Interview with Stanislaw Ostoja-Starzewski to mark his selection as a finalist for the MIT TR35 Young French Innovator of the Year contest, which L’Atelier partners. The Engineering graduate of the Lyon Applied Science Institute INSA, who is fascinated by space, is creating with his company, NovaNano, disruptive solutions around nano-satellites to provide low-cost communications capability.
Yes, and one who has been passionate about space since his earliest years. “I was already excited about the exploits of the astronauts and the moon landings when I was five years old,” confesses 29-year-old Stanislaw. And he was already building experimental rockets up to 10 feet in length as a member of a university club while he was studying at the National Institute of Applied Sciences (INSA Lyon). He also had the opportunity to take part in a rocket launch campaign with the French space agency CNES, and really started thinking of working in this field. During his studies, he met Spas Balinov and their friendship turned into a decision to set up NovaNano together when they graduated in 2009.
The disruptive idea?
To build miniature satellites equipped with receivers to provide a means of radio communication all over the world, even in the most inaccessible areas. Their NovaSat nano-satellite is a space platform with a specific purpose. “Every satellite has a function – it might be Earth observation, a listening device… or a communication resource, and that’s the path that we chose,” explains Stanislaw. The two engineers have been working with telecommunications experts, combining the two technological fields in order to create their business model around global connectivity. "Spas and I felt that something really disruptive was about to happen in the next few years. That was rather a historic moment for us," reveals Stanislaw. As regards nano-satellites: "This is a vector which is going to bring about new applications and create disruption in terms of costs, vis-à-vis the services that exist today."
Why did he get interested in nano-satellites?
During various exchange programmes and internships, Stanislaw realised that while miniaturised satellites were being developed on university campuses they still remained at the stage of an experimental concept. "Systems had already been launched in the early 2000s but they weren’t really working properly. Performance and quality still fell a long way short of the target. Universities simply don’t have the industrial resources to bring this type of project to fruition. So we saw an opportunity there." The two colleagues embarked on their adventure, in full awareness that they were not the only ones likely to be attracted to the field of nano-satellite construction. "Following the miniaturisation of electronics, due largely to the progress described by Moore’s Law, i.e. Gordon Moore’s prediction that computer chip performance would double every eighteen months, we’re able today to build satellites small enough (weighing less than 50kg) to launch as a sort of extra passenger on a rocket, car-pooling for satellites if you like. And development costs are low enough for a startup to be able to get into this business." In fact space projects are mostly state-run – "The space field previously used to be the preserve of major manufacturers nourished by State contracts," stresses Stanislaw – so a startup/small business like NovaNano can feel relieved to have been able to obtain financing to build and launch satellites into space.
So how does this affect us?
"Today, two thirds of the world’s population is still not connected to the Internet. This lack of connectivity and communication capability is affecting the development potential of those people and economic activity in those regions." Through NovaNano, Stanislaw intends to connect as many geographical areas as possible at an affordable cost. The basic principle of a satellite is that it orbits the Earth so as to provide global coverage. This ability to reach any and every point on the Earth’s surface and thus enable information to be exchanged with areas not covered by the traditional networks is certainly going to have an impact on those societies.
And what does the future hold?
The company is planning to embark on the pilot phase, which means demonstrating the full system, as of July this year. 2014. The partners envisage launching two demo satellites in order to assess how they function in orbit. The testing phase will be backed by a number of clients who wish to help set in motion and perfect the system. NovaNano is now seeking to raise funds –€2.5 million is the target for this financing round – and is currently in discussions with various potential industrial and financial partners.