Naomi Kurahara can’t quite remember how her love of science, engineering, and space came about.
It may have originated from a book or article she read as a child. Or was it the shows and movies she watched at the time—"Star Trek," "Star Wars" and the Japanese sci-fi animation "Space Battleship Yamato?"
One moment she remembers clearly is the first visit to the International Space Station by a female Japanese astronaut, Naoko Yamazaki. That moment in 2010 left a lasting impression on Kurahara.
“I had an interest in science, but, more than that, I had a dream to work in space. I really wanted to be an astronaut. That’s why I became interested in science, and in particular astronomy,” she told The ACCJ Journal.
Kurahara’s dream to work in space remains just that: a dream. And yet, as cofounder and chief executive officer of Infostellar, a space communications startup, she has taken a massive leap toward that goal. And, in doing so, she has helped open up space as the latest frontier for startups and innovators.
At the same time, she is inspiring a new generation of entrepreneurs in Japan and abroad—especially women from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields—to reach the stars.
Born in Oita Prefecture, Kurahara studied electrical engineering at the Kyushu Institute of Technology in Fukuoka Prefecture.
While her PhD was in engineering, her research theme had a focus on space environments and spacecraft.
“I really wanted to study something space-related. So, I joined a laboratory that was researching spacecraft systems.”
It came as no surprise, therefore, that after completing her doctoral research she joined the University of Tokyo, where she worked on ground systems development for satellite operations.
Some three years later, she left academia for the private sector and joined Integral Systems Japan, Inc. (ISJ), which provides ground systems mainly for geostationary satellites. She worked there as a systems engineer.
But shortly after she found her footing in the corporate world and, in 2016, set off on her entrepreneurial journey and cofounded Infostellar.
Infostellar’s main product is called StellarStation, a Cloud-based platform that allows sharing of antennas or ground stations.
The platform seeks to transform the space industry in two ways: to reduce the startup costs of developing ground stations; and to help satellite operators scale their businesses.
“The space and satellite business is not a mature industry; it’s a growing industry. These days, satellite operators are trying to create a main revenue stream, which means their budgets are limited.”
This presents a chicken-and-egg problem: satellite operators need to carry a lot of data to make revenue. However, to carry more data, they need more ground stations or antennas, which are expensive, Kurahara explained.
“That’s why I thought that a cost-effective ground segment service is needed. However, again, it’s difficult to have your own antenna network. Infostellar provides a Cloud-based platform to share ground stations or antennas among satellite operators.”
UBER FOR ANTENNAS
Infostellar’s target customers are Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite operators. LEO satellites travel at about seven kilometers per second, but they don’t always stay in the same location—say above Tokyo. This means they need a wide distribution of ground stations with which to communicate.
“If I want to ensure an extended communication period with the satellite, I need a distributed ground station network.”
But to put expensive ground stations in different countries is difficult for many reasons, such as prohibitive costs and reels of red tape.
To alleviate these challenges, Infostellar purchases the ground station services of third parties, allowing operators to leverage—via StellarStation—those moments in the day when their antennas would otherwise be idle and to share them with LEO satellite owners.
In doing so, ground station operators receive compensation, thereby opening up new revenue streams. This is a form of sharing economy—but for the space industry.
“The problem for the current space industry is a lack of a ground segment or infrastructure—which means ground stations. If you want to do a satellite business, you have to create your own ground stations, which is not cheap,” Kurahara explained.
What’s more, if you want to scale your satellite business, you will need many ground stations all over the world, because of the satellites’ orbit around Earth. Infostellar aims to tackle both challenges, and then some.
In addition to StellarStation, the company has an e-commerce platform called Makesat that sells satellite components—including solar cells, transmitters, and kits—for building satellites.
GROUNDED IN THE SKY
Infostellar has been a going concern for some two years, but one wonders how an academic-cum-employee suddenly launches her own space industry startup.
It began in college.
“I had started a research project while still at university with a goal of creating a commercial satellite,” Kurahara recalls.
“But there was a problem: universities often cannot create a commercial project, because their main objective is education and research, and that is not completely the same as the aims of business.”
During her time doing pure research, it became apparent that—if she wanted to create a commercial product with real-world applications—she ought to move to the private sector.
When she joined ISJ, Kurahara worked on a ground station network project. This harked back to a similar project led by the European Space Agency (ESA), on which she had worked as a student.
When the ESA project ended, Kurahara discovered that, while there were other ground station network projects, none of them had a commercial focus, nor were they widely used.
This led her to wonder why, as it was clear to her that ground station networks were a necessary launchpad for commercial opportunities in space.
But she also understood that—in large companies such as ISJ—there is often a main line of revenue, and that makes it difficult to start new projects that don’t feed the revenue stream directly.
“So, I struggled to push the new project internally,” she confessed. Infostellar was her way of igniting a commercially focused ground station network project.
A NEW FRONTIER
That being said, one wonders whether it was an easy transition: to pivot from the mindset of an academic to that of an employee and then an entrepreneur. Did her scientific background help? It did.
“In engineering, my professors always taught me that the problem statement is really important. If that is not clear, then you can’t know what you’re doing.” The same principle, she believes, applies in business.
So, has the life of a founder been a walk in the park? No. Especially not in the very early stages, when she had to reprogram her mind from that of a self-starting researcher to that of an executive who had to delegate.
Another challenge in the early days was to convince investors that her ideas were not entirely pie in the sky. Indeed, when she and her cofounders first approached investors, they didn’t have a product or service. All they had was a pitch and a slide deck.
And then they had to explain space—an industry in which startups became engaged only recently, around 2010, and whose market size was then unclear. According to a 2017 industry report by SpaceWorks Enterprises Inc., commercial nano- and microsatellites were to account for more than 70 percent of such launches in the next two years.
So how did Kurahara and her co-founders convince investors? There were two ways: a solid business plan and the team, led by Kurahara herself.
Custom Media publishes The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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