As a kid, Seb Chaoui thought he’d be an astronaut. In his teens he fancied he’d be some kind of rocket scientist. And when he hit university he started studying to be a space engineer.
Now Chaoui runs a tech startup called Cuberider, which helps kids live their space-age dreams by giving them the tools to program experiments on the International Space Station, and he hasn’t even graduated yet.
“Halfway through my degree I realised all the fun isn’t necessarily in being an astronaut but it’s in being able to make a massive impact,” Chaoui explains. “And I feel that entrepreneurialism is definitely the way to do that. We can make the biggest change in the world if we put our minds to it. My vision and dreams since childhood have changed slightly, but they’re still alive and strong.”
Heading for the international space station
Sydney-based Seb and his friend Solange Cunin were doing an internship at space tech business Saber Astronautics in 2013 when they caught startup fever and decided to become ‘space entrepreneurs’ themselves.
Apart from software-focused businesses like Saber Astronautics, there hasn’t been much of a space industry in Australia. Anyone who wants to get involved in a space mission needs to piggyback on international operations to access the expensive hardware.
Still, Cloud software is driving a quiet revolution in space experiments. Scientists, and now students, can tap into the flow of data from connected sensors and robots sent out into the great beyond.
“We realised there was a gap in the market for STEM education (science, technology, engineering and maths) and we knew that enrolment in STEM subjects had all been declining for a long time,” says Chaoui, “so we decided to create a program that students and teachers could do together that would be an unforgettable experience.”
The Cuberider technology is based on a compact programming board with 10 sensors that records data such as temperature, UV radiation and magnetic fields for STEM experiments on the International Space Station (ISS). In November 2016, a payload from Cuberider will be loaded on a SpaceX rocket bound for the ISS.
“The whole aim for Cuberider is to inspire the next generations of scientists and technologists through space exploration,” Chaoui explains.
Making STEM cool in a nation obsessed with sport
If you really want students to get passionate about STEM subjects you need a lot more than an aspirational pitch about changing the world or reaching for the stars, Chaoui points out. You also need to overcome some of the social stigma attached to what have traditionally been seen as ‘nerdy’ subjects.
A quote by author and scientist Carl Sagan included on the Cuberider blog offers a chilling summary of the challenges we face keeping kids interested in STEM:
“Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist and then we beat it out of them. Few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.” – Carl Sagan, January 1996 in Psychology Today.
Perhaps Aussie kids are unfairly influenced by older generations, who are happy to encourage a passion for sport (“oi oi oi”), but don’t put enough time and energy into science-y experiences that are really engaging, notes Chaoui.
“Coding in schools is incredibly important: it’s essentially another language people can learn,” says Chaoui. “I think with programs like Cuberider we can inspire students to get in on it. You’re not just coding for the sake of coding: you’re coding for a real space mission. The fact young people now are surrounded by technology makes it a lot easier, because we’re basically the technology generation. We can’t just be consumers: we also have to be creators.”
Making space more accessible, while navigating international rules
One does not simply space walk into NASA and book a spot on the next lunar orbit, though the emergence of commercial space operators, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, means there are now many more opportunities in space travel.
One way Chaoui pitches Cuberider is to describe how young students’ eyes light up when he tells them he can send their experiments to space, and how that sparks them to do their STEM work.
“We’ve got kids in our program who’ve actually skipped class to go into the Cuberider program to make sure they get to code their space experiments.
“We’re taking one of the most highly advanced fields of science and technology, and literally making it child’s play.”
But one of the biggest challenges for Cuberider isn’t technical, it’s diplomatic. To get a payload into space, Cuberider not only needs to book a berth with SpaceX (actually the easy part), it also has to get approvals from the Australian government and NASA, which means a load of forms and emails bouncing back and forth across multiple time zones.
“We’re not a regular startup!” Chaoui laughs. “We have the same sort of pains as lots of other startups – cash flow, hiring and other regular things – but we also have this added complexity of the space mission. It’s possibly because space has been so politicised, with the Cold War and everything, it’s still a difficult thing to get access to, and there are still lots of political ramifications if we mess up.”
Lifting off with muru-D
With a few of their university friends already in startup land, Chaoui and his Cuberider co-founder Cunin already had Telstra’s muru-D incubator on their radar, but they were initially unsure if a space education company would fit.
“We were nervous about approaching them because we were dealing in a lot of fields that the muru-D mentors may not have had experience in,” recalls Chaoui. “But then we were given some really great advice before we actually applied. Eighty per cent of all business is the same – you still have to do the same financial stuff, the same accounting stuff, the same sales and legal – so it meant muru-D would be a great fit after all. They were right. We still went through the same growing pains as the other startups in the cohort and we were actually able to learn from each other.”
So why muru-D? Well, according to Chaoui the incubator offered several different networking advantages over other hothouses:
- muru-D is backed by Telstra – “You’re basically being invested in by one of Australia’s biggest businesses and with that comes a large network of people that you can access and that will probably help you and your startup for years to come. I cannot understate the value of a good network and Telstra and muru-D provide that in bucketfuls.”
- muru-D staff are problem solvers, not mere competition judges – “The staff at muru-D are amazing. They bend over backwards for you; they provide so much value and so much support.”
- muru-D is also about camaraderie – “You and your business partner are in the trenches sharing the same loads and going through the same challenges as nine other startups. It becomes a lot easier to handle, because otherwise starting a business can be a bit lonely. I think we’ll all be friends for life now, after going through this experience.”
Startup tips from Seb Chaoui, Cuberider co-founder
- Don’t just plan. Start something: “You don’t necessarily plan a startup, you go and do a startup. Some startups have spent two years trying to find an idea that will actually work before they do it. They waste all this time thinking about an idea, without actually going out and testing to see if people would be willing to buy it. The engineer in me is very much about rapid iteration and test, test, test. But the startup and entrepreneur in me is test, fail and keep on testing until you get the right idea – just make sure that all happens before you run out of resources and money. The successful startups are the ones that do as much failing as possible without running out of resources and money.”
- Be prepared for the heat: “You need to be outgoing, willing to test, willing to receive harsh criticism and a lot of rejection. That’s a difficult thing to cope with if you’re not used to it. You think your idea is great, everyone around you is telling you it’s a great idea, but the people buying it might not think so. Don’t take that as an insult against you. It’s probably not personal. You have to really understand why they’re saying no, so you can improve your product to better meet their demands. If you persevere and you continue to rapidly iterate on your ideas, you can be successful.”
- Get good at generous networking: “It’s not about going out to a networking event and blowing your trumpet. Networking is a two-way street. Be friendly and outgoing. Listen to other people’s stories and be willing to help. Don’t underestimate the value of helping someone else; it builds trust and can open up your network further. Also, I think a lot of people get nervous at these events. Just realise no-one is there judging you. You’re out there to make friends; friends and acquaintances that you might keep for the rest of your life. So there’s nothing to lose and all to gain.”
- Find a way to bootstrap your first mission: “We’ve managed to pretty much bootstrap our space mission [fund it ourselves]. We have a product that sells and we’ve used those sales to put directly towards the engineering behind it. When you’re a technical person, you always want to build the biggest, best thing you can. That doesn’t mean your business will be successful because you’re building an amazing product. What you want to build is a great sales funnel to help fund your amazing vision and turn it into a reality. Even angel investors want to see sales or runs on the board with customers that love you. So learn how to make the most of what you have and learn how to sell. Our first sales were tough, and then it started to snowball. We’ve just signed up 50 schools in the last six months and we’re looking at bringing on 350 schools by June 2017.”