jim whalley pamlea melroy

The future is out there

In The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos, Christian Davenport traces the tussle of US billionaires, egos, fortunes and competing visions for space as the next frontier for private endeavour. Half a world away, South Australia might not have the same deep pockets, but there is certainly no shortage of vision and entrepreneurial thinking.

About a year ago, with the federal government’s new space agency in the offing, Jim Whalley GAICD, co-founder of Adelaide defence technology company Nova Group, rang Colonel Pamela Melroy GAICD.

Board Space

Nova Group has a board of seven with four non-executive directors and three executive directors for governance, strategy and outside connections. They include co-founder Peter Nikoloff, CEO Greg Hume GAICD, Steve Boulton FAICD, director of ASX-listed IDT Australia Hugh Burrill GAICD, former BAE Systems executive and McKinsey & Co consultant Julie Cooper GAICD, and former Daimler South-East Asia CFO Holger Lindner. Whalley is chair and major shareholder.

A former US Air Force officer and NASA astronaut — with the flight nickname “Pambo” — Melroy flew three missions in space on the shuttles Discovery and Atlantis, including one as shuttle commander. Whalley and Melroy had first met in Australia in 2001. She was still an astronaut and he was on the board of the Sir Ross and Sir Keith Smith Fund, which helped bring Melroy to Australia for STEM events. She became a regular visitor.

Whalley, a former RAAF fighter pilot and test pilot, had recently completed Harvard Business School’s OPM executive education program when, in 2000, he co-founded Nova Systems with senior weapons system engineer Peter Nikoloff. Melroy left NASA in 2013 and has been working on the rapidly developing area of space policy ever since.

“I called her and said, ‘We need your help. Come and live here in Australia for a year’,” recalls Whalley. Melroy joined Nova as its director of space technology and policy and that “year” has certainly stretched.

In August 2018, Whalley was appointed SA’s inaugural chief entrepreneur. The brief was to help create the foundations in which startups could flourish. He is excited about the opportunities for skills, jobs and a post-manufacturing future.

“For a whole lot of reasons, space is a great place to be,” says Whalley. “Firstly from an economic point of view, and secondly it’s exciting and sexy. Then thirdly, we have a significant dependence on space-based services and products in Australia. That ranges from surveillance to multi-spectral imaging across mining and agriculture. The timing is right for Australia to take a step forward and be far more actively involved.”

Nova Group got its start in defence and aerospace and moved into systems safety and project management, navigation and communications. It is the only private Australian company qualified to do the required ground systems certification for defence satellites — about a third of its global work is with the Department of Defence. The company has been growing rapidly — at about 20 per cent a year over the past five years. It has now acquired aerospace engineering company GVH Aerospace, integrated communications company Auspace, geospatial firm Geoplex (it has the Defence distribution rights for planet imagery in Australia) and UK software developer, two10degrees. Employing 600 staff globally, Nova’s annual turnover currently sits at about $150m a year. The company was recently named one of Australia’s best places to work and in The Australian Financial Review 2018 Most Innovative Companies in Australia list.

“We promote ourselves at the leading edge. Nova has more masters and PhDs here than people,” Whalley says.

He wants to see the Australian Space Agency given the weight of a statutory agency. “This is the first time we’ve been serious about it,” says Whalley. “Money is being put behind it, there is support from both sides of politics and a clear understanding that this is a significant part of Australia’s economy and future development. But to be blunt, we have a lazy attitude. We’ve got a lot of smart Aussies who have been in this industry for years, doing world-class work — real capability, which is unfortunately not realised. It’s disappointing to lose that intellectual capital when it could be improving our intellectual capacity. I’ve got a 16-year-old who wants to become an aerospace engineer. I want him to know he can have a career in Australia. If we don’t have opportunities for those kids, we’ll lose them.”

Melroy argues it’s actually an advantage that Australia is late to the space party. “It’s growing at a phenomenal rate. It’s a good time to focus on the economic development of a space industry so you’re not purchasing offshore. Australia has not been heavily involved as a government in space, so it doesn’t have a lot of that baggage.”

$3b–$4b 2017 Australian space revenue

10,000 2017 Space industry workforce

388 Startups and private sector companies

Space skills

Melroy says being an astronaut gave her strong critical thinking and leadership skills, and that commanding a space shuttle is essentially high-octane project management where you work across multiple disciplines. “My job was to achieve the goals of the mission and bring everyone back. It’s essentially like a large operation — you’re responsible for scheduling with sophisticated constraints, a lot of hardware and life-threatening risk.”

Melroy completed the Company Directors Course for professional development as she was increasingly moving from non-profits to other board roles. “It became immediately clear that Australia has a high standard for directors. What I found important was thinking about why good governance matters.

“Some things I put in play immediately on a non-profit board. They’d never really had a skills matrix and due to a couple of personal circumstances, the board had fewer members than it should. I felt equipped to roll in and say we can use this skills matrix. It’s making a big difference in the quality of my service.”

Space UniSA

The University of South Australia launched the state’s first space incubator program in September to develop and grow the ideas of entrepreneurs and early stage startups in the sector. The Venture Catalyst Space program will give founders the support and tools to plan and execute the building of scalable and investment-ready businesses.

Part of the SA government’s $4m Space Innovation Fund, Venture Catalyst Space will run over four years with one six-month program each year. It offers startups access to workshops, mentoring and the chance of a fully funded overseas tour.

Venture Catalyst Space is delivered by UniSA’s Innovation & Collaboration Centre (ICC) and global partners the SA Space Industry Centre and the International Space University. The program is designed as a precursor to accelerator programs such as Techstars, Startmate and Bluechilli, where more established companies are led through an intensive short acceleration process. The five companies in the 2018 program are: Ping Services, ResearchSat, Wright Technologies, Safety from Space and Tekuma.

Peter Stevens, executive director of UniSA MBA and Executive Education, says the program is raising awareness of growth in the space industry and opportunities to invest. The university will soon open a second ICC on its Whyalla campus.