will Transform the Workplace by 2020 (Mountain View: Google, 2010).

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