From South Africa to the moon: Control systems crafted by Stellenbosch’s CubeSpace

CubeSpace, a Stellenbosch-based tech company, has recently secured R47 million in venture capital funding to broaden its operations globally. The South Africa University Technology Fund is among its investors. Mike-Alec Kearney, the founder and CEO of CubeSpace, told BizNews in an interview that their products are endorsed by NASA and have been used to build the control system for a lunar rover developed by the UAE Space Agency. Despite the crash of the Japanese lander carrying the moon buggy, South African manufactured parts have made it to the moon. Kearney highlighted that the space industry has transformed over the past 20 years, enabling the private and commercial sectors to thrive. Under the guidance of Professor Herman Steyn from Stellenbosch University, CubeSpace began developing control systems for small satellites, known as CubeSats. The company has since grown into a market leader in control experience and satellites, supplying a range of products to NASA, the European Space Agency, and the UAE’s space agency. CubeSpace is now eyeing international expansion.Linda van Tilburg

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Highlights from the interview

CubeSpace’s Expertise Becomes Vital as Private Companies Venture into Satellites

In terms of inception, it’s a company rooted in research at Stellenbosch University. The space industry has undergone a fascinating transformation over the last 20 years, shifting from exclusive dominance by major governments like America and Russia racing to the moon, with massive government budgets for satellite construction. It has transformed into a more private and commercially viable industry. Just as computers used to fill entire rooms and now fit in your pocket, satellites, once large, have undergone technological miniaturization, making them cheaper to launch and facilitating easier access to space. This transformation allowed companies to develop commercial business models based on satellite infrastructure, resulting in a significant industry boom with increased private satellite development and investment.

Over the past 10 to 20 years, Stellenbosch University has conducted substantial research, specifically focusing on control systems for satellites. Professor Hermann Steyn, from the Electronic Department of the University, has led this effort. We began developing these control systems at the opportune moment when small satellites, known as CubeSats, gained popularity. As demand for control systems surged due to commercial constellations utilizing CubeSats, our expertise became crucial, as building a control system is one of the most complex aspects of satellite construction, requiring a specialized team. Leveraging our accumulated knowledge and experience from the university, we translated years of research into a product, laying the foundation for our business. The goal is, he said, “is to establish sales offices in Europe and the US to support our customers locally.”

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Self-funded from the beginning, 50% average growth over last four years 

From the beginning, about 10 years ago, we have been self-funded. Initially operating within the university, we sold our products, gradually generating revenue, hiring personnel, expanding facilities, and acquiring equipment. We continued this organic growth, reinvesting profits back into the business. Transitioning from university ties, we established our own facility adjacent to it. Our revenue has consistently grown at a rate of 50 to 80% per year, with an average of about 50% over the last four years. Anticipating a growth of 70 to 80% this year, we are in the process of moving to a new facility and launching a new product range. Additionally, we’ve secured a R47 million investment to facilitate international expansion.

Market leading position in terms of control expertise and experience

In the space industry, flight heritage stands out as one of the most crucial assets. Testing satellite products is inherently challenging since you can’t thoroughly assess them on the ground. While certain tests can mitigate risks for specific components, the true evaluation occurs only once the satellite is in orbit.

When individuals or companies invest in satellite components, they seek proven reliability in space. Over the past decade, we’ve been actively using and refining our control systems, contributing to over 300, possibly 350, different satellite missions with varied requirements. This extensive experience positions us as one of the most globally experienced providers of control systems. Having originated as a spin-off from the university a decade ago, we now proudly hold a market-leading position in control system expertise and experience.

Big international clients: NASA, European Space Agency, UAE, a lunar rover

For NASA, we have supplied a variety of products and undertaken custom designs for a mission that involved an ambitious and complex satellite. This particular satellite required custom-designed components that are not readily available as stock items. It was a challenging project that pushed the limits of what could be achieved with such components.

Although being outside the US limits our access to as many missions, we have collaborated extensively with the European Space Agency and major European commercial companies. Despite the geographical constraints, there is significant potential for increased collaboration with NASA, especially if we were to establish a US-based branch.

Another notable project involved providing the electronics for driving the wheels and developing the brains for a lunar rover commissioned by the UAE Space Agency. We adapted some of our satellite components to suit the needs of the lunar rover, which is also a very interesting research and development project. While we have a standard set of products, we also undertake custom work for specific missions as they arise.

