Speaker Interview: Kaan Pinar, Associate Partner, LightSpeed Innovations
With less than two weeks to go to Space Tech Expo, we caught up with Open Tech Forum speaker Kaan Pinar, who talks about new technologies entering the space industry.
Kaan is an entrepreneur and VC with aspirations in aerospace, AI and AR/VR. He is an Associate Partner at LightSpeed Innovations, an aerospace-focused startup accelerator in SoCal. Through LightSpeed he works with a network of frontier tech investors and startups doing nanosatellite data, 3D-printed habitats, propulsion and orbital debris removal. He holds a BAS in Aerospace & Energy Entrepreneurship from the University of Pennsylvania.
Hi Kaan, could you please tell us a little bit more about your position as Associate Partner at LightSpeed Innovations?
As an Associate Partner at LightSpeed Innovations, I am involved with sourcing aerospace startups, doing due diligence on them, shaping our cohort program, mentoring our portfolio companies, and building our network of frontier tech investors. We are a small but strong team, so often I wear many hats. It’s an incredible role that keeps me on my toes at all times and has given me exposure to all aspects of the New Space industry.
To give a bit of a background on LightSpeed Innovations, we are a startup business accelerator focused on aerospace companies. We offer startups access to a large network of experts, mentors, and investors. Our portfolio companies go through an intensive 4-month business bootcamp, which concludes with a demo day where companies get to pitch to an audience of investors and industry professionals. But we don’t stop there! We pride ourselves on becoming a part of the team with our companies so we continue checking-in with them and see how we can help after they graduate.
Whether it’s boldly going where no one has gone before, building the future, or unifying humanity under a vision, so far everybody I have met in aerospace joined the industry due to similar dreams and is interested helping the community grow and succeed. As such, we have a wonderful team of 60+ mentors from industry, VC, government, military and academia.
At LightSpeed, we target the broader aerospace sector, so our companies are in areas ranging from rocket propulsion, asteroid mining, drone hardware, and flight intelligence to nanosatellite imagery, satellite operating systems. virtual/augmented reality (VR/AR) and building habitats on Mars. It’s awe-inspiring really, I’ve had the opportunity to meet incredible entrepreneurs changing the face of the space industry and our life on the pale blue dot.
You will be presenting your talk The Frontiers of Space: The Applications of Frontier Technologies Within the New Space Industry on the Open Tech Forum on Thursday May 24:
Your talk will highlight some exciting new technologies, including blockchain, machine learning, augmented and virtual reality and many more. What is the status of these technologies at the moment and how do you think they will be adapted in the industry in the next decade?
Regarding the status of these technologies, it differs really. The best answer would be to say it’s farther than we (New Space professionals) think and sooner than what the public thinks. In my presentation, I will cover how these technologies are being adapted in the industry, but with a caveat. It’s funny, the further I go in my slides the more sci-fi things will become.
However, I’ll give a bit of a sneak peak. Frontier tech is considered as new and emerging corners of innovation that are in R&D and early adoption. In a general sense of the definition, this currently includes autonomous vehicles, drones, IoT, artificial intelligence (AI), 3D printing (for certain applications), blockchain, space 2.0, robotics, VR/AR, and specific biotech developments like CRISPR.
The application of some of these technologies in the aerospace industry is obvious while others are still in their infancy. For example, robotics has been used in the space industry since the 60s whether it be in Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV) or Remote Manipulator Systems (RMS). More recently AI and machine learning capabilities are being used to analyze large data sets, create swarm intelligence, and develop enhanced situation self-awareness. In the next couple of years, we will see these capabilities develop further to be used on the Mars 2020 Mission for the rovers to be equipped with autonomous driving, the science tasks inside the rovers to be carried out by AI, and on Earth for the Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) system for autonomous drone applications.
Further down the line, let’s say five years, we will see other frontier technologies being used more ubiquitously, such as vr/ar for astronaut training, blockchain for supply chain visibility and space becoming accessible, and of course 3D printing for in-orbit manufacturing. There are companies which have been developing these items for a while now, so it’s not far out. In my opinion, 3D printing for in-orbit manufacturing is crucial. Why send rockets up to space when you can manufacture what you need in orbit?
And lastly, 10+ years from now, we will see developments in synthetic biology (applications like CRISPR) come in to play in the space industry. These are mostly in the research stages right now, but with the help of machine learning I believe we will witness breakthroughs happening sooner rather than later. Synthetic biology will play a huge role in helping humans become a multi-planetary species, whether it is by enhancing humans for radiation-proofing, terraforming planets, or growing food and fuel via microbial biomanufacturing.
