SINGAPORE (Feb 25): Adam Gilmour had been a banker for more than 20 years when he left his job in 2012 to realise his boyhood dream of developing space technology, especially rockets. “As a kid, I would play with LEGO Space all the time,” Gilmour tells The Edge Singapore in an interview.

Today, the CEO and co-founder of Gilmour Space Technologies leads a team that designs and builds hybrid rockets, which he claims are cheaper, more environmentally friendly and safer. This is because the company’s hybrid-propellant rockets — unlike most commercial rockets in operation today — use a liquid oxidiser and a proprietary solid fuel. This overcomes long-standing performance issues with traditional hybrid rockets, especially explosions.

Gilmour Space’s rockets will be carrying a payload — such as a satellite — into space. While the company’s rockets have yet to be commercialised, test performances of its engines have shown promise. In late 2017, Gilmour Space conducted two successful ground engine tests, one of which was a low-pressure testfire that generated 45 kilonewtons (over 10,100 pounds-force) of thrust. This was improved upon by another ground test early last year that recorded 70 kilonewtons, or 15,700 pounds-force of thrust. Subsequently, the company achieved 80 kilonewtons, or 18,000 pounds-force of thrust, from a 17-second test-fire of its orbital-class rocket engine.

This year, Gilmour Space is set for a flight test. The aim is to test its proprietary hybrid rocket engine for commercial orbital launches. The 9m-tall rocket, called One Vision, will be carrying payloads from universities in Singapore and Australia. It will be launched from a “private property” in Queensland. Gilmour Space has operations in both Singapore and Australia. The company conducts most of its R&D activities here, but performs its test launches Down Under.

Orbital flight

“We haven’t launched any rockets into space yet,” says Gilmour. “The next one that we launch will be close to space. It will get into an area that is less than 1% atmosphere.” He adds that getting into space, which is beyond 100km in altitude, will be the company’s next challenge. “To be in space, you need to stay in orbit. To stay in orbit, you need speed, which is at least 8km per second. We are aiming to achieve orbital flight by 2020.”

Gilmour Space signed a Space Act Agreement last year with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration to collaborate on various research, technology development and educational initiatives. Under the agreement, the company will work closely with NASA on rover testing at Kennedy Space Center. It may also explore activities of mutual interest, including space transportation, propulsion, in-situ resource utilisation and sustainability and life support systems. Gilmour Space’s progress so far has enabled it to attract funding from new and existing investors. Last year, the company raised $19 million in a Series B round, led by Main Sequence Ventures, which manages Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) innovation fund.

The investment round also included Blackbird Ventures, which led the company’s Series A round of A$5 million in 2017. Additionally, US-based 500 Startups increased its stake from the Series A round. Gilmour Space also received funding from new venture capital, family-office and private investors.

The company’s progress has also attracted potential clients, who have expressed interest in using its rockets to launch their payloads into space. This could be for a myriad of purposes, including constellation-based earth observation and communications, satellite servicing, the Internet of Things, radar and debris clearing. “We have letters of intent from at least 12 companies. As we keep developing our technology, they should become firm contracts [eventually],” Gilmour says. “It’s not a big market yet. They know who we are. And we know who they are.”

Naivety needed

Gilmour Space was initially founded to design and manufacture spaceflight simulators that could be used for astronaut training. This business was supposed to fund the company’s eventual diversification into the rocket- making business, says Gilmour. However, that did not quite go according to plan, as it did not generate sufficient revenue, he says.

Fortunately, some venture capitalists came to the rescue. “They said: ‘We love the rocket business and we are going to give money for that. [But] forget about the other one. It’s not going to make any money,’” says Gilmour. Despite starting from scratch in an industry as challenging as space, Gilmour Space has managed to achieve one milestone after another. Gilmour credits this to his team of engineers, some of whom had previously worked for foreign space agencies and satellite manufacturing companies.

“One of the things I learned [in the banking industry] was that if there is an area of financial services that the bank didn’t understand — and another bank was doing it — it could hire people from that bank to help set up the services,” he says. “I realised that if you have a vision and money, you could attract talent that knows how to do it. As long as I had the interest and a good idea of the business side of things, I knew I could hire people such as engineers who could build the stuff for me.”

Also of big help to Gilmour Space is the Office for Space Technology and Industry (OSTIn), which provided the company with special grants, says Gilmour. OSTIn is the agency that is tasked with helping to develop Singapore’s fledgling space industry. It comes under the Economic Development Board (EDB). OSTIn works closely with the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Education, National Research Foundation, Agency for Science, Technology and Research and satellite- based companies.

It was not easy to obtain these grants, though. “You have to convince them,” says Gilmour. “They want you to employ people, conduct R&D here, generate intellectual property that can be monetised and contribute to the building of the local space industry.”

Being naive can be an advantage in building a rocket company, says Gilmour, although he admits that in hindsight, he had underestimated the challenges. Founders with a good measure of naivety are unlikely to give up before even starting. “If you have a really good idea that it is very hard to climb Mount Everest without oxygen, and you give it a go, what ends up happening is that you face an obstacle and you just get over it. And that’s what we did,” Gilmour says.

Space, the final frontier

The space industry is expected to grow into an enormous and lucrative one in the coming years. According to a Morgan Stanley report last year, the global space industry is forecast to generate revenue of US$1.1 trillion ($1.48 trillion) or more in 2040, up from US$350 billion in 2018. The most significant short- and medium-term opportunities could come from satellite broadband internet access, the bank says. This is because launching satellites that offer broadband internet service will help drive down the cost of data, in response to increasing demand for data, it explains.

In Singapore, the local space industry is still nascent. But EDB head of capital goods Wee Wei Tat says commercial players are starting to warm up to business applications using satellite technology. This is driven by satellites that are getting smaller in size, more sophisticated and cheaper to build.

Also, launch cost is declining. “All these factors are contributing to the growth of this market. I would say we need to be a bit more patient; we need to give the commercial players more time to adapt to use these technologies,” he says at a forum entitled Space Tech for Mobility, which was organised by SGInnovate on Feb 13.

This provides ample opportunities for companies such as Gilmour Space. Gilmour says no one will buy space components such as sensors, solar panels or satellites from a manufacturer unless they have been tested in space. Therefore, there is a burgeoning demand for launches to conduct testing in space. He estimates launch cost to be US$50,000 to US$60,000 a kg today. “That is already considered cheap,” he says.

Gilmour Space’s ultimate goal is to put people into space on one of its rockets, says Gilmour. But for now, he is watching the progress in this area closely, especially that by notable players such as Tesla CEO and founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Amazon.com CEO and founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. “It is on our agenda only if it is commercially viable,” he says.

Ultimately, Gilmour has high ambitions for the company. “Our vision is to be world-famous in developing fantastic space technology quickly and cheaply. This could involve technology required for deep-space missions, space mining or even trips to the Moon or Mars. We want to be right out there in space because that is where the future is,” he says. 

This story appears in The Edge Singapore (Issue 870, week of Feb 25) which is on sale now. Subscribe here