One seldom-considered option for learning new things about biology, chemistry and other subjects is to do experiments in space. Removing gravity removes obstacles to bacteria growth, stem cell research and growing new tissue among other things, letting space agencies and pharmaceutical companies develop new treatments. Still, getting reliable results from reliable lab environments is a massive chore.
That is where SpacePharma will make a major difference in the industry. They hope to bring down the barrier to accessible science experiments with the launch of their CubeSat (short for “cube satellite”) at the beginning of December. The satellite will carry the first generation of their mGnify lab to conduct biochemical experiments in microgravity.
It is the first attempt to commercialize work space in outer space. Up until now, there have been some limited services like parabolic space flights (SpacePharma is also in that game), but those flights offer only small intervals of weightlessness. The most consistent option has been getting access to the International Space Station and having one of the astronauts run the lab completely on their own. That has drawbacks, such as the astronaut having to learn how to conduct the whole experiment from scratch.
“It’s almost impossible to enter the International Space Station to do an experiment,” Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer Ido Priel says to Geektime. “You have to go through a lot of bureaucracy, go through safety committees and the equipment has to be thoroughly checked to make sure it doesn’t endanger the astronauts.”
SpacePharma can now push back. “This is much less strict and faster. Instead of years, the whole process can be up in space in a few months.”
Experience in intelligence, career in wisdom
Both Priel and Co-Founder and CEO Yossi Yamin worked for the IDF’s Satellite Unit. Yamin, a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli intelligence corps, commanded the satellite unit between 2005 and 2009. Priel started as a software engineer before becoming the corps’ leading engineer by the end of his nine-year tenure.
“The people who worked with us were the best satellite operators in the whole world. We asked ourselves, ‘How do we take some of the things we know, more specifically how do we take a satellite in space and turn it into a service to provide valuable data to users?’ We tried thinking of a concept that would help the greater scientific community.”
They elected to move off their expertise in sensors. A number of companies are already marketing services for ground imaging, but Priel and co. took it in a different direction. They found an untapped market in lab research, which was largely confined to the ISS.
“There have been 25 or 30 years of microgravitational research and we were thinking of something that could be done today,” rather than focus on a product or service that might take multiple years of new research before literally getting off the ground. “So we said, ‘Let’s apply this know-how in low-earth orbit.'”
Democratizing space laboratories
The lab gets its name from the idea that by using microgravity (mG in physics short hand), you will be “magnifying an entire solution” with breakthroughs that cannot be made on the ground. SpacePharma will be launching its lab-in-a-box inside a 30cm x 10cm x 10cm CubeSat (about 11.81″ x 3.94″ x 3.94″) that will weigh merely 5 kg. The lab itself, mGnify, will take up 2/3 of that (20cm x 10cm x 10cm / 7.87″ x 3.94″ x 3.94″).
Beyond cutting out the bureaucratic nature of applying to get your experiment on the ISS, SpacePharma democratizes the lab by allowing remote control of the experiment from the ground as well as the option to re-run tests if certain variables or conditions aren’t met. Results are also instantaneous with readouts sent straight to the company’s app on PC or mobile. The agreements the company make assume clients have full ownership over the results, rather than the share that countries who control the ISS get. In conjunction with the company, the experiments are designed and customized ahead of time.
The first batch of experiments will be from a mix of academics and commercial companies in the U.S. and Europe. Priel was not willing to divulge his clients’ information, but did say experiments involved growing bacteria and testing the assembly of chemical structures.
This is only the first of several designs for mGnify (pronounced “magnify”) that the company wants in orbit. Other designs will include drug screening, protein crystallization, gene expression, and cell migration labs.
Decreasing the costs of space experiments by a lot
The compound annual growth rate for the nano and microsatellite market is estimated to be somewhere between 20% and 30% through 2019, according to Technavio. However, getting into the air and paying for space on one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets costs a pretty penny somewhere in the hundreds of thousands.
“Cost is an interesting question,” said Priel, alluding to what his company anticipated would be a slew of developments that would drive operational costs down. “One of the big costs is the launch costs. We assume we will bring the cost per launch down and that we will be able to fit more experiments [on board], hopefully reaching our goal of experiments costing in the $10,000s.”
They are not too worried about the competition, which has been limited to companies providing either the hardware for the experiments or companies solely focused on parabolic flights. These include tourism company ZERO-G, which is offering weightless labs and with whom NASA currently has a contract, and SpacePharma’s contracted partner for future launches Swiss Space Systems (S3).
In 2013, they reached an agreement with S3 for four launches when they lift off in 2018, followed by a successive launch every month for two years, totaling 28 launches.
“We’re trying to grow and have capability to fly more often,” Priel says, and the company is not married to SpaceX. They are looking at launching more sophisticated experiments.
“We’re using SpaceX now but we already have strong collaboration with S3. What’s nice about their concept with the plane and small shuttle is that they are both reusable, so the launch costs will decrease. You can load the satellites much closer to active launch time.”
Growing slowly, launching soon
The team is looking forward to SpaceX returning its rockets to service after this summer’s explosive failed launch. The launch window opens December 1, though Priel and company still need to hope that their launch partner doesn’t push the schedule back. In the meantime, they continue to push forward with plans to raise more capital and sign up new clients.
The company has raised $5 million so far from a collection of anonymous angel investors, the Israeli Office of the Chief Scientist and the venture firm State of Mind Ventures by Pinhas Buchris and Yuval Baharav (SpacePharma is that fund’s first investment). The company is also finalizing a new $5 million pre-Series B round.
As for revenue, the company wants to make sure it builds a customer base.
“We also have research packages. To be relevant to the scientific world, we’re not doing just one experiment. The customer can buy a whole package and use different labs on different launches.”
That cuts back on a lot of the bureaucracy and gives the company a way to keep up with its clients’ needs.
The company was founded by CEO Yossi Yamin and CPO Ido Priel and counts 12 people among its core team. The company maintains headquarters in Delémont, Switzerland and a research center in Herzliya, Israel.
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