Enterprising Lothian space technology expert keeps business eye on the world
In this week's SME Focus a space enthusiast explains how he developed a business to help build a career in an industry in which there seemed to be limited job openings.
What is your business called?
Stevenson Astrosat. But everyone knows us as Astrosat...it stands for Astro Science and Technology. Where is it based? Musselburgh, with offices in Latvia, Egypt and England.
What services does it offer?
Astrosat's speciality is in processing raw data gathered by governments and space agencies by satellites into commercially useful and accessible information for the end user. Satellites used to be the exclusive preserve of the government and the military, but agencies such as the European Space Agency (ESA) are reaching out to commerce as an important income stream. They have started to see satellites as just another part of the commercial infrastructure. That requires different ways of thinking, which we think we excel at.
Who does it sell to?
Pick an industry, and satellite data is applicable to it. We can identify the best place to position tidal and wave resources for the offshore renewables sector; we can tell the fish farming industry the best places to find a flow of clean water - by definition, that makes our market global; we can track back oil spills to the culprit; we can inform transport agencies before the event if there is going to be a landslide which will block their road or rail network, because we have access to virtually every radar satellite up there.
We deal with governments, local authorities, power companies and insurance companies. We have even been approached by Bollywood - which is plagued by film piracy - to help distribute films by satellite to the Far East.
The company is an ideas factory, which pulls in non-traditional expertise. I studied Astrophysics and post graduated in Astronautics, my chief technical officer Alan McLarney mastered in Astronautics as well and got a degree in Aeronautics. We have a robotics engineer, a building engineer, a geoscientist, a hydrographer, an oceanographer and even an in-house lawyer.
What is its turnover?
£450,000 to April this year on current trends. We think it will be £750,000 by April next year.
How many employees?
Thirteen at the moment, three of whom are in Latvia in a carbon emission reduction company we spun out last year, and one in Alexandria, Egypt.
Whenever a technology is so far out of space that it is self-contained, we create a spin-out company. We will take investment into the spin-outs, but not into the ideas factory.
When was it formed?
Two and a half years ago.
Why did you take the plunge?
I was always either going to be an RAF helicopter pilot or have my own business. The second option is a lot more stressful, but I needed the freedom to innovate and build a team.
I trained as an Astrophysicist and Astronautical Engineer and graduated into a UK Space Industry which was practically non-existent. This was very disheartening as I loved space but there were very few jobs outside academia - which wasn't for me. I started up a geo-spatial mapping company venture in Boston with a friend then came home to Scotland for family reasons. Back home it was still a desert for space so I continued to develop innovations and learn about business leadership. Eventually the government and ESA opened up space to the private sector. About that time my wife became pregnant so the clock started ticking and I was given nine months to get Astrosat up and running. It took us seven months to get our first contract and we were off...
How did you raise the start-up funding?
I play the guitar - good old-fashioned Saturday night pub music. That's how I funded my student days and start-up days (as well as my wedding!)
Using a credit card enabled me to buy some thermal data and change it and that became ThermCERT, the carbon emission reduction company we spun out.
We also gained some seed investment, which let us staff up and get out of my kitchen. That came after we won ESA awards and contracts, which was vital validation - a big agency which believed our knowledge could contribute significantly to the space industry.
What was your biggest break?
Winning our first ESA recognition, the Copernicus award for ThermCERT, in 2012. We have won four awards in the three subsequent years now.
What was your worst moment?
There were a few. We grew rapidly and it was up to Alan and I to turn Astrosat from a garage company into a real enterprise. We found it hard - we fell out, we were stressed, we were just too busy. It was also bad when we lost bids after putting months of work into them.
What do you most enjoy about running the business?
I love the team building - I care deeply for my crew. I just love coming to work. I adore astrophysics and space technology. When I graduated, there was no way I was going to get a job doing it - you either ended up in a bank or in low-level engineering. There was no possibility of coming to work and being paid - and paying other people - by being a physicist or a space engineer. There is now a sense of fulfilling personal destiny.
And we were really welcomed into the space family. There is a great deal of collective pride among other players in the sector about each others' achievements.
What do you least enjoy?
We have to travel a lot and I miss time with my family - I don't like being away from my wife and son.
What are your ambitions for the firm?
To be the Bell Labs of space. I want to build an industry. I see myself as an industrialist rather than an entrepreneur. I want to be the place people come when they are great thinkers and they want to build new stuff. I have no ambitions for an exit in the main group - I want our families to inherit the company. Spin outs are a different beast - they are designed for investor return which is part of the whole portfolio-based company strategy.
What are your top priorities?
Growing my crew and rewarding them well. They are crucial.
What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?
The UK government has helped enormously in re-invigorating the space industry and I would like to see them stick to their plans. They co-sponsor grants, de-risk investment and have made commitments on investment in space which allow companies to have a long-term strategy.
What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?
Develop stuff that will be around a long time. We need to go back to Brunel and the Stevensons - and think about the kind of long-term infrastructure we're supporting: energy, transport and looking after our cities.
How do you relax?
Play at home. My wife and I are getting good at building train-tracks- though I can't see these toy ones from space. I still like to be around the characters from my past to keep my feet firmly on planet Earth.