By Robert Hughes, Advance.org Research & Insight.
It’s been over half a century since humankind left footprints on the moon, and since then, a lot has changed.
What began as large, low-orbit missions with human crew, and scientific endeavours by specific governments, has quickly become one of the highest growth sectors in the world. In fact, Morgan Stanley estimates the revenue generated by the global space industry may increase to more than $1 trillion by 2040.1 So, in the 2021 Advance Town Hall, some of the brightest Australian minds working across all major parts of the global space industry came together for a discussion on Australia’s place within this new growth sector and why we should all be focused on investing in it.
Two key takeaways from the discussion were the unprecedented but insufficient investment in the Australian space ecosystem, and the many untapped opportunities to help build for the future. So where is this investment coming from, is it worthwhile, and more importantly, how can you get involved?
Why is investing in the space industry so important?
Space investments are often criticised as a plaything of billionaires, with limited meaningful impact for us here on earth. But investing in Australia’s growing space industry is very different to say, NASA investing in their space program in the 1960s. A lot has changed, and many more real world benefits have been created in the process of modernising and evolving the industry. It’s important to start by defining the space industry from the ‘space economy’. Investing in the space industry, for example, in Australia, would mean investing in the manufacture and operation of space systems, such as rockets, satellites, and all the ground based equipment needed to operate them. It is worth then articulating the flow on effects of those investments on the whole space economy, which encompasses a huge variety of other sectors, which directly impact every citizen.
Source: Territory Space Industry 2020: Market Analysis, Northern Territory Government, page 5.2
These flow-on effects from the space industry (see graphic) directly impact Australia’s environmental services, energy and minerals, agriculture and maritime, and also allow us to have commodities such as GPS and satellite TV. Space industry developments also assist bushfire management and weather monitoring through satellite imaging, as well as providing defence and national security capabilities. And so, investments in our space industry underpin technological developments in some of Australia’s most important sectors.
Of course, investors are looking for a financial return too. And the evidence suggests that investments in space are yielding an impact downstream in other sectors, as well as returning financial gains too. In fact, in 2019 95% of the estimated $366 billion in revenue earned in the global space sector was from the space-for-earth economy: that is, goods or services produced in space for use on earth (space-for-earth encompasses everything from telecommunications and internet infrastructure, to Earth observation capabilities, to national security, all the way to mining).3 For example, Fleet Space Technologies and Oz Minerals were recently awarded a grant to use space technology in mineral exploration.
Why attract investors into the Australian space industry?
It’s clear that the space industry is attracting many investors, and the more we invest, the more real world applications that we will uncover. But what capabilities and assets does Australia’s nascent space industry offer?
- A highly regarded tertiary system includes twenty universities with space-specific education, training and research. For example, the Australian National University National Space Test Facility (NSTF) was the first non-Covid-related research facility at the University to reopen in May 2020.4 This pipeline of highly skilled Australian or Australian-educated workers for the sector, who have until recently largely opted to work abroad, are a huge asset to underpin growth of Australia’s space industry.
- Australia has become a world leader in quantum technology, allowing for deep space communication, as well as creating unhackable communications on Earth.
- Australia has a unique geographical position, and being sparsely populated, provides unparalleled access to space. Testing space hardware in Australia is alluring both to local and international investors.
- Australia’s advanced manufacturing capabilities, as highlighted in Advance.org’s 2020 Town Hall, means that we have the local capabilities to build the infrastructure that supports a growing space industry, not just for ourselves, but globally. In fact, SpaceX chief, Elon Musk, has suggested that the Hobart-based boat builder, Incat, could help build “floating, superheavy-class space ports for Mars, Moon and hypersonic travel around the Earth.”5
Who’s supporting/investing in the space industry?
At the moment, 87% of the Australian space market is made up of startup companies,6 with investment coming from all many sources.
- Incubator organisations and programs (often backed with State and/or Federal support) to help startups establish and grow, include Delta V, University of South Australia’s Venture Catalyst Space program, Cicada Innovations and Microsoft for Space Startups Australia.
