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[Beyond Earth] ‘Focus on space solutions, not market'

Operation of factories in space will be the next big issue for space pursuers, head of Starburst Korea says

By Kan Hyeong-woo

Published : March 5, 2023 - 14:48

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Kim Sang-dawn, managing director of Starburst Korea, speaks in an interview with The Korea Herald at the Herald Square in Seoul on Feb. 27. (Kan Hyeong-woo/The Korea Herald) Kim Sang-dawn, managing director of Starburst Korea, speaks in an interview with The Korea Herald at the Herald Square in Seoul on Feb. 27. (Kan Hyeong-woo/The Korea Herald)

Korean space startups should look for problems and solutions instead of putting too much focus on technology’s future marketability, says the managing director at the Korean branch of Starburst, a US-based startup accelerator specialized in the aerospace sector.

“Push back how big of an investment you can receive with your idea on the priority list,” Kim Sang-dawn, managing director of Starburst’s Korean office, told The Korea Herald in an interview at the Herald Square in Seoul on Feb. 27.

“Think about what problems or pain points will occur in which area once space activities are activated. Focus on what could be a solution,” he said.

Kim pointed out that Korea has a strong history of developing materials, parts and equipment, which he called “enabling technology” and referred to as the type of supporting technology used for enhancing other technologies and systems.

He took the example of the world’s first portable MP3 player, which was developed by local firm Digital Cast, and how Samsung Electronics greatly contributed to the global movement toward making cellphones smaller and advancing cellphones’ camera technology between the 1990s and the early 2000s.

In order for the country’s space sector to grow, Kim called for the need to give second chances in the space development sector, noting that it is difficult for companies to go ahead with second trials under the government’s current atmosphere surrounding the research and development support policies.

“For instance, a private company in Israel tried to land on the moon. It fell short during the landing process as it broke into pieces above the moon,” he said.

“The Israeli branch’s managing director told me with a bit of humor that people in Israel saw it as a half success as they said multiple parts ‘landed’ on the moon instead of one intact lander and had no problem with giving a second chance. That is the atmosphere there. Our country needs that socially and policy-wise.”

Kim said Starburst is on the brink of finalizing deals with two to three Korean aerospace startups, without mentioning any specific names. He took the leadership position at Starburst’s Korean office in January 2021. Starburst, which started in 2012 in France and now operates branches in eight countries, has inked contracts with 120 startups across the world. According to Kim, Starburst has information about 15,000 startups in its database as potential signees with 200 of them being Korean startups.

Among the startups on Starburst’s portfolio is Momentus, a space transportation service provider that carries satellites to a targeted orbit with space propulsion technology using water plasma. Momentus made its debut on the Nasdaq in August 2021. The space company’s market capitalization was valued at about $66.84 million at Friday’s closing.

According to Kim, who has spent about 30 years in the aerospace sector, the race for space launch vehicles and competition for developing constellation satellites are already in full swing. He pointed to the concept of a space factory as the focus of the space industry in the foreseeable future.

Mentioning an example of extracting glass fiber by melting the glass, Kim explained that the zero-gravity environment and vacuum state in space allow the extraction of glass fiber with higher purity compared to the purity of the glass fiber extracted on Earth. He underscored that utilizing the space’s unique environment will be the next chapter for space pursuers.

“As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has said, tens of thousands of people will be living in space in the next 10 years and there will be factories up and running in space,” he said.

For those who are hesitant to start a business in the space and aeronautics sector, Kim voiced caution against a common misunderstanding that this area requires a lot of funding in the early stages.

“In terms of developing software to analyze big space data, you would only need a few talented people and well-functioning computers to go ahead with a startup. There are already many people doing this,” he said.

As for the Korean government’s plan to establish a new space body, dubbed the Korean version of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, by the year-end, Kim explained the name of the new organization shows how the current administration considers space.

“The establishment of the Korea Space and Aeronautics Administration will be a huge milestone itself. The order of the name is space and aeronautics, not aerospace. Once the new space body presents a space guideline with innovative keywords, many companies and startups will be up for the challenge,” he said.

President Yoon Suk Yeol (center) poses for a photo with 40 researchers, company representatives and students who were invited to space talks at the presidential office in Seoul on Feb. 21 (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol (center) poses for a photo with 40 researchers, company representatives and students who were invited to space talks at the presidential office in Seoul on Feb. 21 (Yonhap)