The aerospace sector is the latest one to be introduced to the nimbleness and innovation that are a startup’s signature elements. As new technologies like drones, internet of things (IoT), and data analytics bring their impact to this massive industry, it’s only natural that there are people whose mission is to connect startups with large corporations and agencies in that space, from Airbus and Boeing to NASA.
Starburst Accelerator was started in Paris in 2012 by former Airbus electrical engineer and aerospace strategy consultant Francois Chopard. Business development consultant Vandad Espahbodi joined him there to build up an avenue for corporates to meet smaller entrepreneurs.
Starburst now has offices in Los Angeles and Munich. Its latest stop is Singapore.
A ‘Shark Tank’ for aerospace
The accelerator follows a different model than other programs, in that corporations pay it an annual fee so it can source and incubate promising companies. When the accelerator identifies such businesses, it helps them scale on behalf of the industry that is looking for new ideas.
Starburst then organizes pitching events showcasing the startups. “We’ve been referred to as a sort of Shark Tank for aerospace,” Van tells Tech in Asia. “Instead of having five multi-millionaires, it’s 150 to 200 industry leaders, half from the corporate side, a quarter from the investment side, and a quarter from what we refer to as public research – labs, economic development boards, and so on.”
Corporations pay Starburst an annual fee so it can source and incubate promising companies.
Besides facilitating contact between small businesses and corporates, Starburst also provides inroads for investors who want to come into this space. “There are a lot of stereotypes in the aerospace industry – sales cycles take too long, things are too slow-moving, it’s impossible for things to happen,” Van says.
So Starburst helps filter out a lot of the noise for investors. “We can tell them what the industry is looking for, or at least provide an assessment – so if you’re a VC looking for more radical ideas, this is what the industry thinks about this idea right now,” he adds.
The accelerator hasn’t been investing in startups itself so far, but that will change with the establishment of its own venture capital fund, which will be completed before the end of the year.
It has also piqued the interest of private equity players who can provide more value to its startups. “Those that are very experienced in mergers and acquisitions in the aerospace and defense industry want to treat us as a possible vehicle for investments in some of those businesses, and using the data we’ve accrued to justify those investments,” Van says.
The opportunity in Asia
Singapore is going to be a center of operations for Starburst in Asia, as it looks to familiarize itself with the ecosystem both in the country and the region. “A lot of [Asian] hubs like Japan, India, even the Philippines, have businesses that need this kind of exposure,” Van says. “Here in Singapore it’s been a fun conversation with some of the local industry. We have to make sure we nuance what we offer here, reflect on the fluidity of venture capital in Singapore specifically, and tap a lot of the talent coming out of university.”
The accelerator will launch its own venture capital fund before the end of the year.
Starburst’s Singapore operation is headed by Alvin Chan, who was previously working with Singapore’s SPRING business development agency.
“I think in Singapore the specific nuance is that the government is a lot stronger and proactive,” Alvin says. “My specific portfolio [at SPRING] was in aerospace so I have good connections in the local landscape, the small contract manufacturers, the small prototyping houses, and so on.”
“Singapore is a testament to when you start to intersect tech community venture startup ecosystem criteria with the heritage of old aerospace, aligned with policy and trade of defense industry and spending,” Van adds. “And then you have agencies like SPRING and EDB that have been really good at creating these avenues to make those connections happen faster.”
Launching in Singapore
Starburst launched officially today in Singapore as part of TechVenture 2016. In a pitching contest there, 12 of the accelerator’s existing startups took the stage in front of industry players and investors.
“The way we’ve set up our model basically incentivizes the industry to say, what is this buzz about Elon Musk? What’s the deal with SpaceX? How real is all of this? There are people now that have accountability, in all these companies, to test it out and think differently what it means to partner with a startup or outsource your product development to a small startup in Singapore,” Van says.
These are the startups that pitched:
Spire collects data on ship tracking and weather tracking with nanosatellites. It has launched 12 satellites so far and plans to roll out 30 more by year-end. It will also be able to accommodate things like airplane tracking. The company has raised US$80 million in funding to date.
Natilus is a Bay Area startup that’s created an amphibious drone vehicle that can carry cargo on sea and air. The vehicle, which is about the size of a Boeing 737, sails out to 12 nautical miles from its port and then takes off, up to 20,000 feet. The company has already closed a deal with a large freight company. It’s backed by Draper, Sequoia, Google Ventures, and more.
South Korea-based Looxid is building an interface that can track data from eye movement to brainwave activity. It wants to apply this tech to an in-flight entertainment platform that offers personalized recommendations and analytics using VR technology.
Ursa Space Systems
A US-based startup, Ursa uses satellite imagery to create a multitude of data about the areas it surveys like construction rate and urban development, ship tracking, agricultural insights, and more. The company is preparing to launch its own satellite to orbit in the next two years.
Singapore-headquartered Innovative Binaries uses big data and artificial intelligence to provide predictive maintenance services for aircraft. Its software can be used to manage things like airplane structural health, engine health, fuel, and hydraulics. This allows for better and more timely maintenance of aircraft, resulting in lower failure risk.
Japanese startup Ale bills itself as the only “space entertainment company in the world.” It claims to create shooting stars on demand, a project called “Sky Canvas.” Later on, it aims to create other celestial phenomena on demand, like auroras. The startup plans to launch its first satellite in 2018.
Singapore-based Airgo wants to change how passengers ride on an economy-class flight. It’s created an ergonomic seat that is lighter, gives the passenger more room, and at the same time saves room on the aircraft. The company can also provide seating on buses and ships, as well as build equipment for offices and healthcare.
India-based Waxwing Avionics provides a variety of products and services to aircraft manufacturers. Its products include both software and hardware, such as flight tracking systems, collision avoidance systems, weather data, and more.
Australia’s Skyborne Technologies builds unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are more flexible, agile, and durable than other drones. The company has both commercial and military applications in mind. It currently has two drone prototypes under development.
French startup WinMS offers monitoring and diagnosis services for cable networks. Its technology can detect and locate damage to cabling, allowing for quick and precise maintenance. The company also uses sensors to prevent things like cable theft.
Singaporean startup H3 Dynamics works on internet-connected drones, robotics, and endurance power systems. The company started out by developing hydrogen fuel cells that are light and can be used on drones.
It also developed Dronebox, a connected drone launch platform that can deploy drones for specific tasks (surveying, for example) and have them return to it for storage and charging. Co-founder and CMO Taras Wankewycz demoed the technology yesterday at the Slush Singapore conference.
Gilmour Space Technologies
Australia- and Singapore-based company Gilmour Space Technologies wants to build launching vehicles that take satellites and other payloads to space. It’s using 3D printing to build rocket engines that allow it to create lower-cost rockets. The aim is to help smaller satellite companies to get their equipment in orbit.
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