For a Toronto-based innovation accelerator, the final frontier is the next frontier.
The Creative Destruction Lab, an accelerator affiliated with the University of Toronto, is now calling for applications specifically from starry-eyed entrepreneurs with space-focused startup ideas. And the new stream already has some star power behind it ― they’ve enlisted Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield to serve as the founding fellow.
“Space is obviously something that most people have a lot of passion about, because it’s primarily unknown,” said CDL’s Sheret Ross, who’s leading the accelerator’s new space stream. The “unknown” is ripe territory for entrepreneurs, who he says are in constant search of problems to solve. They’re looking to recruit around 25 new ventures.
Mr. Ross believes there’s a substantial talent pool in Toronto’s aerospace realm, but no clear path to entrepreneurship. “It’s really going to be about public-private collaboration, and creating an ecosystem where ventures can go through,” he told The Globe and Mail.
Near-market opportunities could be found in launching and landing technologies, and more future-looking ventures could include space robotics for habitat construction, asteroid probing or materials designed to protect against radiation in deep space. Mr. Ross was also intrigued by the prospect of using space technology to enhance terrestrial businesses, such as satellite data being used to predict mining sites on Earth.
The investment in space development at CDL comes just months after advocates labelled Canada’s space program as “stuck in low gear.” Though the country will soon celebrate involvement in projects such as the Radarsat Constellation, or the James Webb Space Telescope, critics say many coming projects were developed more than a decade ago ― without much else being added to the pipeline.
A white paper submitted last year to a government-elected advisory board on Canada’s space program recommended a $1-billion investment into Canadian space exploration, which the authors said would support Canada’s space researchers and inspire the next generation of scientists and innovators. The paper’s co-author, Sarah Gallagher, sees the CDL’s new space stream as a “fantastic investment,” and a move toward the ideal ecosystem of both small and large companies working in the Canadian space sector.
“I will say though, that I don’t think it’s sufficient,” said Ms. Gallagher, who also serves as associate chair of undergraduate physics and astronomy at University of Western Ontario.
She believes the private sector has an important role to play in the space industry, but she also believes it needs to be aided by a “properly funded” federal space agency.
“I mean, space is expensive and it’s really hard,” Ms. Gallagher said. Companies tend to require a return on their investments within a set amount of time, she said, which can be a hurdle to paving the way with bold new technologies.
André Vigneault, the Canadian Space Agency’s director of innovation, planning and commercialization, said he wasn’t concerned about a lack of funding for the agency. He said the CSA had maintained steady funding for “quite a while,” used to support university and industry-based development. They kept a “close look” on small businesses and startups as well, he added.
“A very high portion of our budget is reallocated to the Canadian space sector … externally, at the level of let’s say about 65 to 70 per cent,” Mr. Vigneault said. In his view, the agency’s role was to fund basic research and development, and to advance science and technology until it could be used for either space missions or on the market.
Getting space technology onto the market is a key goal for Amir Sariri, who heads up scientific community engagement and research and development for the CDL. He’s hoping to move some of the existing and “futuristic” work being done by Canada’s academics and researchers out of the lab and into the commercial sphere.
“The job of the CDL is that technology transfer aspect of it; something that Canada hasn’t been doing great for a very long time,” he said. A sparse few entrepreneurs seem to be leading an entire industry, Mr. Sariri said ― citing examples such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
“We are going to double down on the pace at which the technology and the business community are moving forward to help the formation of that industry,” he said. “As opposed to just being a follower.”