- Federal investment the Australian Space Agency, which cost AUD$41m to establish. As of 2020, AUD$200m has been committed by the Federal Government to growing the Australian space market.7
- State government initiatives to adopt forward-facing policy and regulation to allow for quicker and safer growth in the sector. These include South Australia’s Space Industry Centre, Investment NSW’s Space Program, NSW Treasury’s NSW Space Industry Development Plan, Queensland’s Space Industry Strategy and many more.
As valuable as the government support for the space economy is, it’s not enough to secure prominence for Australia in the global space market. The majority of investment comes from private sources, mostly VCs, and unfortunately, Australia lags other markets (particularly the US) in having a robust private equity market and large companies to acquire innovative startups.
Only 18 VC funds have invested in Australian space companies over the past three years, representing only 3% of VC funds in Australia.
This represents a huge opportunity for Australian investors. Venture financing hit a record high in 2018, with companies such as Gilmour Space Technologies and Myriota being firmly placed in the global market as a result. While this is a great start, only 18 VC funds have invested in Australian space companies over the past three years, representing only 3% of VC funds in Australia. This may seem daunting, but it really means there’s immeasurable opportunity for investment now in Australia. And with the capabilities Australia has at hand, it’s an investment most VCs will want to make. They just need the right push to get started.
With greater investment, the Australian space industry will grow, and it will directly help Australia’s recovery post-Covid – both our financial recovery, and through transforming the economy to be less reliant on its natural resources and more on its people. Space technologies transfer directly to earth-bound sectors such as health and mining, and operate on a variety of scales, from smaller research projects to large, multi-disciplinary initiatives.8
This means that there’s no limit to the flow on effects we will see in the coming years. Our constant innovation in this sphere also protects our sovereignty. The old saying, ‘if you don’t do it someone else will,’ couldn’t be more true as a motivation to grow the space industry.
“We have the talent pool in Australia and overseas, with a strategy that directs it to key sectors. We can change the Australian economy quickly and pivot to a 21st century modern manufacturing economy. I’m very confident that can be done and I know that innovators will win when we do.”– Andrew Liveris, Former Chairman and CEO, Dow Chemical
What needs to be done?
Growing the space industry in a responsible and ethical way, to deliver benefits for all Australians, to pursue Australia’s sovereign and economic interests, are all lofty goals that will require a sustained and strategic effort. The Town Hall discussion and panellists shared their recommendations:
- Introduce more up-to-date government policy that’s able to adapt as quickly as the space industry grows. Beyond strategic investments, this includes supporting ease of travel for international talent, and moving beyond current geopolitical rivalries to promote international collaboration.
- Better articulate and highlight Australia’s investment opportunities. Attracting investment requires us to clearly state the opportunities with a long-term mindset, so investors can feel safe putting their money into Australian companies.
- Improve Australia’s commercialisation of technologies into other sectors. Space applications need to quickly translate into opportunities for Australia’s internationally renowned sectors, such as agriculture, natural resources, logistics and medicine. Investment will surge once the flow on potential from the space industry to the space economy becomes common knowledge.
- Continue promoting students and the existing workforce to develop their STEM capabilities. In the face of massive skill shortages, the advanced capabilities of our future workforce are a critical requirement to grow the space industry.
- Highlight existing industry leaders to inspire future generations and demystify the real world impact of investments in space technologies.
“Having the same level of secrecy in terms of IP as we do in other sectors, just doesn’t work the same in the space industry. If we’re able to instead collaborate internationally, we’ll not only be able to utilise other countries’ differing space capabilities, but Australia will be open to global input and investment.“– Adam Gilmour, CEO and Founder, Gilmour Space Technologies
On this last point, Advance plays its part by celebrating the incredible work of leaders in space technology through our annual Advance Awards. But to scale the space economy in Australia, action is required across all recommendations, and we need to start talking more openly about space, and all it encompasses. You can view the full conversation here.