Here’s how to take on Musk and Bezos. Hint: it’s not rocket science

At FTI, we’re all about helping individual entrepreneurs tap into the greatest opportunities in history made possible by emerging technologies. Now anyone can build products which as recently as only a few years ago used to require millions in funding.

And if the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have access to large financial pools, today anyone has access to unlimited information and talent. And there are some things that money can’t buy. One of them being passion. Which is free.

To paraphrase Sun Microsystems’ co-founder Bill Joy’s words, no matter how rich you are, the smartest people still work for someone else.

Technology and the unlimited information available for free online have made one more thing possible: now people don’t need to wait for permission from institutions or top management to change the world.

Not convinced? How about aerospace, for example?

It used to be that if you had any dreams related to space engineering, you had to get a job at NASA. Not anymore.

Now, a host of privately-funded companies are pushing the bar even further, relying on technologies like AI, VR and 3D printing to drive costs and lead time down, causing even NASA to play catch-up.

From Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to a host of smaller companies, the competition for the final frontier seems to be heating up every day.

In today’s world, virtually anyone, possessing strong enough passion and tenacity, can disrupt a multibillion-dollar industry like aerospace. And they don’t even need to be an aerospace engineer. More on that in a second.

A $5 million rocket

Earlier in 2017, New Zealand company Rocket Lab launched into space what some publications described as the first 3D printed rocket. The rocket was 17 meters tall and though it didn’t make it to orbit, the test was an evidence how far private efforts have reached.

“[…] reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our program”, company founder and CEO Peter Beck said.

Rocket Lab’s ambition is to build a rocket called Electron at the cost of $5 million and a capacity to carry a cargo of 225 kg into orbit. This is a fraction of SpaceX Falcon 9 which can carry up to 23 tons into low-earth orbit. This comes at a much higher cost however, with launches worth as much as $60 million.

The lower costs are not the only thing which makes Electron especially interesting. While it is not quite 3D printed aircraft per se as described – its outer shell is made of carbon fiber –its engine is almost entirely 3D printed.

Rocket Lab’s launch

Later in 2017, it was announced that NASA had built a 3D printed rocket engine igniter. Dome described the move as heralding a new era of space launch.

One of the first to pioneer using 3D printed components in rockets to bring costs significantly lower was Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Later, many others, innovators and incumbents alike, followed suite. In addition, SpaceX is working on lowering the costs of rocket launches in a number of ways, including building reusable rocket systems.

Blue Origin is also a large private player, founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. In April 2017, he sold $1 billion worth of Amazon stock to privately finance the company, after several rounds in the past few years. The efforts seem to be paying off because after a few initial unsuccessful attempts, in late 2016 a Blue Origin spacecraft made it to suborbital space.

Bezos’ company is also reusing rockets with a few of its capsules and rocket boosters performing several consecutive successful tests.

Printing a rocket on Mars

Another company out of California is reimagining the industry on an entire new level. Ironically, Relativity Space was founded by two young engineers who formerly worked at SpaceX and Blue Origin.Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone are hard at work to remove humans out of the spacecraft manufacturing equation. They believe 3D printing is the answer to bringing launch costs down to $10 million from the range of $60 million to $100 million currently.

Indeed, the company is working on a pretty tight budget by industry standards but is already building a prototype of an almost entirely 3D printed rocket. In addition to many of the components, even the engine will be 3D printed. They claim that their technology will be capable of manufacturing a rocket in just a matter of days.

Their first prototype is expected to be tested in as early as 2021. The 3D printed rocket will be tall 90 foots and will have a carrying capacity of 2,000 pounds.

It is no coincidence that their project has attracted prominent investors like Mark Cuban, who alongside with startup accelerator Y Combinator and venture capital company Social Capital, have put a total of $10 million into Relativity Space.

Bootstrapped – The company may only have 14 employees but its plans are disruptively ambitious. Today it is using 18-foot tall robotic 3D printers to build rocket prototypes in its factories. Its long-term goal however, is to print the first rocket on Mars, founder Ellis said in a Bloomberg interview with journalist Ashley Vance, who also happens to be the author of New York Times bestseller “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future”.

18 ft robots built to print rockets. Credit: Relativity Rocket

There are also a few dozens of larger and smaller commercial launch companies, opening up an entire new industrial sector, as demand for rocket launches keeps rising.

Vector Space is one example. The company is launching rockets as tall (or short) as 12 feet out of the Mojave Desert. Its rockets also include some 3D printed parts intended to make rocket launches cheaper than ever.

With those innovations, companies are making it possible to do many more tests per year.
Rocket Lab is aiming at 50 annually. For comparison, NASA, whose project are worth hundreds of millions of dollars and take years to develop, can afford to fly its giant Space Launch System (SLS) no more than twice over four years.

Next disruption

Larger players are also catching up with the agile innovations of the smaller guys. However, the next innovation is more likely than not to come from an unexpected player – the crowd.

Back in 1996, US engineer, physician and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis announced a $10 million prize for whoever could build a spacecraft capable of flying three people up to 100 km above ground twice in two weeks.

The only problem was he didn’t have $10 million, nor any team. It took him eight years and hundreds of rejections to finally secure the capital from Iranian-American entrepreneurs Anousheh and Hamid Ansari.

The project attracted a lot of publicity and its successful launch lay the foundations of the commercial aerospace industry. Peter Diamandis and his team have since perfected the model of designing public contests through the so called XPRIZE Foundation. The organization attracts investors and manages competitions which solve what it calls “humanity’s grand challenges”.

The model has a chance of succeeding where others don’t. It taps into the collective intelligence of a global talent pool of extremely passionate and qualified individuals working towards a cause they care about.

The initial prize attracted 26 teams from seven countries. The model works so well in solving grand tasks because the efforts and innovation that go into the process are asymmetrically greater than the investment.

The XPRIZE for example, resulted in $100 million invested in new technologies in pursuit of a prize worth $10 million. Not to mention the unprecedented “free” media exposure for the project and its sponsors.

Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing have allowed millions of small and large enterprises to tap into an endless wealth of resources in the past years. Industries like spacecraft manufacturing and space exploration are ripe for disruption.

The only bottleneck they’re all facing is talent.

As evidenced by numerous project, the convergence of new technologies, innovation and easy access to capital allow entrepreneurs to build faster and cheaper.

Now crowdsourcing will allow even individuals to solve grand challenges. And, in the case of rocketry, they don’t even need to be rocket scientists to be able to publicize the project, raise money and find the right experts with the required qualifications.

There are numerous crowdsourcing sites out there. XPRIZE, for one, has built its own platform allowing anyone to launch their own mini contest. In 2015, a spinoff of XPRIZE Foundation named HeroX made it possible for anyone to set up their own contest and raise funds to solve a problem or project they deem important.

The terms are clear. Announce clear rules of the contest, raise the money, only pay the winner. Much more agile compared to traditional project management in large corporations.

Sure, many of the latter have also started organizing contests with external contributors solving company problems, as opposed to solving them in-house. It’s a smart and much needed approach.

And yes, it’s reasonable to assume that sooner or later some young and bold entrepreneur will (and should) decide to use the prize model, combined with 3D printing and other new tech, to take on aerospace again.

Why not you?