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Forum Aims to Unleash Next Generation of Space Billionaires

Creatinga money-making rationale for private space ventures--be they public spacetravel, orbiting hotels, low-cost rocketry, a space junk collection service, oreven a lunar power and light company--such enterprises must be grounded in first-orderbusiness basics.

Overthe decades, several entrepreneurial space firms have come and gone, theirvision getting too far ahead of business reality, but there are encouragingsigns that private space ventures are reinvigorating--as well as agitating anddisrupting--customary models of space commercialization.

That'sthe message to be heard at Space Billionaires: Educating the Next Generationof Entrepreneurs, a Thought Leader Forum being held April 4 at the WilshireGrand Hotel in Los Angeles and organized by the University of SouthernCalifornia's (USC) Marshall Center for Technology Commercialization.

Voodoo to mainstream science

"Todate the space industry has been focused on engineering and technology. Lookinginto the future, the industry needs to think more creatively about developingnew business models for space," said Kathleen Allen, Director of the MarshallCenter for Technology Commercialization.

"Even the big companies realize thatthe days of simply being a government contractor are changing.  Everybodyneeds to think more entrepreneurially," Allen told She is also a professorat USC's Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

Allensaid that the private space industry is comprised of pioneers...leading-edgeentrepreneurs. "It's very analogous to what happened with nanotechnology," sheobserved.

"Lessthan 10 years ago, nanotechnology was voodoo science and the people who talkedabout it were considered to be on the fringe of real science. Todaynanotechnology is mainstream science in the sense that everyone is talkingabout it. I think the same thing is happening with space tourism and otherprivate space enterprise. Ten years from now, everyone will take it seriouslyand believe that it can happen," Allen explained.

Thereare messages that space entrepreneurs need to hear and be reminded of, Allenemphasized.

Forone, don't be discouraged when people throw up roadblocks. Space entrepreneursare the visionaries, the disruptors--part of an emerging industry thatre-energized and revolutionized the entire space industry, she said.

Totally spaced out

"Spacebusiness 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 inspiringactivities", a host of space-related businesses that can be executed here onEarth.

Butjust how out of whack are space entrepreneurial groups contrasted toother entrepreneurial activities of the day. Or, are they in synch?

"Totally,totally spaced out," Thangavelu advised. "Just being an entrepreneur is badenough."

Forcomparison, look at the restaurant business, where three out of fourenterprises go belly up in two years from inception, Thangavelu noted.

Upstart startup

"Spacebusiness needs to look at broader alternate futures, not justhigh-tech rockets and their components...horribly expensive testing and failurerates worse than restaurant business, not to mention all the regulation thatthey ball and chain you to," he told

Therecent launch failure suffered by upstart startup SpaceX, while a let down,Thangavelu said that the firm has clearly established a lead in the businessand first mover advantage. He said there's need to invigorate the costlypseudo-business model that exists now--"where the U.S. Air Force and NASAare the customers and a bunch of privileged vendors called 'defensecontractors' pretend to compete."

"Spaceenterprise is a highly creative, innovative and interdisciplinary arena,"Thangavelu said. "We need new blood and a whole bunch of imaginativepeople to project visions, debate ideas, present concepts--not just NASAprojects--and that will surely have the potential to make human space activityricher, more interesting."

Heartfelt setbacks

"Thespontaneity of space is what gives the space entrepreneurs theirdrive," said Rick Citron of the law firm Citron & Deutsch in LosAngeles, a group that also serves, as they term it, an "entrepreneurialgreenhouse".

"Thinkingoutside the box creates genius," Citron said, and being engaged in suchactivity means not being prone to doing those things necessary to be inalignment with anyone. Each of the 30-plus space enthusiast groups has theirown agenda, he told, "and that is a good thing for thisevolutionary process." 

Areother entrepreneurs similarly composed? "No, but many of them strive forthe gusto that comes from the process of controversial change," Citronexplained. He is also taking part in this week's forum.

Giventhe recent woes experienced by SpaceX, does their failed rocket attempt toreach orbit put a damper on things? 

"Noton your life," Citron responded. "Those of us who have lived 50-plus years ofthe 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 steptowards the conquest of space."

Citron'smessage to entrepreneurs: "The engineers and dreamers who are making thesethings happen need to have a business team along their side. The business teamfigures out the reality, what it takes to bring management and capital to thetable."

Andif the mix is right, Citron continued, that allows the inventors to createfinancially viable products and services. "The right people will assist in translatingthe dreams to allow others to participate in developing an environment forsuccess," he said.

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Leonard David
Leonard David

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.