jeudi 3 septembre 2015

Space Elevator? Entrepreneurs? Hungarian Castle? What the heck are you talking about?

COPERNICUS Space Science Laboratory logo.

Sept. 3, 2015

How A Community Of Entrepreneurs Based In Chile Did “Rocket Science” In A Hungarian Castle

Yes, you read that right. A bunch of entrepreneurs decided to get into Space Science and do a bootcamp, because that is what we know how to do. This is the story of what happened and the lessons we learned in the process.

What is Copernicus I?

Copernicus I is an Exosphere program focused on experiential learning in science and technology in aerospace engineering and related fields. The camp has been designed to provide an opportunity for students to collaborate with scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and economists in researching the technical and economic feasibility and developing a working virtual model of an endogenously-powered space elevator.

The venue: marvelous Chateau Bercel

The 3-week program at Chateau Bercel outside Budapest, Hungary was comprised of participants from diverse backgrounds in science, mathematics, engineering, and economics, ranging from recent high school graduates to professionals in academia and the aerospace industry. It took place from July 13th to 31st, 2015. I will go into more detail below.

The Copernicus Series
Skinner Layne talking about the Copernicus Series

Video above: Skinner Layne, Founder of Exosphere, talks about the Copernicus Series and Exosphere’s view on Science and Technology.

Exosphere’s Copernicus Series brings Exosphere’s entrepreneurial and experience-oriented philosophy of learning to science and technology in the aerospace field and helps bridge the gap between research and business, breaking down the silos of knowledge that have been built up in modern society.

Read this article by Exosphere Founder Skinner Layne to learn more about our proposed formats for learning like problem-identification laboratories, skill bootcamps, and one-on-one mentoring:

Among the goals of the Copernicus Series is to provide young people a hands-on learning experience that is directly connected to leading-edge research in science, which is usually only available to graduate and post-graduate students.

Why is this important? Worldwide demand for STEM educated professionals is growing rapidly but access to elite-level education at traditional learning institutions on a global level (I am aware of the postdoc problem in the US) remains limited to an elite few with the resources to pay for it. Online learning, blended learning, and micro-learning are part of a whole host of proposed answers floating around and while we encourage experimentation with all of them we take a non-ideological approach. Continuous experimentation with locally useful solutions is needed.

Exosphere’s thesis is that countless young people opt out of careers in science and technology because science education fails to expose them to the interesting applications of science to their life and the problems of the world. Furthermore, careers in science have come to be attached to a stigma concerning their earning potential, especially in traditional academia.

It is often years and years before students come in contact with actual applications of the skills and fields of the study they spend so much time acquiring. When they don’t develop a clear, experiential understanding of what, say, a physicist’s day to day work life looks like, it is no surprise that droves of STEM students change majors (~ 50 %) or abandon their studies entirely (~ 30 %) (though the lack of good employment opportunities is also a big factor). This can be counteracted by offering experiential learning opportunities before they start studies or during semester breaks. There those students curious about a particular field can sample it before committing years of their lives to it along with a pile of money in student loans tying them to risk-averse behaviour after graduation. Many of them are forced to take the first job they can find to start paying their installments.

The mission of Exosphere’s Copernicus Series is to expose youths to the exciting potential of science and prepare them for success in a quickly changing world, while helping experienced researchers commercialise and profit from their innovations through entrepreneurship. Through this process, the program will serve as an ongoing, productive platform for building the requisite brain trust of experts and practitioners in academia and industry to provide the resources and know-how necessary for further development of space related technology into commercializable endeavours while advancing space research and raising awareness for space exploration.

Why, oh why is science still not appealing to so many people who physically and mentally are fully able to engage in research and likely to make valuable contributions? One reason may just be the lack of excitement associated with not only the day to day work, but more importantly the public perception.

While we have made progress in making science more “sexy”, it still doesn’t hold the same appeal as entrepreneurship or programming. Both these areas champion a sort of “hacker mentality”, which is about overcoming limited resources, circumventing suffocating rules, combining old things in new and interesting ways, etc. All of these can, have been, and should apply to science, too.

Our slogan HACKING THE FINAL FRONTIER is about that: providing an experience along with a sexy public perception. Our participants should be proud to tell their friends about “this cool thing I went to in summer” instead of apologizing for “going to nerd camp”.

