Simon is the founder and CEO of Equatorial Space Industries, a Singapore-based space launch company that develops rockets and sends satellites into orbit. He graduated from the National University of Singapore and has never looked back on turning his childhood passion into his career. Here, he shares with us with his journey in pioneering and operating a start-up from scratch, and his hopes and aspirations for the space industry in Singapore.
By Charles Windle and Gracia Chua
Well, it’s a very irregular thing. I travel a lot, so when I’m on a business trip, things are very different. We have partners, suppliers and contacts worldwide so very often we have to deal with quite a bit of time difference. I like to start my day from replying to emails and messages and after that, well, I try to exercise regularly as well to keep the stress in check.
Then, we like to have lunch together. I think it’s a great way to bond with your team members. After that, I typically get involved with whatever is the bulk of my job – writing proposals and business plans, fine-tuning our value proposition, reaching out to different organisations, seeking funding. These occupy most of my waking hours, and I also have to address the crises or other situations as they crop up – you’ve got to be constantly alert.
The work never really ends, and I think that is one of the challenges of running a company. So just to answer your question, my day is spent mostly on my laptop communicating with people inside and outside of the company and it’s difficult to really pick a regular routine with that – it really depends on what’s going on at the point.
When we started Equatorial Space, we didn’t know there were so many people who want to get involved in a rocket projects in Singapore and in the region, and who don’t have much opportunity to do so. We happened to have a fantastic proposition and IP, which makes our project commercially viable. The countries with launch technology are very protective of their own technology, and there is a whole variety of restrictions on the people who can work on space technologies. I think that’s just not right for us not to have our own initiatives and say in this booming industry.
There is just too much underutilised talent in Southeast Asia and I feel very personal about that. I think we have to get that off the ground. We have to create this opportunity for our people to partake in this field, be it with satellites or with the launch segment, and each time I meet a person from university already keen on being a part of our industry – I know why our work is important. That’s what keeps me going.
Definitely, I think there is no other way to do a start-up – building a company is notoriously difficult but throw in some space tech (and especially literal rocket science) and you’re in for a very bumpy ride. If you don’t have a personal connection and personal conviction in what you do, then you will simply not persist through the pressures and the difficulty of doing it.
A successful test, closing a deal, signing a new investor, making a strategic connection that helps us understand the market and the tech better. I’m not an engineer myself by training – even though I did read up about it so I can understand what is going on, so my job is predominantly about making sure that we have a clear-cut direction and enough resources to fulfil that journey. If that vision is coming together well, the resources needed are secured, and the technological progress made – that’s what a good day would be.
When traveling, networking is a key part of CEO’s job, and if I do manage to get a connection with someone high-profile – not necessarily an investor, but someone offering a strategic partnership – I’d sleep soundly the night after as well. For instance, we recently established some promising connections in Thailand which opens an opportunity for our future development and growth. In general – any day that you end stronger than when you woke up is definitely a good one.
Well, every good day takes a number of tough days to make it happen. For one, the process of building a startup is somewhat confrontational by nature, which is markedly different from a typical career, and your job is to handle many delicate situations. Also, it’s a hit and miss job so you have to really play the numbers, have lots of meetings, make a lot of connections and exchange lots of emails, messages and conversations before making the game-changing arrangement. A day I would consider not particularly fruitful is when I did not secure anything new for the company, in which we did not make any friends who could be supportive and helpful in our journey, and there are days that we are passed on for investments we were optimistic about getting. These are not easy days to go through, but that’s part and parcel of the job.
Well you have to. I think a lot of people doing start-ups have a survivorship bias. You look at the success stories and ignore the failure stories, but that’s inevitable if you even want to try. You have to be inherently optimistic, but you have to be brutally realistic at the same time. You have to be very, very watchful of what’s going on in the market and be very clear about your competitive advantage – situational awareness in your industry and intellectual honesty about your approach and product are paramount. Ultimately, you need to deliver value to your customers or prospective partners, and if you aren’t then you need to make drastic changes with no time to waste.
Yes. When I was a small kid in the 90s, I would open up my sofa compartment so it was upright, and watched Apollo 13 facing upwards and pretending I was launching myself into space. I always knew entering this field was my ultimate objective. Of course, things don’t always work the way you hope they will work so my entry into the industry was quite unorthodox, but I never stopped working on the way to get into it.
I always had this interest in space on the back of my head but I didn’t really know much about the technology. I knew the nine or eight planets of the solar system, I knew the history of space exploration and knew how different rocket engines work, but I didn’t really know the principles or orbital mechanics behind them or the industry trends.
So in my first year of university back at NUS, I decided to start reading about it in depth. I got some books and read up on propulsion systems and orbital mechanics to at least understand the basics. I looked up on how different types of orbits affect different mission profiles, how different propulsion systems affect the mission architecture and the cost et cetera et cetera. So I got a bit of this head start in terms of the theoretical knowledge and around the same time I connected with the Singapore’s Space and Technology Association. I volunteered for events and got a chance to speak to people who actually built satellites – and was hence able to compare some of the theoretical knowledge with the real-life implications, and that was a total game changer for me. It did a lot in de-mystifying the industry, and at that point it became apparent that there is still a gap in launch capability, especially for dedicated small launchers, which is getting more and more competitive.
