Time for an Aussie space agency?

James Riley
Editorial Director

There are growing calls from founders and entrepreneurs for the Australian government to establish a centralised space agency to support the burgeoning local industry.

Those currently operating in the space industry said an agency would bring together the fractured industry, and create numerous local jobs. It would also help to stem the brain drain of talent and companies overseas.

The growing push for an agency comes as government’s readies an announcement of its response to a review into the Space Activities Act 1998, which was instigated in October 2015.

Flavia Tata Nardini: Founder of Adelaide-based IoT space-focused startup Fleet

Tim Parsons, founder of Australia’s first space-focused accelerator Delta-V, said Australia already spends $3 billion on the space industry, but this is mostly going to overseas companies and did not support local players.

“At the core of the calls for a space agency is this idea that we’re spending money already on this thing that’s critical to every aspect of society, so we should get better coordinated,” Mr Parsons told InnovationAus.com.

“The argument for a space agency is to leverage the critical spending we’re already making to create more jobs and capability in Australia.

“Australia is so fragmented. We have a lot of organisations doing bits and pieces in space, but their efforts aren’t really coordinated – we’re spending around $3 billion a year buying goods and services but not leveraging those purchases to build industry capability.”

The push is also being spearheaded by Flavia Tata Nardini, founder of Adelaide-based IoT space-focused startup Fleet, which recently sent an open letter to the Federal Government on why Australia “can no longer afford not to have a space agency”.

“We can help shape the jobs, businesses and industries of tomorrow if we take the budding space economy, and our position in it, seriously,” the open letter said.

The foundations a national space agency will lay will enable our nation to continue to prosper to the next 20 to 50 years. Australia’s economy, our credibility on the international stage and our status as an innovation nation, all hang in the balance,” it said.

The government’s review of the Space Activities Act was announced by the then- Industry Minister Christopher Pyne in late 2015 with an aim to “ensure that Australia’s space regulation is appropriate to technology advancements and does not unnecessarily inhibit innovation in Australia’s space capabilities”.

Following submissions from the public, government and international stakeholders, a commission report and departmental paper on the subject, some proposed reforms were revealed by the government. It is expected to unveil a draft bill later this year.

The establishment of a government-led space agency would lend much-needed credibility and legitimacy to the local players on the world stage, Ms Tata Nardini said.

“There are only two countries in the developed world without a space agency and Australia is one of them, Ms Tata Nardini told InnovationAus.com.

“I know what a space agency brings to a country and an ecosystem and it’s quite essential. Space isn’t easy and it needs a lot of collaboration. Without an entity that is a specific global voice that is unified, it’s really hard,”

“Space is going to change economics forever. A space agency would be a body that regulates how to do things better. It’s an economic choice and an innovation position.

“It’s not about funding, it’s about supporting manufacturing, jobs and being the unified voice of innovation – it’s really a no-brainer.”

This would in turn assist local firms when raising capital, Saber Astronautics founder Jason Held said.

“Some people won’t be able to get a Series B funding round without a space agency. Having a space agency would certainly help from the investment standpoint. People around the world know there’s an opportunity in Australia, but they don’t have a whole lot of faith in Australia yet because there’s no central agency,” Mr Held told InnovationAus.com

It will provide much-needed support for these young companies at a governmental level, Mr Parsons added.

“The accelerator programs are running on nothing at the moment. With an agency they would have a little bit of resources and we would be deepening the sophistication of the founders and companies we have in our country to find a pathway to create sustainable companies,” he said.

“We’re spending money anyway, we should be leveraging it to give these startups a better ecosystem,” he said.

As with the Australian innovation ecosystem, research and talent is strong and available in the space sector, but there are commercialisation issues.

“We kick it out of the park on new ideas and research, but we suck at turning that into jobs and businesses, Mr Parsons said.

“The amount of value we have locked up in our universities in this area is huge. We’re spending a shit-load on research and we’re involved in some amazing projects, but again we’re not using that expenditure to give Australian companies a position to bid for work,”

Mr Held estimates that the revenue Australia has lost in companies moving abroad is upwards of half a billion dollars, while Ms Tata Nardini said that it has been difficult to keep Fleet in Australia.

“I hope I will be able to stay in Australia but I’ll have to raise capital abroad. We’ll be manufacturing hundreds of satellites inside Australia and that’s a challenge that needs support behind it, and that comes from a unified space agency,” she said.

Creating a space agency is the first step in ensuring that local talent can remain, and those that have relocated can be tempted to return, Mr Parsons said.

“We want to create the conditions for our diaspora of space engineers, technologists and leaders to come home. I’ve met a lot of people in my travels who want to come home, but they just can’t work in their chosen industry here,” he said.

For its part, the government is currently considering its response to the review and the growing push from the community, and said that it is listening to the sector.

An Industry department spokesman told InnovationAus.com: “The Commonwealth is in the process of assessing our national space policy and the opportunities that the continuing development of the space industry provides for Australia.

“Our focus includes ensuring that the operating environment is appropriate to innovation and the development of space technologies, combined with coordination and international cooperation.”

“The government is also planning and preparing for the next generation of civil space technologies and capabilities by putting in place the legislative and regulatory reforms and platforms aimed at simplifying regulatory arrangements, spurring innovation and reducing barriers to participation in the space industry.”

For the band of entrepreneurs leading the calls for a space agency, it’s all about developing a coherent argument that’s backed by solid facts and evidence.

“I’m certain that the government is listening and looking for ammunition. So we need to create something for them to get behind, we need to give them things they can spend political capital on,” Mr Parsons said.

The current Australia space industry is humble but rapidly developing, driven by a small group of entrepreneurs and private investment, mostly coming from overseas.

When the local space industry in Australia started growing three years ago, the plan was to completely forgo the prospect of governmental support, Mr Parsons said.

“When I started this journey it was about getting on with it and building an Australian space industry without government support – we essentially tapped into existing entrepreneurship networks because we recognised that we didn’t rank highly in the country’s priorities,” he said.

Three years ago, there were only one or two startups in Australia focusing on space, and the environment was very combative with the larger incumbents, Mr Parsons said.

“The early view was that there were dinosaurs and the disruptors. A number of us have since recognised that all the ‘dinosaurs’ are waking up to a whole lot of huge challenges to their growth.

“People like us are coming on to the scene and stealing away their best people. We’ve learned that there is an ecosystem and there’s an emerging ecosystem of customers who previously were not thinking about space at all,” he said.

Now there are more than 30 space startups in Australia, which have raised more than $15 million in the past 18 months. But with some government support and the backing of a centralised, vocal entity, it could be a lot bigger.

“If we start this process now, in 10 years we can go really far. I wouldn’t be surprised that in 10 years the industry in Australia is really big,” Ms Tata Nardini said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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