A ‘business incubator’ is how the founders of the LaunchLab concept describe their new venture in the heart of the Stellenbosch University campus. It is in this innovation hub that creative technological ideas are transformed into business reality and students become entrepreneurs, writes Douw Steyn.
The building, tucked away behind Stellenbosch University’s facilities compound, is exactly what you would expect – open, warm, airy and very inviting. Inside this remarkable collaborative space, a bunch of entrepreneurs and startups are designing and manufacturing the future. It is called the LaunchLab and inside 15 companies are busy with ground-breaking things.
When you walk in, the smell of coffee mingles with the abundance of knowledge and passion. You are immediately curious. And excited. Something is happening here. Stellenbosch Visio sat down with a couple of the startup companies inside the lab and ﬁ red off a few daring questions from our limited knowledge base. It was fun and a great learning curve.
When were you founded?
Although we have been busy with research for a few years already, CubeSpace was founded only in 2015.
Who are the founders?
Prof. Herman Steyn, Christo Groenewald, Mike-Alec Kearney, Willem Jordaan, Jako Gerber and Gerhard Janse van Vuuren.
How did the idea emerge?
The Electronic Systems Laboratory (ESL) at Stellenbosch University has been conducting research on satellites for decades. In 2013, the ESL got a contract to build control system modules for QB50, an international project for which 50 CubeSats are being built. After two successful demonstrations of our modules on the QB50 precursor satellites, the demand for our systems quickly increased. An opportunity presented itself to build and sell the control system units commercially. Hence CubeSpace was founded.
What are the ages of the team members?
All of us are either 26 or 27 (except Prof. Steyn – his age is a mystery).
What inspired you to become entrepreneurs?
We are a team of creative people who work at our best when we have the freedom to design. In the space industry we are exposed to cutting-edge technology and are constantly challenged by new problems. Being entrepreneurs and working in this fi eld creates the perfect environment for people like us to enjoy our jobs!
Do normal people understand what you are doing?
Not really. Sometimes it is best to keep it simple and say we are engineers. It is often too tedious to explain. But more and more people are becoming curious about the satellite industry. So we are getting more informed questions. And that’s great. We created Facebook and Twitter pages for followers who are curious about what we are doing. And they are getting more and more likes. Search for CubeSpace on Facebook or follow CubeSpace_ADCS on Twitter.
What is the biggest problem you want to solve?
We want to make access to space as affordable as possible. Also, the control system is one of the most important subsystems of a satellite, which is why we focus on providing our clients with top-quality, optimal solutions to their problems. In the process we try to support local suppliers to help stimulate the South African economy.
Who are your clients?
To begin with they were mostly academic institutions like universities that had satellite programmes needing our control systems. But now we have clients like small international companies that want to build or launch a small satellite and even a national government that’s looking to collect data in a cost-effective way. We also sell our products through a company in the Netherlands that has an online hub for satellite components. Most of our products are sold through Prof. Steyn’s connections. He is extremely well connected in the international satellite industry.
What is your unique advantage?
We provide a professional and comprehensive ADCS service to the international market. [ADCS stands for attitude determination and control system, a way to direct the satellite’s orientation towards Earth when in orbit.] We simplify the complicated task of designing a CubeSat ADCS by providing modular, standardised CubeSat products that can be customised. We are the only people who specialise in ADCS services and that gives us the competitive edge. Each person’s role in the company is also well defi ned. We are a great team and work well together.
Is operating from South Africa a negative or a positive?
All our products are proudly manufactured in South Africa. Manufacturing them here makes it much cheaper for us than for our European competitors. And everything is available here. The university [of Stellenbosch] and the Launchlab also provide an excellent support structure, enabling us to grow and chase our dreams. Europe, though, is where the action is. So the only negative aspect is that we are far from our clients. It means getting on a plane to go and sell.
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