We have a mix of hard tech companies in LaunchLab working on blockchain, blimps, cancer-curing innovations and electric skateboards to name a few. But it’s always mind-blowing when we tell LaunchLab visitors that we have a startup building satellites on our doorstep. CubeSpace, is a spin-out company of Innovus, Stellenbosch University’s industry interaction and innovation company. CubeSpace, which originated from a research project at SU where they design, build, test and support innovative, high quality, miniaturised satellite components, with a strong focus on control systems.
We sat down with Engineer turned CubeSpace CEO, Mike-Alec Kearney for the first part in what will be on on-going series of ‘(Not so) Hard-Hitting Startup Q&A’:
What is the major problem or pain point that your company is trying to solve? You have 20 words – go!
To be able to develop mature, flight-proven satellite control systems for any size satellite without the need for an expensive in-house Engineering team. (23 words!)
What is the most surprising insight you have learned that you would never have expected?
You need to be emotionally vulnerable, to be perceived as emotionally strong.
Tell us about the most WTF moment in your entrepreneurial journey?
I had a very stressful, uncomfortable meeting in the early years of the company where I knew I was ‘right’ but also knew I needed to act ‘wrong’ to keep the peace. Before the meeting, I consulted with Anita Nel (CEO of Innovus) for some tips on how to handle the whole thing. She very seriously told me that a technique she often uses in these types of meetings is to imagine that the person you are talking to is in their underwear behind their table. She was not joking and insisted I do it. So I followed her advice, and during the meeting, I found myself giggling in my head, instead of getting upset about things that were irrelevant in the bigger scheme of things. Lesson learnt that day was that sometimes a bit of play is important in business and also that you should not allow things that are not important to steal your emotional bandwidth.
If you could go back in time, what is one thing you’d tell yourself on day 1 of building the business?
Running a company is about people, not technology. Include and talk to your team as much as possible.
Who or what has helped you the most?
The book ‘Lean Startup’ by Eric Ries helped me tremendously. In the space industry, it is tough to innovate, since users choose products with heritage above new products with better specs. Because space users are so risk-averse, we started ‘stagnating’ with regards to R&D. This book made me realise that no matter what, we need to keep innovating and testing the market. To my surprise, the market was a lot different than I thought.
What is one word to describe the Stellenbosch ecosystem?
What is one must-read book (it does not have to be about business or entrepreneurship)?
Definitely ‘Lean Startup’ for me.
Why did you do it?
It was between this and being a Hollywood actor, and I would not have been able to deal with the paparazzi.
If your company could have a spirit animal what would it be?
An ant, because of collaboration and contribution to the greater whole in the most efficient way possible.
If you could have one person as your co-founder (living or dead) who would it be?
Yoda. “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Where to from here?
Because we have built control systems for so many satellites, we have learned massive amounts about common mistakes made in space, better electronic design strategies, and reliable production. We are taking all this experience and using it to shape our new product and how we go about building it. With this new product, and with our new company structure, we will be able to supply satellite constellation builders a product that has the ideal technical specifications, at a low enough cost, with unrivalled flight heritage and reliability. No brainer. We will then be the preferred ADCS supplier globally for all small satellites.
CubeSpace is just one of over 40 exciting companies that call Stellenbosch University LaunchLab home. For more information on CubeSpace check out: https://cubespace.co.za/. To become part of the SU LaunchLab family shoot us a message here: email@example.com
CubeSpace envisions themselves as partners, not suppliers and prides themselves on superior craftsmanship, flexibility, and adaptability with their offerings and our good customer support. “We believe we are contributing to an industry that opens the door to space for all young engineers and scientists and we aim to do this by providing user-friendly, robust and intuitive products that can be trusted.”
“In the process, we strive to contribute significantly to the technological advancement of mankind. Our key partners, who have formed a fundamental part of our roots, are Stellenbosch University (SU), Innovus and the LaunchLab. Part of our mission is to give back to SU by stimulating the industry in South Africa and by providing job opportunities for young engineers in a high-technology environment like the satellite industry.”