Fleet Space Technologies has big plans for a niche industry.



Flavia Tata Nardini, co-founder and CEO Fleet Space.

Rocket engineer Flavia Tata Nardini will see your moonshot, Silicon Valley-speak for an extremely ambitious goal, and raise you Mars.

The Italian-born entrepreneur has stratospheric ambitions for her nanosatellite start-up Fleet Space Technologies. These include becoming a $1bn company and offering interplanetary communications.

“We want to become the Internet of Things (IoT) and telco provider for the Moon and Mars, then all the planets,” she says. “We are ready to scale.”

Nardini was at the leading edge of the emerging commercial space industry in South Australia when she co-launched Fleet Space in 2015.

It was partly a product of her stellar career in Europe’s space industry, and partly a lack of job opportunities for a foreign citizen in the state’s then-defence dominated sector.

“I found myself with no opportunities to keep doing space, unless I wanted to study or wait for citizenship, as there was no commercial space industry,” she says. “My co-founder Matt Pearson and I entered into this journey for pure love about technology and space.”

Today Fleet Space’s location in South Australia’s growing space industry seems a natural fit, but there was a time when early adherents like Nardini had to fend off unbelievers who worried a space-oriented company couldn’t survive outside Silicon Valley.

Fears Fleet Space couldn’t attract investment or talent are now moot after investors such as Grok Ventures and Blackbird Ventures poured in $20m, and as South Australia rapidly fills up with global space companies and experts.

Indeed, Nardini says there are few places that can match South Australia’s support for R&D, talent pool, and government support.

“Why would I go anywhere else?” she says. “I really love the speed (at which the space industry is growing).

“We came here and started building a company of hundreds of people, and the ecosystem grew rapidly around us. Now Adelaide is a city that is the centre of space in the southern hemisphere.

“I live on the beach and our lifestyle is fantastic too. But it’s also about investors who are understanding. And we are so close to customers, way more than I will be anywhere else. So, I think South Australia is a perfect spot.”

The state’s relationship with space goes back to the 1950s, when Woomera was the second busiest rocket launch site after Cape Canaveral in the US.

A variety of projects followed, led by the Department of Defence, including the launch of Australia’s first satellite WRESAT 1 in 1967.

But in the past five years the next generation of space companies in South Australia has been commercially focused, says Richard Price, chief executive of Defence SA and the South Australian Space Industry Centre (SASIC).

“They’ve come out of the universities, such as (satellite company) Myriota,” he says. “And … from entrepreneurs who’ve come into the sector from overseas to start their space businesses, such as Fleet Space.

“None of them has been set up as a defence company, and that is the big difference today.”

They include Southern Launch, which is establishing a launch complex at Whalers Way on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula and aims to do 36 launches a year by 2031. The new SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) is a major space industry-research collaboration. Aerometrex offers satellite-based mapping services. And Neumann Space is developing new ion thruster space propulsion technologies.

Those organisations have grown out of a state government strategy that identified space as one of nine priority sectors; the goal is that by 2030, companies based in South Australia will own the small satellite niche and its spin-off industries.

Price says the state is now at a tipping point: all of these pieces, from research to infrastructure, make up a complete space ecosystem which creates a critical mass of design, manufacturing, launch and satellite operation capability.

Dr Matthew Tetlow, co-founder of Fleet Space and founder of his own space tech company Inovor, says the next decade should see an explosion of successful start-ups as the combination of government, defence and commercial opportunities attract experienced local and international talent.

“Large companies are increasing their presence as they begin to see the centre of gravity of the space industry forming in South Australia,” he says.

“The current start-up companies will have tested and proven space technology delivering capability for Australian customers and into the international export market.

“The South Australian public will regularly be able to watch rocket launches that will have locally manufactured satellites on board.

“We will have inspired school children and the public at large about the benefits the space industry can deliver to improve life on earth.”

Entrepreneurs like Nardini are the elder stateswomen and men of South Australia’s new commercial space industry.

At their heels are nipping dozens of start-ups associated with cutting edge technologies, covering applications in communication, earth observation and more.

At present, only a handful like Fleet Space have successfully raised capital, but Nardini has high hopes that come 2031 “many, many other space start-ups” will be sourcing funding from similarly high-profile investors and joining her in the stars.

Interview by Rachel Williamson.

Sourced from: ‘The Deal: Reinventing Business’, The Australian, June 2021, p.4.