Interview: Space BD’s CEO on ISS nanosatellite launches, changes in JAXA, and Japan’s space industry

Image courtesy of Space BD.

Space BD is a Japanese space startup focusing on facilitating nanosatellite launch services. Currently, they provide launch opportunities from Japan’s module in the International Space Station (ISS), and have started offering rideshare opportunities on two of Japan’s launch vehicles, the operational Mitsubishi H-IIA and the upcoming Mitsubishi H3. For both the ISS and rocket launches, Space BD has signed agreements with Japan’s space agency JAXA, as part of JAXA’s commercialization efforts.

SpaceTech Asia spoke with Space BD’s Co-Founder and CEO, Masatoshi Nagasaki, on launching from the ISS, JAXA’s commercialization strategy, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ upcoming launcher, the H3.

What made you start Space BD?

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Space BD is an abbreviation for Business Development. So we aim to be professionals in business development in space, which is my background. I was in the mining industry, and I used to work in Brazil and Australia with mining giants like Rio Tinto, etc.

Historically, Japan is a conservative culture. So there aren’t so many entrepreneurs, because traditional, big companies are more respected than small startups. I’d like to change this culture.

Six years ago, I started an educational business. This was my first company, Nagasaki & Company, after my name. I started entrepreneurship educational projects for kids, till junior high school. And then I found that education is, of course, important, but it’s not enough to change society in Japan. Instead, I decided to become sort of an icon for the next generation. I started to research which industry I could be a real pioneer in. I chose the space industry, and started Space BD in 2017.

How do you feel that the space industry can provide the opportunity to pioneer entrepreneurship in Japan?

Most of the Japanese space industry happens through JAXA, meaning it’s government money. There’s no commercial market. After almost 7 months of researching before starting Space BD, I finally found that nobody has the answer on how to do business in space. This means it’s a very tough industry for the entrepreneur, but at the same time, this is a chance to be a pioneer in a new industry.

What are some of Space BD’s activities?

Space BD’s mission is to make space a real commercial industry. We are focusing on commercial utilization of proven assets – that is our first concept. So we have an engineering team, but we don’t develop new technologies. We are utilizing JAXA’s or Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ proven technologies.

Our current core business is launch services. We are using Japan’s module on the ISS, called Kibo, which means “hope” in English. The background: JAXA is now trying to commercialize their assets. The first commercialization initiative happened in early 2018. At that time, JAXA issued an RFP for their satellite deployment system using the Kibo module. They selected 2 entities – Space BD and Mitsui, a large company in Japan.

Even though Space BD was founded in 2017, JAXA selected us in April 2018. Now, JAXA is a conservative organization, so this shows JAXA’s trust in us, which we are very grateful for, but at the same time, it shows that JAXA is changing. JAXA is expecting newcomers in the industry.

The second JAXA initiative was the use of Kibo’s external platform, known as i-SEEP. For that, they selected us exclusively.

And the third one, which happened December last year, is around Mitsubishi’s H-IIA and H3 launch vehicles. For this, JAXA selected us to be the official service provider for launch rideshare opportunities; when JAXA buys the entire launch vehicle, they put their satellite as the primary payload, but there are rideshare opportunities. They gave us the right of use for 7 years, exclusively, from this year.

Till today, we’ve signed more than 20 contracts, both domestic and international. Our first domestic customer was the University of Tokyo, our first international customer was the University of Sydney, and our first external platform agreement was with a Spanish company, Satlantis. Most are demonstrative missions, because that’s what the ISS is good for, and using the ISS also means we have access to the station every 3 months.

Could you tell us more about i-SEEP? What sort of technologies can it demonstrate?

i-Seep is like a big adapter. Of course, we have to configure it to attach a customer payload. After that it’s easy. Instead of building an entire satellite, the necessary infrastructure such as the communications system, is provided through the ISS’ Kibo module. Customers then get to test their mission payload without worrying about the other systems. For example, if you develop a new sensor, you need to test it in space. But a satellite bus is just a cost risk. If the bus system doesn’t work well, the whole thing is lost. Here, the risk of failure is very limited because i-SEEP is stable and it’s been operating for more than 10 years safely. It’s also cheaper than the total cost of building a satellite and launching it. So this is quite unique. We’d like to promote it to the global, international customers who wish to demonstrate their technologies.

You’ve partnered with US-based launch services provider Nanoracks, as well as Netherlands-based cubesat manufacturer ISISpace. Could you tell us more about that?

Nanoracks could possibly be our competitor, but we are good friends. Nanoracks’ CEO Jeffrey Manber and I share a philosophy that we should expand the market first. Otherwise, we have no market to target, to compete against. And so, we are collaborating. Moreover, we are in different geographies, so we are not directly competing.

We are also working together on some projects. For example, we joined the Nanoracks’ team for NASA’s commercialization research – in October or November 2018, NASA issued an RFP and selected 13 American entities to do research on how we can utilize LEO in commercial manner.

With ISISpace, there is more of a synergy because they are focusing more on rideshare opportunities for launch services, and are developing satellites, which we don’t do. So if our potential customer needs higher altitude, we can introduce them to ISISpace, and vice versa.

Could you elaborate on how JAXA is trying to transform the space industry in Japan?

From its foundation, JAXA’s mission has always been advanced technology development, and their mission is to create new technology to expand humanity’s frontier. Currently, because of the government’s change in the way of thinking, one of JAXA’s goals is to promote commercial use in space. For JAXA, this is a new challenge, a new scheme. They are now transferring their proven assets, like ISS or H3, to the private sector. They are very supportive when it comes to technology transfer and how to facilitate this. They are teaching us and transferring their knowledge to us.

JAXA does not have the budget, unlike NASA which promotes the industry by putting in the money directly to support startups. So what we are receiving from JAXA is right of use, not money. We have to find a customer, and then pay a fee to JAXA. In the short-term, it’s tough for us, but in the long term, it will make us sustainable.

Is Mitsubishi’s H3 also an effort by JAXA to commercialize? Will you also handle the H3 rideshare launches?

Yes to both. For H3, the responsibility for the launch is being transferred to Mitsubishi, whereas with the current H-IIA, the launch responsibility lies with JAXA. This is a big change. The technology itself is jointly developed between JAXA and Mitsubishi. Mitsubishi is now working hard to promote their H3 in the commercial market, the way Arianespace does.

We’re working with Mitsubishi in 2 ways. We have a contract with JAXA, where JAXA will buy the entire rocket, launch the primary payload, and give us rideshare opportunities. This contract is with JAXA. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. We have direct access to Mitsubishi, so we can do business directly if the opportunity arises.

What are your hopes for the space industry in the coming years?

I think more people and money need to come into the space industry. We need more options. Right now, many people outside the industry still say, “We’ll see. Maybe the next generation”. So I’m thinking,  if Space BD is successful in making a profit, then people will say, “Okay, space is a profitable industry”, and traditional companies, or new startups, or investment money, will come in, and then the industry will grow. I’m hoping Space BD will be a listed company in five or ten years’ time. We need more, otherwise, it will remain what we call in Japan a “space village” – just JAXA, or Mitsubishi Heavy, and very limited to a small field. I believe this will happen, and I’m generally optimistic, but day to day I face difficulties. Nobody has enough money – who can crack this chicken-and-egg cycle? We’d like to do that.


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