Interview: Gilmour Space Technologies

The Gilmour Space Technologies Singapore team. Image courtesy of Gilmour Space Technologies.

Gilmour Space Technologies is a space startup headquartered in Queensland, Australia, with a subsidiary in Singapore. Founded in 2012, the company aims to provide low-cost access to space by developing a sounding rocket, Ariel, and an orbital launch vehicle, Eris. Both will be powered by their proprietary hybrid rocket engine and 3D-printed fuel. Gilmour Space is also developing an in-space CubeSat propulsion system for deep space missions based on the same technology.

SpaceTech Asia speaks with CEO and CTO Adam Gilmour, and Director and Head of Marketing & Communications Michelle Gilmour, in an exclusive interview in Singapore.

What are you currently working on?

Adam: We’re building our orbital rocket, which will be able to take almost 400kg to Low

Adam & Michelle Gilmour.

Earth Orbit (LEO); and this will probably cost us about $30 million to develop. To that end, we’re trying to do what SpaceX did with the Falcon 1 in terms of cost for payload. 

The other commercial thing we’re looking at is sounding rockets, which we’re starting to see more interest in from quite a few different players, including defence, scientific and commercial companies that want to test assets in space cheaply. It’s about 50% cheaper to do testing in sounding rockets than it is test it into orbit.

Michelle: We’re also continually improving on the 3D-printed fuel that we use, which is our proprietary propulsion. That’s something that we’re working on in Singapore.

When will your first launch take place?

Adam: For our orbital rocket, we’re telling people it’s going to be 2020, which is maybe on the conservative side.

Michelle: For our sounding rockets, we plan to start launching at the end of next year.

Adam: That said, we’re not going to accept bookings until we’ve done our next major engine test in a couple months, because that will be the engine we’ll use for our sounding rockets and also for our orbital vehicle. So we’ll probably start taking bookings in the first half of next year and monetizing it by the end of next year.

Where will your launch site be?

The factory in Australia. Image courtesy of Gilmour Space Technologies.

Adam: In Australia. We’re struggling with it right now because of the regulations and approvals needed. We’ve got a mobile launch tower, so we don’t need any infrastructure. But we still need permission. In addition to Australia, we’ve also started a process with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), to go through a launch approval process over there in America.

What are some of your activities in Singapore and Australia?

Adam: In Singapore, we’ve mainly been working on longer-dated R&D, and looking at the technologies we need 2 or 3 years out. Australia’s more like, “I need to get a rocket out in 6 months, let’s get it done now; go, go, go.” One of the technologies we developed here in Singapore was to 3D print our rocket fuel. That gave us a lot of traction in the industry.

The Gilmour Space Technologies Australia team. Image courtesy of Gilmour Space Technologies.

How has your company grown since you started?

Adam: We started our rocket company with 3 guys – a mechanical engineer, a chemical engineer, and an electrical engineer, and together they built our first rocket – with a couple of extra hands for the launch. That’s when I knew I could get a lot done with a small team. And then the next thing was trying to encourage industry veterans to come in. That was harder because they wanted some assurance that their work would continue. But we’ve been pretty successful lately in doing that.

We’ve hired our Chief Engineer in Australia from the US, who’s got almost 40 years of experience working on practically every rocket built in the US except the Falcon 9.

So he’s worked on Titan, Atlas, Antares for Orbital ATK, and the solid rocket boosters on the Space Shuttle. We’ve hired another guy as our Head of Operations, with 5 years at the European Space Agency (ESA) and 5 years as Head of Testing at a major European space company. We’ve also hired a propulsion engineer from the US who wanted to work for SpaceX but came to us instead. And we’re hiring a propulsion engineer in Singapore who had interned at SpaceX, Northrop Grumman and a couple of others. So we’ve got some deep talent coming into the company.

How was the process of raising funds, and will you be looking for more?

Michelle: I think we’re lucky because we came in at the right time. There were people like us before, but there just wasn’t that critical mass. Now there’re Venture Capitalists (VCs) in Asia Pac that are starting to get interested in space, and there’s a growing number of startups to invest in. Once you see all this, it’s like “Okay, this is really a viable space industry”.

We got an additive manufacturing grant from National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Cluster (NAMIC) [in Singapore] for our composite 3D printing technology. We got funding from a VC (Blackbird Ventures), who also funded another Australian space company, Fleet in Australia. And the Queensland state government there gave us a small grant as well.

