From a space-starved nation to a pioneer in space technology, Singapore is breaking the space tech mould by leveraging its world-class private tech sector to drive innovation instead of creating a government-owned space agency.
By Preetam Kaushik
Any conversation about Singapore and space usually centres on the nation’s scarcity of land and confined living and workspaces. One would not ordinarily associate the city-state with initiatives to outer space.
The ASEAN region does not have any major government projects involving space research. Their neighbours of China, Japan, and India have all built government-funded space programmes, while ASEAN nations keep their focus firmly within earth’s atmosphere.
But yet, out of this void, something special is stirring in the region, and Singapore is the focal point. In a nation that has proven a fertile ground for tech startups, the only thing that remains for the private sector is the final frontier—enter space tech.
It all started with a spark in 2013
Before 2013, space tech was virtually non-existent in Singapore. But in the last six years, a fledgeling industry has emerged.
According to David Mitlying, COO of SpeQtral, a new startup working in this sector, global space tech funding reached US$5 billion this year, making 2019 the largest year on record for space tech investment.
All that money is flowing into a sector that is filled with more than 30 companies, employing over 1,000 people as part of the nascent space industry. Lim Tse Yong, a director at Singapore’s Economic Development Board, credits the creation of the Office for Space and Technology Industry (OSTIn) in 2013 as the catalyst for the growth of the space industry in Singapore.
Instead of funnelling billions of dollars into a state-owned space agency like other regional and global space players, the Singaporean government’s role has been more of an encouraging observer. OSTIn coordinates rather than financially supports, bringing together local startups, international businesses, universities, and other government agencies with the singular aim of nurturing innovation in the private sector.
Other non-government entities have sprung up as well. The Singapore Space and Technology Association is a non-profit platform to bring together stakeholders in the Singapore space industry. The Astropreneur’s Hub is also a dedicated incubator for space tech startups.
The private sector is the growth engine of Singapore’s space tech industry. Simon Gwozdz, CEO and founder of Equatorial Space Industries (ESI), told ASEAN Today, “ASEAN’s space tech is very interesting because it came to being for commercial reasons, rather than with huge, government-funded projects.” The focus on profitability adds a competitive edge to the space sector in the region.
Reduced costs are bringing the private sector into space commercialisation projects
Right from the early days of the space race between the USA and USSR, the space tech and industry has been firmly in the hands of state-owned agencies. Private businesses were largely relegated to the role of contractors.
In the last couple of decades, there has been a decisive shift in this paradigm. Privately owned entities are starting to come to the fore as independent operators. Due to the fascination with human space flight, companies like Space X and Blue Origin have earned the media spotlight.
With the evolution of new technology, space development has become cheaper and more accessible. Barely two decades ago, it would have cost a private firm a minimum of US$200-300 million to create and launch a communications satellite. These days, you can create a miniature satellite in a university for a fraction of that cost. Firms no longer need the vast coffers of NASA to have an impact in the field of space tech.
Singaporean start ups already have access to the tech capabilities
Advances in research have widened the space tech sector. The space race is over, and exploration is no longer the sole objective of national space programs. As a result, government agencies are turning to private contractors to broaden their programs and explore the commercialisation of space.
The OSTIn and other entities like it in Singapore realized early on that the private sector would be at the forefront of space travel. All the government needed to do was encourage entrepreneurs and startups to channel existing know-how and technology into space-related fields.
As this is an emergent field, companies are still devising business models and potential revenue streams. Some companies are committed to creating components for bigger space projects and agencies as a vendor. Others are involved in developing technology and licensing it out to other firms.
A lot of the technology used in space also has terrestrial applications. Many space tech firms are developing revenue streams through land-based applications of their products. For example, SpeQtral aims to develop a satellite-based communication system that uses light particles (photons) to send messages, making them immune to traditional methods of interception.
“SpeQtral has received a lot of support from Singapore. We are a spin-out of the Centre for Quantum Technologies (CQT) which was developed with grants from the Singapore government,” explains David Mitlying.
Trancelestial, another start up working in the communications niche, has developed high-speed internet connectivity systems to transmit data across long distances. Their next step – create a network of satellites to transmit data across the globe.
Aliena, a spin-off from a local university project, was originally developing alternative uses for plasma technology. It has since found aerospace applications for their technology is now developing new engine and propulsion systems for satellites using plasma.
Perhaps the most ambitious vision of them all belongs to Simon Gwozdz and Equatorial Space Industries. They are in the business of developing rockets to launch satellites into orbit, and with an estimated 8,500 satellites to be launched in the next decade, the time is now for an “explosive growth cycle,” says Gwozdz.
What does the future hold for space tech in ASEAN?
The 10 member nations in the region do not currently have satellite launch capabilities, despite a growing need for satellites. Given the region’s vulnerability to natural disasters, it would benefit enormously from satellite communication systems and geo-monitoring satellite systems. Singapore has nine satellites in space as of 2019, and all of them were launched overseas.
This is where Gwozdz sees a long-term opportunity. “I firmly believe a Southeast Asian space launch capability will also further galvanise the industry,” says a determined Gwozdz.
In his opinion, Singapore is perfect for a future launch site, but not on land which is in scarce supply. The ideal location is somewhere out in the South China Sea, perched on an artificial launch platform, similar to the dredging platforms commonly seen near Pulau Tekong.
Given the strong maritime heritage and tech capabilities of Singapore, this is certainly not a far-fetched notion. With the right kind of investment and research, it could become a reality, with the potential to change the space industry as a whole, and not just in the ASEAN.