Another important feature of our programs is the mix of participants along a whole host of axes. This leads us directly into the lessons that I took away from the experiment of Copernicus I.

Diversity over Mastery

Discussing a simulation of Economic Development for the Space Elevator

Having people from many different backgrounds and of varying experience levels was both a challenge and an asset. Though every individual participant felt out of their depth a majority of the time, we advanced quickly through individual problems. Everybody got to learn things they wouldn’t have had an inclination or incentive to try and understand otherwise.

Let’s take a closer look at these axes of diversity and how they affected the program.

Age Distribution at Copernicus

Where the younger team members prodded the experts to explain their statements and justify their assumptions, the older ones helped co-curate the experience by channeling the work towards fruitful avenues.

Gender distribution at Copernicus

While many women from the Economic and Social Sciences applied, very few applied from the STEM fields. Only those women came to the program who were already working as professionals or entrepreneurs. We will continue to work on building an environment welcoming to our fellow female scientists and entrepreneurs.

One piece in this strategy is our Athena program for women in entrepreneurship and technology. The program is designed to offer ambitious and innovative women the opportunity to come together in a welcoming place, work and learn from each other, be inspired by successful international women visitors, and understand emerging technologies.

Curiously enough the women we did have at Copernicus were successful entrepreneurs in Tech and Space.

Occupation at Copernicus

3/4 of participants were pursuing degrees at traditional universities while the rest was split between paid employment and pursuing entrepreneurial ventures. Curiously enough two of the three women were entrepreneurs in space and tech, the other a consultant at Bain & Company. Copernicus II is going to be focused much more on building new ventures out of the findings at the program.

(If you are an entrepreneur or investor interested in space startups, drop me a line at

Fields of Study represented at Copernicus

While most participants studied either Physics, Mathematics or Economics, there was a surprising level of diversity. Several people held several degrees or were working towards additional ones.

We even had one of the very few space lawyers present: Kamil Muzyka is the legal advisor to TRED Laboratories and extremely knowledgeable about the legal landscape in space exploration, asteroid mining, etc.

Educational Level at Copernicus

This counts only the highest level of formal education achieved. Multiple degrees and skill not certified by a university are not included. Many had additional knowledge in coding.

Country of Origin

Most participants were studying either in the US or the UK, but their nationalities covered 3/5 continents. Our notable guest from Japan was the lovely Kayoko Oshima, co-founder of the Japanese Space Elevator Association and principal at Jump To Space.

All in all a rather diverse group and by no means expertly knowledgeable in space elevator research. That is not necessary — though each and every participant did feel very much out of their depth a majority of the time, there was always somebody else to go to for a missing piece in the puzzle.

Experts are important, but only as resources to the participants. The depth of knowledge about a specific field is useful for speeding up the research done by participants, but it cannot replace it. Neither should it.

Going into the program we had a well defined schedule with quite a few theoretical sessions planned. With titles like “The Noumenia Process for the Lunar Elevator”, “The state of the art in Nanotechnology”, “Commercialisation of Space”, and “Space Colonization” we believed we had covered all our bases for getting everybody on the same page. Apparently too many bases…

Michael Laine presenting his Lunar Space Elevator Infrastructure module

Having lectures was good for building a common understanding of the problem and field, but it proved hindering in Week 2 when participants were dying to get to work. It reminded me of our very first entrepreneurship bootcamp, where we stayed too close to what you might call the “lecture model” we were trying to break away from. The theoretical part cannot take up more than 20 % and should be well fitted to the program. Though there are many interesting topics in space science, not all of them add value to a program that deals with a very specific problem like the endogenously-powered space elevator.

The lesson here is that having experts present is incredibly valuable, provided they spend more time helping the teams to refine the questions they’re investigating than presenting content in a one-way street. It’s the hard-won, hands-on expertise of many years spent in their respective fields that enables the participants to work through problems faster and close in on the right questions to ask in less time. There needs to be some structure so that people can work without having to worry about where to meet, when to eat, and so on. But this structure should always be amenable to change and stay in service of the goal, not become an impediment to work.

Related links:

Exosphere’s Copernicus Series:

Athena program for women in entrepreneurship and technology:

Images, Graphics, Video, Text, Credits: Copernicus/Moritz Bierling.

Best regards,

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