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This UK-based startup is unlocking the potential of the space economy

This story is syndicated from the premium edition of Preseed nowa newsletter that takes a closer look at the product, market and story of the founders of UK-based startups, helping you understand how they fit into what’s happening in the wider world and the startup ecosystem.

The space race is back on, with a growing number of commercial operators eager to follow SpaceX’s exhaust trail.

This means there is a real demand to accelerate timelines for testing a wide variety of devices and materials for use in space. After our recent coverage of Space DOTS, let’s take a look at another company working in this field.

Gravity lab opens up new opportunities for indoor testing microgravity – the weightlessness experienced in space, which allows everything we record there to work differently than on Earth.

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“All the major challenges facing humanity: climate change, feeding the world, health care challenges and in our space junk industry – they all need access to microgravity for research and testing,” says CEO Rob Adlard.

“And that market is really suffocated. In fact, it’s not a real market right now. And so we’re blowing this wide open with some new hardware and a new approach to it.

In practice, what the Norfolk-based Gravitilab does is take a research experiment or piece of industrial hardware from a customer, place it in microgravity, and then send it back with data on what happened.

The startup is developing two products for this purpose. The first is a UAV called LOUIS that can generate microgravity for a few seconds without going into space (you may have seen this in the news a few months ago).

The second is a suborbital launch vehicle called ISAAC that will launch payloads into space for a few minutes before returning them.

Gravitilab’s ISAAC missile, currently under development

“It’s funny, in a way. You think that everything that happens on Earth is completely natural, and as it is meant to be. But actually, gravity is a pollutant. And it prevents us from seeing what physics really is,” Adlard explains.

“Microgravity is an absence of things that exist on Earth; buoyancy, hydrostatic pressure and sedimentation. The absence of those three things causes everything to function differently… and it’s really quite surprising what happens. You couldn’t really guess what’s going to happen.”

Even chemical reactions can proceed differently in space.

“You only do chemistry until you do it in microgravity, and then you do physics,” Adlard jokes.

Opportunities here include supporting academic research and the burgeoning satellite industry.

On the academic side, for example, Adlard says Gravitlab is collaborating with the University of Manchester to replicate a lab experiment in space.

“It involves heating up some material. That’s kind of complicated to do on a spacecraft. So we have to spend quite a bit of time developing a payload to turn it into something flyable.”

As for satellites, Adlard says the high failure rate of nanosatellites can be as high as 50%. So if you can test how they interact with the space environment before deploying, you could save major headaches and even more space debris later on.

“There are 1,000 startups building new, innovative hardware that has never been flown before. So there is a great need to get all of that done. We are in the supply chain for the space economy.”

Rob Adlard

Adlard co-founded Gravitilab in 2018 with the specific aim of tackling the queue of companies trying to get their products into the space economy in the wake of how SpaceX had rethought the industry.

With a background in aerospace engineering, he started thinking about new applications for an existing technology.

“I became very interested in what smaller rockets and suborbital rockets can do. In the past, suborbital rockets were just technology demonstrations – a stepping stone to something else. I think they’ve only recently taken on such a different meaning.

“If you were to say to someone in the industry ‘would it be valuable to be able to put something in space for a few minutes and get it back in your hand the same day?’ everyone would say, ‘Yeah, oh my god , that’s incredible, what did you invent?’

“Well, it’s a suborbital rocket, something that people are familiar with, but nobody had thought of it that way.”

Adlard met co-founder James Kilpatrick (now the company’s chairman and CFO), and they founded Gravitilab, initially under the name Raptor Aerospace. Once they mapped out a clear path for the company, they changed their name to one that better reflected their mission.

The Gravitilab team

Adlard says Gravilab’s UAV, LOUIS, is being readied for an official launch this summer.

“It took much longer to develop than expected,” he says. “It took about 18 months before we got permission to make its first flight. And we had to make the first flight and then develop the rest.”

He says he looks forward to showing it off more as many in the industry don’t yet clearly understand what it is.

While he prefers not to share too many details about exactly how it works, Adlard says as much: “Essentially, it overcomes the acceleration due to gravity by accelerating at the right speed so that the charge inside the inverse of the acceleration of the vehicle.”

The startup is also developing a variant of LOUIS called JACQUES, which can provide “partial” gravity for customers who want to simulate gravity on the Moon or Mars.

The startup’s suborbital rocket, ISAAC, is a longer-term project. A new version of the engine is currently under development, with plans for a test flight in January next year.

As an early-stage space technology startup, Gravitilab has raised more than most of the startups we feature in PreSeed Now.

They have previously raised £2.2 million in investment. They also won a recent £400,000 grant from the UK Space Agency, on top of previous business support grants from local authorities.

Gravitilab is now raising a £5 million round to accelerate the R&D phase and start commercialisation. Adlard says there’s a pipeline of customers lined up.

Adlard wants Gravitilab to penetrate deeper into the microgravity market over time. This includes the development of a larger vehicle to support larger payloads and longer periods of weightlessness.

But he also wants the company to address the environmental impact of the space industry.

“We are developing a new fuel for our engine, which means we have a carbon neutral fuel source, which is really quite unusual. We have a particular set of propellants that fuel our hybrid rocket engine, so it’s very different from liquid engines.

“There are a number of things we could do with that propulsion technology. We could do things with propulsion in space. We have exciting plans for things that could happen in about five years. But it’s all about sustainability, reducing space debris, cleaner propulsion and just delivering great space services.”

In a crowded market of startups focused on the aerospace economy, Gravitilab appears to be largely on its own.

“No one is doing anything aimed at opening up this stifled market,” says Adlard.

“You now have access to microgravity through the NASA and ESA programs, but only a few organizations can, and it has to be very specific, if they win a competition to do it. And you can’t really access that commercially Especially in Europe, if you’re one of these 1,000 startups trying to develop hardware, you can’t access that to test your hardware. You just can’t.”

Another alternative is a ‘drop tower’, such as that of the European Space Agency in Germany– enabling short-term microgravity experiments on Earth.

However, Gravitilab promises to be a more affordable and flexible option, providing several drops per day. The LOUIS UAV can be delivered to the customer, instead of the customer having to travel.

Meanwhile, an American company called bluShift Aerospace offers to facilitate space experiments in a rocket. But again, Adlard says flexibility is Gravitilab’s advantage here. A smaller payload means they don’t need as many customers to fill the space and warrant a launch of their ISAAC rocket

And Adlard says Gravitilab will offer a wider variety of microgravity time in all of its products to meet the needs of different customers.

Aside from the obvious difficulties of ensuring the company has the right funding at the right time, another challenge Gravitilab could face relates to the UK’s relatively recent entry into the aerospace industry.

“The UK is a bit behind on national programs and national ambition,” says Adlard.

“There isn’t really a space market in the world that isn’t supported by the government to some degree, because it needed that help because it’s so new and so different…SpaceX would have gone out of business if they didn’t get a NASA contract at just the right time for them, to be blunt about it.

“The US has significant funding for researchers to use microgravity. Germany has its own program and the UK has nothing. We don’t have access to EU programmes… It would be great if we were in the push for a ‘scientific superpower‘, they would put some money into that kind of research.

The article you just read is from the premium edition of Preseed now. This is a newsletter that delves into the product, market and story of startups founded in the UK. The goal is to help you understand how these companies operate fit into what is happening in the wider world and the startup ecosystem.

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