Author: Miguel A Ramirez Hernandez Edited by: Ruth Sang Jones, Emil Fristed
The pursuit of space is both the destination and the journey; a journey of technology development and innovation that will attract creative minds, spark new ideas, and build new skills - while benefiting all aspects of society.
On 6th of March 2019, the SIU team, in collaboration with the Oxford University Aeronautical Society, co-hosted The Inaugural Space Panel. This was the biggest event in SIU’s history. In a virtually full auditorium, we had the opportunity to learn from three inspirational and highly influential individuals involved in the space industry. Each speaker addressed how space has inspired people to choose a career in science, and how this industry has enabled aerospace specific technologies to be adapted into real world solutions.
Talent, hard work, curiosity and eagerness to make a difference
Katerina Lengold is an entrepreneur and space enthusiast. She is the founder of, ImageAiry — the world's first marketplace for satellite data. ImageAiry was later acquired by the aerospace company Astro Digital, where Katerina served as Vice President after the merger. Currently, she is the CEO of Limpid, a digital platform that streamlines start-up fundraising.
In an audience of mostly young students and scientists, Katerina gave a very inspiring, conversational style talk to incentivise and stimulate those interested in creating a business. She spoke about what motivates her, how she conducts her work, how how she has overcome challenges..
Still in her 20’s, Katerina has already achieved a lot in her career. She credits her success to her upbringing in Moscow, Russia. As a young and curious child, she often found herself ‘bored’ in school, leading to her skipping a few grades and reaching university at age 14. By age 20, she had earned multiple degrees and had secured a scholarship to study graduate level degrees in Computer Science and Business at MIT. At this point, she believed, the only way to success was to continue working with the same level of intensity.
At MIT, she entered a start-up competition, MIT 100K, with a group of aerospace scientists. Being a computer scientist, she was an outsider unfamiliar with the aerospace business landscape. From her perspective, this was advantageous, because it allowed her to ignore the assumptions and preconceptions that would have perhaps prevented her from successfully launching a company in the field. Katerina and her team recognised a gap in the aerospace commercial services- the satellite imagery service was burdened by many outdated processes. Using computer sciences tools, the team created ImageAiry, “an online marketplace that connects buyers and sellers of earth observation services”. The company secured enough funding from venture capital to begin operations.
After ImageAiry’s merger with Astro Digital, Katerina entered a new phase of her career, which presented her with some of her hardest obstacles to date. As Astro Digital also had payloads to launch into space, the company had to face the associated challenges of high expenses and extended waiting periods before launching opportunities. The first launch attempt resulted in a rocket explosion. During the second attempt, human error set the rocket trajectory into the ocean. The lack of success in the first two launching attempts made getting additional fundig more problematic and led to lots of frustration.
Instead of letting the frustrations of failure overpower her, Katerina saw this misfortune as an opportunity. As the team waited for the next rocket launching event, they had to look for other forms of revenue. They got to thinking and quickly identified additional services they could provide to customers; they developed tools to analyse already available data sources, including images stored in the available sentinel database , as well as other public domain sources. Katerina noted that failure led them to look beyond their initial tasks and business model, resulting in additional growth. “Embrace failure and learn from it”, she emphasized.
Five or six months later, Astro Digital finally had a successful launch into space. At that point, Katerina felt like her work was done there and moved to new adventures.
The events at Astro Digital not only taught Katerina how to embrace and learn from failure, but also shined some light on other underlying aspects of her life. At that point, she recognised that she was tired. She had been living her whole life as a workaholic, with low sleep, poor diet, and a rather limited social life. This was not going to be sustainable. She pointed out, “The quality of your decisions, the capacity to create things and to think outside the box diminishes with every hour of missed sleep, or every missed meal, or time away from friends and family”.
She had to regroup and modify her working habits. After taking a break, she joined a group of venture capital experts. Together, they recognised that the current system of starting a company and raising funds is “disastrous”. Despite start-ups being epicentres of innovation, the fundraising process from venture capital has remained unchanged in the last 50 years. A difficult fundraising process that is long and non-transparent adds an additional and unnecessary burden to start-ups that need to dedicate their time to technology development. Therefore, there is value to fixing the counterproductivity of current fund raising practises. Currently, Katerina is working with a team on the new digital platform Limpid, that promises a new model for raising venture capital faster, by making the process more transparent and data driven. The model involves setting up a database of entreupreneurs that report weekly on a set of key business metrics. Once those metrics look attractive, Limpid facilitates contact between the start-up and its investor network.
Katerina ended her presentation with a set of rules she follows as a business creator:
1. Find Collaborations. Working alone can give you all the glory but the potential is much smaller. We all have blind spots.
2. Hone strengths, not weaknesses. We have to work very hard on strengthening our best assets and outsourcing our weakness. Working hard on our weaknesses will only lead to being average.
3. Identify commercial value of technology. In business, a beautiful project may be useless if it is not commercially viable.
4. Learn to deal with failure. This involves turning challenges into opportunities.
Katerine added, “Technology is interesting and fun, but until it is applied to solve real problems, until you make some lives better, it is just a collection of numbers and diagrams”.