As for the moon rover project, the first one we built the control system for was intended for a Japanese lander scheduled to touch down on the moon in the second half of last year. It was one of the pay loads on the lander. Unfortunately, the lander crashed, preventing the rover from being deployed. However, we are actively working on three other rovers slated for lunar missions in the upcoming years, details of which have not yet been publicly disclosed.

Why the Big boys go to CubeSpace – affordability, speed, streamlined process

NASA employs highly skilled individuals, conducting interplanetary missions and has some of the world’s top engineers. However, I believe the industry has reached a point where they want to build satellites quickly and aggressively, with younger teams and on shorter timelines. To be able to do that, you can’t do it all yourself.

For instance, if you want to build a computer, you don’t manufacture the processor, RAM, and hard drive yourself. You buy the RAM, the processor, the hard drive, and you assemble the computer. You buy the parts. Similarly, if you want to build a car, you don’t manufacture all the components that Bosch does. You buy the Bosch parts and assemble them into a car. We’ve refined our control system product to a very polished level.

We offer this at a very affordable price, with a very quick lead time. We just completed our fastest delivery ever. We received an order for a full control system for a satellite last Thursday and we shipped it yesterday. So, within a week, we shipped a control system for a satellite. Typically, for other suppliers, lead times would be four to eight months. We’ve really streamlined the process by refining the product. They could build the system themselves if they wanted to, but it would be a large research project and would take a lot of time. Instead, they can just buy an off-the-shelf part that they know works, at an affordable price, and get it quickly. 

No, no, I would have loved that. But essentially, Elon Musk’s team builds the entire satellite; They manufacture all the parts. They don’t purchase anything from anyone, they have developed everything themselves. It would have been nice to work with them. There are a lot of competitors and other commercial suppliers that are not necessarily doing exactly the same thing but are also involved in international communications. There are communication networks or earth observation constellations that are using our product. So, it’s not as large as Starlink. It’s not like tens of thousands of satellites yet, but there are a lot of growing commercial constellations that have our systems on board. As they grow, we’ll scale with them. But unfortunately, we couldn’t get on Starlink.

University of Stellenbosch owns part of the company

So, the original intellectual property that we started the company with was developed at the university. Over the last 10 years, we’ve dramatically shifted away from that. The university owned that IP and received a portion of shares in the company for it. In the early days, the university was incredibly supportive. They provided us with office space and purchased our first small, tented clean room. Although the link to the university is less important now that we’re a large commercial company, their support was critical in the beginning.

Anita Nel, who is now the CEO of INNOVUS, has been representing INNOVUS on our board. INNOVUS is the commercialization arm of Stellenbosch University. Anita has been involved in the company from the university side and has provided incredible, unconditional support. The university has been a very benign partner and shareholder. Often, people perceive having a university as a shareholder as something risky or negative. There’s a stigma associated with it. However, I can attest to the fact that they’ve been a great shareholder to have as part of our journey.

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World-class engineers produced at Stellenbosch University

Stellenbosch University, specifically the Electronic Systems Laboratory (ESL), is an incredible place. They have a satellite research part and also focus a lot on drones and robotics. It’s a great facility with a world-class course. The course at Stellenbosch University is absolutely fantastic and produces incredible engineers with a good balance of theoretical and practical experience and insight. 

Generally, South African engineers are just awesome. It’s well-known internationally that South African engineers are highly rated. I think we have a very practical, ‘get stuff done’ type of mindset. South African engineers do very efficient and practical engineering. This mindset, I believe, largely originates from a place of scarcity. Not having a lot of resources makes you industrious and innovative. This is the theme of South African engineers and is a big contributor to the success of our company.

The industry is growing but there are a lot of international European and US companies that start with $20 million seed funding on the back of an idea and they can’t do what we do. We started with nothing and grew it with nothing, and they can’t compete with us. I think that in this case, the scarcity of funding and the relatively immature supply chain that we had in the country right at the beginning made us very innovative, do very efficient engineering, and build something that is really quite phenomenal. The mindset of having something to prove to the rest of the world also helps, providing a bit of motivation.

Eyeing international expansion

The goal is to expand into Europe and the US over the next year. That’s part of why the funding was important to us. It’s not just about the money, but also about getting the right partners on board. Both UTF and Savant have a lot of experience with scaling companies internationally.

Having them on board to help us structure things correctly and find future funding is crucial for our scaling efforts. The goal is to establish sales offices in Europe and the US to support our customers locally. We’ll have salespeople attending conferences, which are our main marketing channel, and engineers on the ground to provide local support. Being in the same time zone and having someone who can visit their facilities will greatly enhance our customer support. That’s the goal.

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