June Cover Story: Deep Tech
The hottest Southeast Asian startups in AI, Biotech, Blockchain and NewSpace. And why they make everyone else look boring.
Gilmour Space Technologies
Adam Gilmour, Founder & CEO of Gilmour Space Technologies PHOTO CREDIT: Joel Lim
For bankers keen to beat those mid-career blues, consider becoming a rocketeer. “I went from spreadsheets filled with derivative calculations to spreadsheets filled with rocket calculations and it was an easy transition,” says Adam Gilmour, founder and CEO of Gilmour Space Technologies (Gilmour Space henceforth).
The hope of interplanetary exploration led by Buck Rogers-styled figures like Elon Musk and Richard Branson is what usually excites space buffs. Yet away from the big-rocket glamor there is a blossoming industry in small rockets that can launch small satellites into low earth orbit (LEO, 2,000 km or less away). And arguably the most cost-efficient effort is occurring at Gilmour Space, just a few kilometers from Singapore’s Changi Airport.
Driving the new generation of rocketeers is the precipitously falling cost of rocket development. There are many reasons for this, including better, leaner rocket design, the application of new technologies such as 3D printing towards rocket parts, and the wealth of information NASA has given the world free of charge.
The savings are dramatic. It cost billions for NASA to develop its Space Shuttle’s rockets in the 1980s but just $90 million for Musk’s SpaceX to develop its Falcon 1 rocket in the 2000s. Gilmour is on track to spend just $30 million to develop its Eris rocket, scheduled for an orbital flight in Q4 2020.
“I think we’re the only one truly doing it low cost,” he says, noting that competitors Rocket Lab and Virgin Orbit have spent multiples of that. Think of the Gilmour Eris as the Tata Nano of space.
To put small satellites into LEO on the Eris rocket, Gilmour Space will charge an average of $25,000 per kilogram, half the current market price. He believes this reduction in launch costs will spur innovation in NewSpace, a sector in which start-ups get going for just $100,000 in seed funding. “NewSpace is not about using space components; it’s about using cheap alternatives [like automotive parts].”
Current uses of small satellites include imaging (e.g. high-resolution satellite photos), mapping (e.g. topography of planets), navigation (e.g. GPS), Internet transmission (both to underserved areas on earth as well as within space) and “debris management” (i.e. picking up metallic space trash).
Gilmour Space has 28 employees between its offices in Singapore and Queensland, Australia, where its launch site is. It has received grants from Singapore’s Economic Development Board and the Singaporean National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Cluster (NAMIC).
The city state’s appeal to Gilmour Space is this combination of grant money and research capabilities—the firm works with the Singapore University of Technology and Design on 3D-printed aerospace parts as well as development of a Mars rover.
Gilmour grew up in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, wanting to be a fighter pilot and astronaut. But then he watched the 1987 film Wall Street and began to idolize Gordon Gekko. He realized money was the surest ticket to space.
From 1990-94 he studied banking at Monash University, where he met his Malaysian-born wife Michelle (their three children are named after Star Wars characters). He joined Citigroup in Sydney right after college, and in 1996 moved to its Singapore office, so he could be with Michelle, who was working in the city at Chase Manhattan Bank (much later she too joined Citigroup; she left banking a few years ago to join him at Gilmour Space).
In 2004 Gilmour was inspired by Tier One, the winners of the Ansari X Prize space competition, who built a reusable spacecraft for $20 million. “If these guys can do that, it means the space business is accessible to a lot more people,” he remembers thinking.
Blessed by this Internet age—“NASA has tons of information for the world’s public on all kinds of cool tech”—Gilmour began to learn about rockets in 2009 by reading research papers on business trip flights.
(Michelle: “He really is that boring. He only reads research papers at night.”)
From 2012-15, he ran the company while working at Citi, with permission from the bank, with his brother James as its first employee. During those years it was focused on setting up a spaceflight academy and building simulators for space camps.
Gilmour left Citi in 2015 and by 2016 the firm had launched a rocket to an altitude of 5 kilometers using its 3D-printed hybrid fuel. That was a turning point, proof that a lean, low-cost operation could work. “We launched with only three people,” he says. It has since recruited some industry veterans.
Not everybody shares Gilmour’s optimism about this niche industry. “What is remarkable is the amount of activity going into a market [small rockets] whose demand remains so uncertain,” wrote Jeff Foust at Space News in January 2018.
Yet for somebody who just three years ago was Head of Financial Market Sales for Corporates in Asia Pacific at Citi, Gilmour is unsurprisingly optimistic. Rocket Men usually are.
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Soon we might all have doctors in our pockets. “The smartphone is going to be the cornerstone of healthcare in the future,” says Dr. Philip Wong, a cardiologist and co-founder of Web Biotech, which has created what it calls the world’s first cloud-based, tether-free continuous electrocardiogram (ECG) monitoring machine.
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Forget cryptocurrencies. Look at supply chains to understand blockchain’s magic. In December 2016 an Australian farmer sold 23 tonnes of wheat to a wholesaler and received payment in an hour—in what is believed to be the world’s first live settlement for a physical agricultural commodity using blockchain.
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Driving can be deadly. In 2017 the automotive sector saw 1.4 million deaths globally; while the commercial aviation sector saw zero. Part of the reason for the relative safety of the skies, according to evangelists of autonomous vehicles (AVs), is that people travel on planes operated by companies obliged to keep them safe. The operators try to ensure, among other things, that their vehicles are serviced and their pilots competent. Contrast that with automobiles: some 95% of road accidents are due to human error.