Lift Off: Opportunities In Space Law
Once a science fiction pipe dream, or a mystery revealed only to NASA’s elite, space technology is becoming more accessible and mainstream. According to Dr. Sean Casey (Co-founder and Managing Director at Silicon Valley Space Center), Sunil Nagaraj (Vice President at Bessemer Venture Partners), Maryanna Saenko (Partner at Airbus Ventures), and Ronald Goedendorp, (Vice President, Space Opportunities at NanoRacks), this means endless new opportunities — and not just in outer space! The space technology industry has launched several exciting opportunities for legal, government, and business professionals in a number of areas.
Lower barriers to enter space technology
New opportunities exist in space technology that didn’t exist ten years ago. According to Nagaraj, this is because mainstream technology is embracing space technology. For example, in 2014 Google bought Skybox, a satellite imaging company. Our ability to utilize space commercially has also increased. Expenses to innovate space technology have decreased and other fields such as analytics and machine learning have developed, according to Goedendorp. These developments translate to much lower barriers for those seeking to enter the space industry.
Ultimately, says Casey, “space is now accessible to fund, and interesting technology can now fly off the small platform.” Casey suggests that these lower barriers to entry mean that both entrepreneurs and educators can now participate more freely. These low barriers to entry are paired with great opportunities for funding. Serious venture capital firms and companies, even those not traditionally interested in space, are angling themselves to be included in space technology.
IP and space
Of course, intellectual property issues are part of all innovation, especially when a field is developing. Saenko shares, “We recently funded a company that is Series A. We most definitely reviewed for and were interested in their interesting and meaningful IP.” She explains that innovation in space technology is occurring more rapidly, with more people able to access and build on research. She also expects the space technology boom to create a wave of secondary market innovations and applications in fields such as robotics and biology.
There will also be interesting intellectual property issues for components used within space technology. As the rate and amount of space innovation increases dramatically, standard off-the-shelf components are becoming increasingly available. This makes space innovation and R&D a quicker and more affordable process, Nagaraj explains. He observes that now, space technology innovators no longer have to reinvent the wheel for each component. This widespread availability of components speeds up innovation, but will also present interesting intellectual property issues. The legal field will see a rise in IP work in this new and exciting field.
Space savvy workforce issues
As Goedendorp says, “the space is taking off!” There’s no question there. The question is whether we have enough talent to support such quick progress and development. It is not a secret that “good aerospace engineers are not as common as other engineers, who are already a scarce resource,” Says Goedendorp. Casey advises space innovators to look broadly in universities and other educational facilities for recruiting. Space innovators should also consider seeking talent outside of their usual recruiting pool. “We also tend to be U.S.- and Silicon Valley-centric when we look for talent,” Saenko observes. “When it comes to recruiting aerospace engineers, we need to take a much more global perspective. If we don’t look in China, India, and Russia we will definitely miss amazing aerospace engineers and space technology talent.” Recruiting from universities and globally will most certainly present interesting employment law issues.
Involvement on federal, state and city levels
There is already a complex relationship between the space industry and the government. According to Goedendorp, “NASA is a customer, vendor, partner, landlord, and many other things” to the government. There are numerous other government stakeholders who wear multiple hats, and have multiple roles. And these stakeholders are located globally in Europe, Japan, Russia, China, and India. So, as a matter of course, space sits squarely in government relations and domestic and international politics. As Goedendorp states, “government plays an important role in space technology and we work with them and around them every day.” To say that this will present multiple complex legal issues is an understatement.
Saenko observes that government roles in space have been convoluted. For example, recently the tiny European nation of Luxembourg announced that it would open a 200 million Euro fund to entice companies focused on mining asteroids to locate there. Casey also notes that states and cities are also eager to get into the space economy. It is clear that big states with a large GDP such as Florida, Texas, and California don’t want to miss out on the space industry. Smaller states such as Kentucky and even smaller municipalities are also positioning themselves to participate in the future space economy. In response, a number of government-sponsored funds and opportunities are springing up to attract space industries, entrepreneurs, and talent.
Choosing the right opportunity
The allure of space attracts professionals and amateurs alike. Decades of Cold War, Chinese space challenges, and popular media like Star Wars have inspired bright thinkers for generations. Now that the space industry is booming, how should you choose which of the many opportunities to pursue?
One way is to emulate how investors choose where to allocate their funds. Nagaraj observes, “I spend 90% of my time on the question ‘Does anyone want this product?’ I want to see customer logs, emails, letters of intent, and other signs of interest.” Casey, Saenko, and Goedendorp agree that customers, market size, and market traction are important in assessing the size of any space tech opportunity. This is where most legal professionals looking to invest or take employment risks should focus when they evaluate space technology opportunities.
With everyone’s space-age dreams finally coming true, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with all the opportunities. For those seeking to make a significant monetary or career investment in the space industry, it’s important to make a very economic analysis to decide whether it is the correct choice. Although the industry is growing, not all opportunities are created alike. Legal professionals seeking a less dramatic transition will be in luck if they have experience in employment law, international law, regulators, and intellectual property. Those who are already working with space technology should keep in mind issues of intellectual property, regulation, and personnel. However, one thing is true for anyone seeking to break into space technology: you’re in for an out-of-this-world experience!
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This article was originally published by Above the Law.