The government will need to contribute significantly more resources to the nascent Australian space sector if it wants to get even close to achieving its goal of tripling its size, according to Gilmour Space Technologies founder and chief executive Adam Gilmour.
With Gilmour’s recent $19 million funding round, and other significant capital raises by Australian space-focused companies, the sector is proving its potential to the government and investor communities.
Gilmour’s latest funding round was led by existing investor Blackbird Ventures and CSIRO’s Main Sequence Ventures, along with US giant 500 Startups. The funding will be used to develop and launch next generation hybrid rockets by 2020 and sell cargo space on them to small satellite customers.
The government has so far adopted a “cautious” approach to supporting the sector, Mr Gilmour said, with just $26 million allocated to the establishment and operation of the Australian Space Agency over four years, along with $15 million for international partnerships.
“One of the comments I got from someone in government was that if the government gave $100 million to the space industry, they wouldn’t know how to spend it,” Mr Gilmour told InnovationAus.com.
“That was the primary reason [why the space agency didn’t get more funding] and I’m not too negative on it. It was pretty reasonable because the industry is at a very emerging stage.”
But with some local startups transforming into viable and potentially large space companies, it’s time that the government backed the industry in a real way, Mr Gilmour said.
“Now that we have a lot of backing and a big focus ahead of us to develop launch vehicles, I want to rise to the challenge and say, ‘give us $100 million and I’d know exactly how to spend it’,” he said.
The Australian Space Agency officially opened its doors in July this year, with the federal government hoping it will triple the size of the local sector to $12 billion by 2030. But this would require significantly more funding and support, Mr Gilmour said.
“They have to react very quickly and not muck around. You can’t take the industry from $4 billion to $12 billion in 12 years without putting at least a few hundred million into getting it going,” he said.
“None of the other big space countries in the world have big industries without reasonable government spending and investment. I don’t think it has to be billions, but it has to be hundreds of millions.”
“You have to do projects, sponsored missions and technology development. I hope it’s something like $50 million next year, $100 million the year after and $150 million the year after that.”
The funding rounds showed a healthy appetite among local investors for space.
“I’m supremely positive, surprised and encouraged by the attitude of Australian VCs to space. It is significantly better than Singapore and better than even the US,” he said.
“If you pick the top five or six VC firms in the country, none of them point blank say no to space, and almost all of them have invested or are looking to invest in space. That’s fantastic for the industry.
But it’s too early for the Australian Space Agency to be having any impact on the sector or in helping them secure funding, Mr Gilmour said.
“I can categorically say that the space agency had nothing to do with the investments we got. I wish it would have made it easier, but it was such early days, and no-one knew what it would be like.
“I hope that can change in the future, the agency can play a really good role in seed deals with space companies, with small contracts and in validating them. That’s exactly what investors want,” he said.
There are also hopes that the agency will help to streamline the approval process for companies looking to launch rockets in Australia. Gilmour Space Technologies had planned to conduct its first ‘suborbital’ flight, but this has now been delayed until November or December.
With the Australian Space Agency’s regulations for this process not yet established, and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority not experienced in the area, the quest to get a licence has been frustrating, Mr Gilmour said.
“It has taken a very long time to get approval, which we still don’t even have. It is in limbo land because the space agency hasn’t set up the rules for how they’re going to regulate it,” he said.
“CASA hasn’t done one of these before so it’s in limbo. We’re near the end of it though. I don’t want to have a rocket on the rails ready to go and have no approval for it.”
Much of the agency’s first months of operations have focused on determining where it should be based in the long-term, with nearly every state and territory throwing a hat into the ring. But Mr Gilmour said this process has been “totally ridiculous”.
“It should be managed from Canberra. Look at NASA – its head is in Washington and they do all the cool stuff in the states. There’s no reason it can’t be the same here. The states thought they were going to get boatloads of money but I don’t think they are.
“I’ve seen a lot of window dressing and not a lot of substance anywhere. The only state that has real substance is South Australia – they’ve legitimately done a very good job of trying to encourage the space industry here.”