Traditionally, the space industry requires a considerable amount of time to implement certain technologies, due to the high-quality standards and maintenance processes. The industry is currently experiencing a paradigm shift and aims to produce components, platforms and systems much faster than previously, due to the use of commercial of the shelf and cheaper products. Which new technologies would enhance a quicker manufacturing process?
Blockchain, 3D Printing, and VR/AR.
Blockchain can help with supply chain visibility and digitalization. Currently, a lot of aerospace companies still work with vendors and contractors via pen and paper. If you are not one of the large aerospace primes, it takes a long time to finalize deals and acquire parts as vendors are rushing to work with the prominent companies. There isn’t really an industry standard in components designed. It’s really hard for new companies to enter the market. And as the cherry on top of the cake, contractors have contractors who have their own contractors and so on. To me that’s ridiculous. Blockchain can bring transparency and efficiency to the whole system. Companies will be able to track the complete path of parts, cut out the middleman, take a step towards industry standardization and cut hours spent by having a digitized system.
3D printing’s benefits include cost saving, risk mitigation, better customization and rapid prototyping. Most importantly, it allows companies to fail cheap. If something doesn’t work, you can just print it again! There are space startups developing 3D printing for building rockets, rocket engines, in-orbit manufacturing and construction on Mars. The possibilities are endless and you can pretty much be anywhere in the universe to manufacture something.
Last but not least is the use of VR/AR. This tech is incredible. It allows for design prototyping, immersive collaboration and visualization of changes. Using VR, without actually incurring the costs of building/manufacturing something, you can quickly visualize it in virtual reality, see if anything is designed incorrectly and if need be determine how humans would interact with the given object. Using AR, you can have a team in other parts of the world visualize a Mars Rover in their rooms and collaborate on it simultaneously, saving precious time. This is exactly what the JPL Ops Lab is doing today.
Another area you will address in your talk is VC and CVC investors. How will new technologies change the way these organizations invest in the space industry?
There’s a simple path in most technological developments and thus the investment that follows them. It usually goes as hardware, software, and then data. We’ve seen this with a variety of industries.
With drones for example, it was first the drone hardware companies that received investments, with clear winners such as DJI and Parrot emerging, and then it was software around flight management, obstacle avoidance, etc. coming into the investment equation, and then it was finally platform companies collecting data for agriculture, construction, public safety, and infrastructure that became the center of focus.
In the space industry, there has been a lot of investment around low-cost launch, again with key players emerging, and then around the first nanosatellite constellations which is now followed by companies building software for satellites and those who collect earth-imaging data for various applications.
Frontier technologies have an interesting role in this equation, they speed up each of these segments. Each of the technologies I have listed earlier, have the same development/investment path but occasionally an entrepreneur comes along with a way to implement them in a tangent sector such as the space industry and it becomes a game changer. This usually gets a lot of attention from CVC and VCs alike because larger companies often do not have the flexibility to utilize these technologies in-house.
One other factor of importance is that the investors which are focused on specific areas such as blockchain or VR/AR, may not think to invest in a space company on a normal basis, but as these technologies converge and the use cases/markets become clear more investors suddenly get interested in the space sector.
To provide a devil’s advocate point of view, there are also negative impacts. Saying you’re going to use a technology that isn’t fully established like blockchain in an industry such as space that is generally avoided by investors (for now), is also a straight path to a NO in most cases.
In terms of industry news, what development, announcement, or otherwise has stood out most to you in the past year and why?
Couple of months ago the Trump Administration’s 2019 NASA budget request was released. It formalizes the agency’s handover of human-spaceflight activities in low-Earth orbit to private industry, in favor of a shift towards the moon. It also cuts funding for the International Space Station (ISS) by 2025. It’s really interesting. I haven’t formed an opinion on this policy yet, but I’m curious to find out what sort of developments it will bring. We may see more accessibility and incentives from an entrepreneurial perspective to join the space industry and the initial infrastructure created to become a multi-planetary species. I know three companies working on building a commercial space station, Axiom Space, Bigelow Aerospace, and Orion Span, and a few efforts centered around building settlements on Mars and an outpost on the Moon, so I look forward to seeing what this will mean for them.
We’re looking forward to seeing you at the Open Tech Forum at Space Tech Expo, can you tell us what you’re most looking forward to at the show?
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be a part of the Space Tech Expo! I’m looking forward to finding out and learning about more companies changing the face of the space industry in ways we haven’t thought of before.
Don't miss Kaan's presentation on 'The Frontiers of Space: the Applications of Frontier Technologies Within the New Space Industry' on Thursday May 24, 9:20am at the Open Tech Forum.