Chapter 1: Rethink Everything
We should have flying cars and robot housekeepers already
The Great Reset
Everything is changing. It’s as good a time as any to reimagine the future. A generational handover is happening, in infrastructure and in the workforce.
Across the TRL Valley Of Death (an insight)
Next Big Thing (tech)
Engaging those pesky millennials (people)
Something cool on the internet
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The 4-Step Statement of Work
I’ve been volunteering as a mentor with Creative Destruction Lab. CDL’s premise is that if you can get a PhD in chemistry, you can learn how to run a business. I hypothesized that working with 6 discovery-stage founders in parallel. It was correct, but that was too many. I’m scaling back.
InSpek is a startup by Dr. Jérôme Michon, based on his MIT postdoc on photonic light circuits. He invented a chip-scale Raman spectrometer that can be immersed in a vat of bio-goo to measure the concentrations of small organic molecules. Who would want this? Companies that make biological medicines, where the cost of reactions going bad because of the time delay in walking a sample of the goo over to the mass spec, is on the order of billions of dollars a year. It’s like a pH meter, only fancier.
To help Jérôme, and several other CDL companies, turn those initial prospects into paying customers, we devised the 4-Stage Statement of Work, based on my Application Readiness & Customer Journey framework. You write a letter that describes the 4 stages of engagement, you leave some of the lines blank, and you bring it with you to the meeting. Here are the stages:
Discovery: The customer pays the startup to get the data that shows the customer how the product will solve all the customer’s problems.
Feasibility: The startup makes a prototype, operates it, measures the output, and delivers a report that validates the analysis from Step 1.
Prototype: The startup installs the prototype at the customer facility for a limited time, and works together to integrate it into the customer workflow.
Pilot: The customer keep the prototype,
That’s it! The point is for a startup founder to have an initial idea of the the customer’s unit economics, to turn my cheesy notes into an official-looking document, and involve the customer in charting a win-win path that goes from 0 to 0.5.
Next Big Thing
In invest in overlooked critical infrastructure, such as ATLAS Space Networks. In designing space missions, I kept running into a bottleneck in getting bits from space to the ground. Sean, Brad, and Mike at ATLAS had a plan for applying cloud computing and AI/ML to satellite ground stations.
It wasn’t quite a slam dunk. The Coming Swarm of LEO satellites was late, and it still is, so ATLAS has been growing its government business. ATLAS has been sustainably innovating their Freedom platform: the AI/ML scheduler supports 4x as many contacts as the state of the art, disparate ground stations can be virtualized through the same platform, and aperture-array antennas can downlink 4 satellites at the same time. ATLAS is poised to become a platform layer for many government programs as anchor customers, and is gearing up to serve the proliferated LEO constellations. Still, a certain number of ground stations need to be built before the coming government and commercial constellation customers can commit to purchasing the service. ATLAS has 14 sites today, and is fundraising to scale to serve more, and more lucrative, customers.
What are you trying to do? Easily connect a satellite to terrestrial cloud compute.
How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice? Satellites are designed around communicating with specific ground stations. Those stations have modems that are tested with the satellite’s radio. You can’t use just any antenna to contact any satellite, and the contact scheduling has to be done long in advance.
What's new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful? Faster, better semiconductors mean you can direct-digitize the waveform and pipe it to the cloud. Instead of demodulating in hardware, you can do it in software, massively parallel, in near-real-time. This also allows fancier demodulation algorithms, using AI to compensate for effects that used to cause bits to be lost. The tech has been patiently matured with tests with NOAA and NASA satellites. Multiple commercial satellites are being served, including Rocket Lab’s launch support.
What difference will it make? The cost and effort to get data from space to the ground will drop by multiple orders of magnitude. It will be cheaper to tie into ATLAS’s cloud-based API than to hire a communications engineering team.
What are the risks and the payoffs? Someone with more capital (lookin’ at you, Jeff) could try to grab market share (even if that software is waaay behind). With the right timing of capital deployment, and adoption by the government customers who need the best technology, ATLAS could be the standard platform for earth-to-space communication. Eventually, the comsats will need a neutral, digital teleport operator to talk to the terrestrial telcos, which is an even bigger business, but a few years away. It’s a land grab to have the network of choice before then.
The Soccer Club
I help run AYSO Region 13, the recreational soccer club in Pasadena, CA. Why? Besides investing in my community, every space company is a marketing company, and volunteering with a nonprofit gives me an audience of 7,000 people to practice on.
The Boomer - GenX - Millennial transition is happening. At the end of May last year, here’s the age distribution of the people who had signed up to volunteer for the fall soccer league:
Yup. The left side of that normal distribution fell into a black hole. More teenagers signed up than 20-somethings, and it’s implausible that everyone waits until they’re 34 to have kids. Considering that most of the players are in elementary school, something is wrong. The GenXers who run the league are using the language and social structure they inherited from the Boomers. That needs to change … but how?
Every email exchange with a parent is a chance to try something new. CRM tools use templates. They assume that everyone with the same question wants the same answer. This misses the opportunity to experiment with different narratives in each interaction. An AI that can gauge the amount of mutual cooperation and respect in an email conversation would be awesome. In the meantime, I answer the incoming email with varying master narratives I use until I find patterns that work.
You may have heard “Millennials don’t believe in institutions” or “Millennials won’t volunteer.” Well, you can’t blame them, because they grew up in the era when phone companies were basically scams, and banks switched from paying interest to charging fees. As the biologists say, adapt or die.
Knowing what you want turns out to be critical. The work pattern for me was always “figure out what needs to be done and do it.” The new generation has learned to be wary of complex social structures, so explaining the context, expectations, and success criteria helps derisk engagement.
Long story short, a Millennial stepped forward to help me translate, and we burned the old web site to the ground. Instead of “become a coach,” the call to action is “coach a team.” Subtle, eh? It shifts from belonging to agency. The new content makes liberal use of the words Start, Team, Learn, Friend, Benefit, Cooperate, Encourage. This is the new brand language.
We also learned that parents like plenty of advance warning before making a decision, so the league has been sending a monthly newsletter to 5,000 parents, with a 58% open rate. The integrated marketing campaign and rebranding seems to be working — n the first week of registration season, over 700 kids and nearly 100 volunteers have signed up. It’s looking promising.
My heuristics for the new rules of engagement:
Tell people what you want them to do. (“Figure it out yourself” is sooo last millennium.)
Make it easy to exchange information across functional groups. (Slack in general, or Prewitt Ridge for aerospace)
Explain the guardrails for decision authority, and devolve authority to the lowest levels.
Spomething cool: Inflatable satellites
Fia Jones from Astrix Aeronautics was in Los Angeles last week, and she stopped by for lunch. Her company makes inflatable solar panels, and they launched a demo with Rocket Lab on May 3. A square meter of solar panels unfolds from 1U, and UV-curing epoxy makes it stay that way. The panels will cost you less than the labor to analyze the structural loads and testing of a rigid deployable panel. Video on their web site!
Whether you’re standing up a new sovereign space agency or just a regular old aerospace project, you can hire me to consult on business development, precision instrument design, technical due diligence, market analysis, review boards, failure investigations, and strategy/policy around public-private partnerships.
Ask me about the Big Data From Space Playbook, How To Create A Space Mission Out Of Whole Cloth, the Application Readiness Customer Journey, or the Mad Max Theory of Management. I can also talk about coaching soccer all day.
Go ahead, ask me for help! My website has contact info and past manifestos.
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