After an early morning swim in the waves of Carcavelos beach, I was ready for a day learning about venture capital, team management, and of course my favourite topic – sustainability.
The first presentation discussed the issues arising from the “space bubble” and the mindset switch needed in order to incorporate ‘business thinking’ in the space sector. According to the speakers, Emir Sirage, from the Portugal Air Center, and Miguel Pina e Cunha from Nova SBE, “space exploration is driven by science, and now we want to power it through economy, and that shift is just not there yet”. Miguel talked about “breaking the space bubble” by thinking about how space can help tackle the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In groups we were tasked to look at four different space related companies at varying stages of success to assess if they were upstream or downstream, if they had leadership for sustainability and worked on the SDGs, and if they could be considered a New Space company. This was an interesting exercise to do, as it raised a lot of fundamental questions on definitions: what is success? When is a company in New Space? What does sustainability mean? And how do you know that you are actually working on the SDGs?
As you may have guessed, with all these questions we discussed for a long time. But we were also able to get the company’s points of view through pre-recorded videos. Although I would love to say that we reached some clear definitions and consensus, the truth of the matter is that so much of space and sustainability is yet undefined.
It became evident that “SDG washing” seemed to be common practice amongst many companies. Similarly to “greenwashing” this means that companies use one or more of the 17 goals to improve their image. The issue is that the SDG Agenda consists of three different levels: the goals, the targets, and the indicators. The targets and indicators give specific meaning to the goals as well as ways to measure the contribution. However, in many cases only the goal is used to create a connection between the Agenda and an organization, thus there is no contribution. The latest report from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development stated that 84% of member companies referred to specific goals in their sustainability reports, however, only 15% had aligned their business strategy to specific target-level SDG criteria.
But now to venture capital (VC) for space. We had a great presentation and chat with Rodolfo Condessa from Armilar Venture Partners. He talked us through the different stages of investments and funding, going from universities & governments, to family and friends & angels, to Early-stage VC & Late-stage VC, Growth funds & private equity, all the way to public markets. Rodolfo states that the investment pace and valuations are already cooling off in 2022, but some fundamentals will likely stick around like innovative and good technology. One of his key messages was that Entrepreneurship is no longer an odd path to take and VC is no longer a niche asset class.
Our final presentation was on the topic of deep reinforcement learning with topics of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Although, I must admit I was a bit lost when it came to technical distinctions, it was amazing to see the countless applications this technology can have when it comes to simulating physical systems such as simulating waves to understand coastal dynamics. According to Hugo Penedones machine learning, powered by Earth observation data, can help drive down the cost of simulations and tackle bigger problems.
Before concluding the module with some celebratory ‘space-beers’ (on the university’s rooftop bar of course!), we had a feedback moment to assess the programme so far. Participants and organizers had a lot of good input and ideas, giving a great outlook on the future years to come.
A key takeaway for today was that there is a lot of potential to include meaningful concepts of sustainability in the commercial space sector, but in order to do so definitions need to be clearly expressed to avoid any assumptions.
Stay tuned for more!