So around two years later, I started Equatorial Space. Before that I did run two small businesses, which weren’t really connected with space at all. But it was a good place to learn how to run a business. So long story cut short, we started this in 2017, it grew more than we hoped it would at some point and now we are preparing for the next test flight by year’s end.
And terrified. I will be excited after we do a test and secure more funding, based on the test, and then I will take a break for the next day or two.
Well, I remember one of the first experiences being an attempt to do this very simple demonstrator based on the principle of hybrid rocket proportion. That was in October 2017 – just humble beginnings – we built it from actual trash. Our reflection from that experience was that it’s really difficult to clearly state what is allowed and what is not allowed in terms of rocket engine testing, especially with non-explosive fuel such as ours, in Singapore. There is no such thing as a license to test a rocket engine, so the regulatory aspect was simply quite obscure, and there will be challenges in arranging a larger scale tests in Singapore.
Ground tests are manageable, but test flights are a whole different story. That’s more of airspace regulation consideration rather than matter under the police’s purview. So this was the first thing we had to wrestle a bit with. We are working with regional partners to secure a test range for that.
Besides that, in the early days we knew that our understanding of propulsion systems was limited, but you don’t really see just how little you know. I also had to learn the mechanics of funding a startup, of human resource management, of how to handle various kinds of conflicts and crises. We’ve come a long way since these early days, and evolved into a professional organisation rather than a student-led initiative that it used to be.
Well I think not knowing too much might be a blessing – if you knew exactly everything that’s ahead of you, you might be too intimidated to even get started. I wish I knew more about the general dynamics of running a startup, especially with many people involved, and knew more about the geopolitical considerations of space technologies back then. But again, learning is a part of the journey and learning fast is key to success.
Frankly, after you do a ground test and you hear that sound – even on a small prototype – there is no turning back. You feel this rush of adrenaline and there’s nowhere else you’d rather be. We have plenty of fun working together, and despite long and irregular hours we have a rather informal atmosphere going around. That’s the beautiful thing about being a startup working on rockets.
Okay… All of them are relevant. I would say, in an early stage startup, ‘adaptability’, ‘building a successful team’ — at a pre-revenue level, ‘customer loyalty’ is not really relevant just yet, but you have to start your outreach early on. ‘Quality orientation’, ‘attention to detail’ are definitely relevant. ‘Building partnerships’ is key for us. ‘Strategic decision-making’ can be linked to adaptability – you have to keep watching what’s going on in the field, and adapt to it.
Oh yes. It can change quickly, and it can affect you in major ways. Innovation is an important baseline to secure venture capital, but your job is to make a functional and differentiated product based on it. ‘Safety awareness’ is also critical for us, and I’m glad we internalized that quickly. I think ‘Communication’ might actually encompass all of these qualities together. Whether it’s conflict resolution inside of the company, or negotiating a contract: the clearer you are, the more likely you are to actually convince people that your method is rational. Miscommunication is the source of many troubles.
I think it’s both. In my case, I think it’s mostly nature. I think lots of founders are doing it for the hype and glory which is a fundamentally wrong approach. I was already planning to build something from scratch before the startup era even started..
In that sense I think it is nature – that creative seed is either in you or it’s not. But that being said, having the right environment is also paramount, and it may attract people who otherwise wouldn’t really think about it, and could actually turn out very successful.
This is especially true for older startup founders, who came out their previous careers and have a wealth of industry experience. In fact, those are actually the more successful types so nurture is an important quality of the ecosystem.
We are still pretty early on, but do have heritage in small satellite systems development. In terms of propulsion – frankly, not so much.
That’s changing – we have an in-principle approval to set up a local engine test site – where we’d attach the motor to measuring instruments and let it run without actually flying. There is also more interest in various commercial applications of satellites, which means even more launch business locally.
We’ve so far worked with very little resources and we’ve done a lot of great work. That’s also true of other Singapore space tech startups working hard on their products, and it boils down to one thing – funding and the political will to establish the regulatory framework.
I think there’s still some credibility gap for us to close – which largely stems from our early days as an enthusiastic but inexperienced team. But things now are different – we have the necessary expertise and know what to do next. Once we get the means to do it, we’re ready to truly fly.
I like to hire people who are capable, smart, and a little crazy – to get involved with rocketry the latter is quite important. With the nature of our work, we are mostly looking for engineering talent, but also administrative and business people to help us run the show. We are welcoming of fresh grads, as well as senior and experienced professionals.
At this point, successful tests are the most palpable measure of progress – each success lead up to a greater amount of funding, which brings us more resources for further development. For the immediate future, that’s the best performance metric.
However, once the tech has been flown, the next measure is the number of committed clients who want us to launch their satellites – at the end of the day, we are a business and we have to deliver value to our clients. Once that happens, the company will be ready to truly take off.