Adam: We will probably be trying to raise our next round of funding next year. I’m going to go to Silicon Valley in November after our big engine test, to see what the interest is like. We’ll be looking for about $20 million in this next round.

The factory in Australia. Image courtesy of Gilmour Space Technologies.

What are your other plans?

Adam: We believe we can send stuff into space so cheap sub-orbitally that we can actually verify our own components in space.

We’re mainly focused on our rockets at the moment, but we have also developed a CubeSat rocket motor, which is a small version of our rocket engine. That’s moving away from what traditional rocket companies do, but we’ve talked to a lot of customers, science organisations, NASA, etc, and there seems to be no real options for smallsat deep space propulsion systems in the market right now. We think our hybrid rockets are fantastic for that, and we’ve tested motors that could take a small CubeSat to the moon or Mars.

What do you think of the future of the space industry?

Adam: I’m extremely bullish. I like to think that the richest people in the world will soon come from the space industry.

I often mention the 2004 XPrize being the catalyst for when I started to believe that this could happen. If you look at the next 100 years, we’re building human infrastructure around the solar system, and there’s a lot of money to be made in asteroid mining, setting up bases, etc. I think the industry’s ripe for change in that costs are plummeting.

The Indian government did a mission to Mars for $73 million and I still think that’s expensive. I think you could do a mission to Mars for $30 million.

The benchmark keeps getting lower and lower.

Michelle: And there’s a growing market for rockets and satellites. Everyone’s into cubesats nowadays; even in Singapore there are people who will teach students how to build one.

Is the startup capital prohibitive in the space industry?

Adam: The startup capital has been massive in the past, but it doesn’t have to be anymore. I think one of the things I’m very positive about – not just in terms of what we’re doing, but what others have done – is to build space technology significantly cheaper than before.

The successful pioneer was SpaceX and they basically built a Falcon 1 rocket with $100 million. It had decent capability, and could take about 1,000kg to LEO. And then they spent another $200 million to develop the Falcon 9. Interestingly, NASA did a study that asked, “How much would it have cost us if we outsourced the Falcon 9 to a normal commercial contractor?” and the estimate was between $1.7 billion to $3.7 billion. So that’s the old way of doing it. The new way of doing it would cost around $300 million. That’s a big difference.

How open are VCs to funding space companies?

Adam: For us, it’ll take about 3 years before we start generating revenue – that kind of time frame is scary to a lot of investors, especially here in Singapore.

Many like to invest in a company that already has a revenue stream and that just wants to start accelerating. But the US VC market has embraced [space], and they’ve had some big wins. Rocket Lab has gone up from $100 million to $1 billion in valuation, SpaceX has gone up from a half a billion dollar valuation to, I think the latest valuation is at $25 billion. There’re quite a few companies like Planet Lab and Spire that have become commercially successful from small beginnings, with VC money. So space is finally starting to prove itself as a viable industry.

What about the space industry in Australia, specifically?

Adam: Australia’s share of global space revenues is currently about 0.8%, and that’s all downstream – e.g. from ground stations and data analysis. They’re trying to get that number up to 1.8%, which is the global average.

The good news is that there’re probably more than 10 space technology companies in Australia that have at least 3 fulltime employees working on their technology. So there is the genesis of an industry in Australia. There’s a state government – South Australia – that’s very focused on building a space industry right now. And there’s been this recent ground swell of interest and momentum, which the government has been reacting to positively.

Why does Australia need new regulations and a space agency?

Adam: Right now, Australia has regulations that are incredibly prohibitive to doing any kind of upstream activity like launching satellites or testing anything in space. For example, you need to get insurance of a minimum of $750 million anytime you want to go above 100km. In the US, the insurance that all the launch providers pay is between $20-$45 million.

Also, if you want an approval to launch in Australia, you’ve also got to have your own launch site. It doesn’t make any sense for a single rocket company to have their own launch pad, which is costly and has its own set of regulations to meet. All that’s much better outsourced to a company that does it on behalf of a lot of other companies.

Michelle: The problem is that most people think of space as being very expensive, and that billions and billions of dollars will be needed to fund it.

Adam: But countries like Singapore and Australia can embrace this NewSpace philosophy and start space agencies with much smaller budgets – $50 million, $100 million – spend the money wisely, incubate the industry, let it grow commercially, and they’ll get a fantastic return on their investment.

It doesn’t have to be billions of dollars. It doesn’t even have to be hundreds of millions. It only has to be tens of millions of dollars, and you’ll get quite effective an outcome from that.

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