Creating a money-making rationale for private space ventures--be they public space travel, orbiting hotels, low-cost rocketry, a space junk collection service, or even a lunar power and light company--such enterprises must be grounded in first-order business basics.
Over the decades, several entrepreneurial space firms have come and gone, their vision getting too far ahead of business reality, but there are encouraging signs that private space ventures are reinvigorating--as well as agitating and disrupting--customary models of space commercialization.
That's the message to be heard at Space Billionaires: Educating the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs, a Thought Leader Forum being held April 4 at the Wilshire Grand Hotel in Los Angeles and organized by the University of Southern California's (USC) Marshall Center for Technology Commercialization.
Voodoo to mainstream science
"To date the space industry has been focused on engineering and technology. Looking into the future, the industry needs to think more creatively about developing new business models for space," said Kathleen Allen, Director of the Marshall Center for Technology Commercialization.
"Even the big companies realize that the days of simply being a government contractor are changing. Everybody needs to think more entrepreneurially," Allen told SPACE.com. She is also a professor at USC's Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
Allen said that the private space industry is comprised of pioneers...leading-edge entrepreneurs. "It's very analogous to what happened with nanotechnology," she observed.
"Less than 10 years ago, nanotechnology was voodoo science and the people who talked about it were considered to be on the fringe of real science. Today nanotechnology is mainstream science in the sense that everyone is talking about it. I think the same thing is happening with space tourism and other private space enterprise. Ten years from now, everyone will take it seriously and believe that it can happen," Allen explained.
There are messages that space entrepreneurs need to hear and be reminded of, Allen emphasized.
For one, don't be discouraged when people throw up roadblocks. Space entrepreneurs are the visionaries, the disruptors--part of an emerging industry that re-energized and revolutionized the entire space industry, she said.
Totally spaced out
"Space business is just not about things in orbit or beyond," said Madhu Thangavelu, who conducts the Graduate Space Concepts Studio at USC, a "visioneering" approach to space systems architecting.
Thangavelu, a forum discussant, said he sees "wonderful, thought provoking, awe inspiring activities", a host of space-related businesses that can be executed here on Earth.
But just how out of whack are space entrepreneurial groups contrasted to other entrepreneurial activities of the day. Or, are they in synch?
"Totally, totally spaced out," Thangavelu advised. "Just being an entrepreneur is bad enough."
For comparison, look at the restaurant business, where three out of four enterprises go belly up in two years from inception, Thangavelu noted.
"Space business needs to look at broader alternate futures, not just high-tech rockets and their components...horribly expensive testing and failure rates worse than restaurant business, not to mention all the regulation that they ball and chain you to," he told SPACE.com.
The recent launch failure suffered by upstart startup SpaceX, while a let down, Thangavelu said that the firm has clearly established a lead in the business and first mover advantage. He said there's need to invigorate the costly pseudo-business model that exists now--"where the U.S. Air Force and NASA are the customers and a bunch of privileged vendors called 'defense contractors' pretend to compete."
"Space enterprise is a highly creative, innovative and interdisciplinary arena," Thangavelu said. "We need new blood and a whole bunch of imaginative people to project visions, debate ideas, present concepts--not just NASA projects--and that will surely have the potential to make human space activity richer, more interesting."
"The spontaneity of space is what gives the space entrepreneurs their drive," said Rick Citron of the law firm Citron & Deutsch in Los Angeles, a group that also serves, as they term it, an "entrepreneurial greenhouse".
"Thinking outside the box creates genius," Citron said, and being engaged in such activity means not being prone to doing those things necessary to be in alignment with anyone. Each of the 30-plus space enthusiast groups has their own agenda, he told SPACE.com, "and that is a good thing for this evolutionary process."
Are other entrepreneurs similarly composed? "No, but many of them strive for the gusto that comes from the process of controversial change," Citron explained. He is also taking part in this week's forum.
Given the recent woes experienced by SpaceX, does their failed rocket attempt to reach orbit put a damper on things?
"Not on your life," Citron responded. "Those of us who have lived 50-plus years of the exploration of space have seen more than our share of heartfelt setbacks. This was not a failure...we can't call it that. Rather, it was another step towards the conquest of space."
Citron's message to entrepreneurs: "The engineers and dreamers who are making these things happen need to have a business team along their side. The business team figures out the reality, what it takes to bring management and capital to the table."
And if the mix is right, Citron continued, that allows the inventors to create financially viable products and services. "The right people will assist in translating the dreams to allow others to participate in developing an environment for success," he said.
For more information on USC's Space Billionaires: Educating the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs forum, go to: http://www.usc.edu/org/techalliance/Space2006_home.htm