For Danish entrepreneur Niels Buus SLN1994, the great voids beyond Earth’s stratosphere are full of commercial possibility. Denmark’s Business Leader of the Year in 2017, Buus is CEO of GomSpace, which produces nanosatellites; satellites the size of a shoebox that can perform the functions of larger models at a fraction of the cost.
Through disrupting the traditional satellite business model, Buus is at the forefront of a pioneering movement. On one hand, there is a vast spectrum of new commercial channels for observing the Earth for a variety of civilian and military applications. “The expectance of a long-term growth in the low Earth satellite business segment is made possible through nanosatellites,” says Buus.
Then there is the prospect of mining in space, perhaps the single most exciting business opportunity of all time. “The necessity in the long term for humans to find resources outside our Earth is being considered more and more,” he says. “We are looking at the ability of nanosatellites to monitor asteroids, because there is potentially a lot of mineral wealth on them.”
Gomspace’s tiny but powerful satellites operate at between 400 and 900km from the Earth, orbiting the planet every 90 minutes, or 17 times a day. They can harvest energy from the sun, rotate, communicate and pick up data in space. The firm’s business proposition addresses several sectors which, Buus says, “we believe we have the potential to disrupt.” These include scientific and security needs, tracking aircraft and ships, and weather forecasting in remote areas.
The company is also talking to large satellite operating companies about the possibility of supplying them with nanosatellites. The nanosatellites are fired into space on rockets owned by pioneers such as Elon Musk’s Space X, Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit and dozens of other companies from countries including China, India and New Zealand. Despite the number of operators, Buus reveals there aren’t enough launches to meet demand from commercial satellite companies.
Based in Aalborg, in the north of Denmark, GomSpace is listed on the Stockholm Stock Exchange. The firm grew by 70% in its first three years and by 2017 was worth around £300 million. Although GomSpace has had to pare back operations in recent months, Buus says growing pains are par for the course: “If you look at high-tech, high-growth companies, they all had to deal with struggles at some time. Finding a way to sidestep problems and find a way through is key.”
“With very little in the way of a Danish space sector, launching the business was a big leap of faith.”
Buus started out as an apprentice car mechanic, then studied engineering at Aalborg University, widely known for its problem-oriented approach. He spent a decade at Danish engineering firm Purup Prepress, where he moved into an R&D role, including a year studying applied optics at Imperial College London.
But he soon realised he had reached a point where, in order to further his career, he needed to go to business school. “I decided I had to attend one of the best business schools possible,” he recalls, and with the support of the Sloan Research Fellowship, took the London Business School Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy.
A few months into the programme, he ran out of funds and assumed he wouldn’t be able to attend the birth of his son in Denmark, but LBS paid for his flight home. “I’m very grateful to the School,” says Buus. “The Sloan programme was a defining moment that made my business career.”
His management profile took off soon after. He led a turnaround of a division of Denmark’s biggest defence company, then visited Afghanistan three times during the conflict there, working with Danish army personnel to ensure their vehicles at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province could continue operating in tough conditions. The military and civilian connections he developed then prepared him for the role of Chairman of GomSpace on its launch in 2007. He became Chief Executive seven years later.
With very little in the way of a Danish space sector, launching the business was a big leap of faith. The decision to develop the business in Denmark was largely due to the fact that “we couldn’t go to the US as we realised that would require too much effort without any good chance of succeeding”.
GomSpace’s first nanosatellite was launched in 2013, using radio frequency technology to try and find the remains of an Air France airliner that had crashed en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009. A radio transponder was inserted into the satellite to pick up the position of the aircraft, an approach repeated soon afterwards to locate Malaysian Airlines MH 370, which was lost over the Pacific in 2014.
Siting the business in Aalborg proved to be fortuitous as the city has what Buus describes as “a world-class level of radio frequency”. He adds, “That’s because all the mobile phone companies have been here in one or more context, so we have a lot of competencies.”
GomSpace’s recent development of a nanosatellite for the European Space Agency has raised the profile of the firm and Buus says the Danish Government has given the company a lot of recognition. Then there’s the media: “When something relevant is happening in the world, such as the Chinese landing on the moon, they tend to ask our opinion. It means we have no problem in getting very high-class engineers into the company. In the past, whenever someone in Denmark was interested in space, they would go to the US.”
“The Sloan programme was a defining moment that made my business career.”
A project close to home is the exploration of Danish territory in the Arctic, including Greenland. “As a country, we have an obligation to survey this vast area, but we have a very small budget. We set up two satellites working in tandem, that are in effect talking to each other,” says Buus.
Space is regulated by the United Nations, “but not in detail, so it’s about who can claim what first,” says Buus, who employs a specialist lawyer. “A good analogy is the period when North America was being discovered and developed. European explorers used to go to the Americas, the Far East and Africa. This is our version of Columbus, Marco Polo and Livingstone. We are also industrialising like the builders of the railroads,” he says.
“There are a lot of issues around being able to set up a satellite radio frequency,” says Buus. “You can’t just start doing that, as there is a lot of regulation and co-operation between countries. There are also liabilities when you send up a satellite. For example, in Denmark you can’t get on a rocket unless you get permission from the Danish Government.”
There are also issues concerning nanosatellites passing their period of usefulness, which is normally after about six years. “There are a lot of insurance issues. You cannot get new satellites insured unless you get the old ones removed,” says Buus.
This leads to the issue of space debris, which he likens to our polluted seas. “Thirty years ago people talked about garbage in the ocean, when there wasn’t a problem. Now we have a problem and it’s very difficult to do anything about it.
“It’s the same with space. There’s plenty of room in space now, but if you continue putting things up there, in 40-50 years you’ll have a problem that is impossible to solve because there will be thousands of small particles. That will get worse. It’s very important that legislators do something now, when we have the capability.”
Buus, 62, is nowhere near ready to retire: he’s hooked on the possibilities offered by the commercial prospects of space. “I have no intention of drawing a pension yet, as I want to live this out. I want to continue to feel the experience of what we are doing, which is something great,” he says with delight.
Buus advises anyone looking to develop a corporate venture beyond the realms of the Earth to recognise that the inherent challenges are at least as big as the opportunities: “If you are planning to enter the space business, it is important to understand that everything is more difficult. The barriers to entry are what we call ‘space heritage’. “We have to have proven that we can provide solutions to challenges in space that work, as we cannot go and repair the satellites once they are up there. The environment is very hostile with regards to temperature and radiation. This means that investments are larger than similar technology on the face on the Earth and the cost is larger, so having visionary investors is key.”