Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Finding Customers for Aerospace Startups

The hardest part of developing reusable launch vehicles isn't the engineering work. It is because there are no customers for the vehicle when it is designed, built, and tested. This week I was watching the YouTube video Why Accountants Don't Run Startups: Steve Blank. Although the lecture was about technology and Internet startups, the most interesting point was about finding the right business model through testing assumptions about customers and then rapidly pivoting in a new direction as new insights came through. By remaining flexible in the early stages of the search, the direction of the company and the product can be adjusted rapidly to find a profitable business model.

This contrasts with the way in which people have searched for ways to enable low cost access to space. The focus has been completely on the engineering model and technical design. The lack of customers has been assumed to be a problem which will be solved once the brilliance of the chosen approach becomes obvious. However if we take a leaf out of the Steve Blank "Customer Development" model, then we should not start with the engineering but rather with the customers. We need to find what the customers want, and even who they are, before we spend the money doing the engineering.

This is incredibly difficult because there are no customers out there. The customers for the new type of launch vehicle will be companies and business models which also dont exist yet. There is one new option though: Planetary Resources. The announcement that this new company will be working towards mining asteroids means that there is at least one customer in the medium to long term who will be looking for lots of low cost launches. If they develop as planned then this will particularly be the case once they start looking at launching the robotics necessary to actually do the mining. This will be a significant amount of payload the be launched.

So now the question is, can we build the DH-1 so that it meets the future requirements that Planetary Resources will have for their payloads? Since their plan is to use robotics and not manned missions, then on first reading it seems like the compromises made in the design of the DH-1 will be acceptable. This is to do with the size and shape and location of the payload bay.

If we could get some funding to map out further how the DH-1 would work, and at the same time be building links with the Planetary Resources guys to feed the information back then it may be possible to use this new option as the main launch customer for the DH-1.

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