When space science and engineering meet venture capital, ASU students are ready


Leslie Minton

The growth of private space-exploration companies, such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, has changed the way scientists do business. ASU is leading the way in preparing students for the new realities of STEM careers.

“In the past, astrophysicists and other scientists and engineers relied on grant funding and contracts to do work, whether they were in academia or industry,” said Jim Bell, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) and director of the Space Technology and Science Initiative, also known as NewSpace. “Today, that has changed. Scientists need to be ready to pitch to investors and build business relationships.”

To ensure that students have an edge, SESE and NewSpace launched a seminar course for students interested in working with space-related companies: "Commercial Opportunities in Space." The course, combined with a series of workshops the school offers on communications, negotiation skills and leadership, prepares students for all aspects of a career in space-related fields after graduation.

The course, which is open to undergraduate as well as graduate students majoring in any subject, covers relationships between private companies and public space agencies. Throughout the semester, students develop ideas for space-related startup companies and end the class with a pitch competition, vying for feedback and funding from venture capitalists and angel investors.

“First and foremost, a real skill set I developed in the course was how to get from point A — nothing — to point B — a viable business,” said Adam Ansari, who, along with team members Marc Leatham and Jacob Woolsey, won the Fall 2016 pitch competition for their company, Nimbus.

Nimbus aims to revolutionize orbital sensing technology by providing satellite data to customers — ranging from government agencies to insurance companies — that would otherwise be lost due to cloud cover on Earth.

Ansari is double majoring in business data analytics and economics and is minoring in sustainability. He said the project brought him together with people pursuing doctoral degrees in geology and astrophysics and allowed him to jump into high-level data analytics and astrophysics work.

“The work was outside the realm of what I normally would do, and the people I normally would work with in other classes,” he said. “It was valuable to learn about different perspectives, because when you’re building a business the perspectives others can add can be crucial.”

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, is passionate about helping students build skills that are often lost in other science and engineering programs.

“Sometimes these are called soft skills, but they are hard to develop,” she said. “Students need these skills — leadership, team management, interviewing — to succeed as leaders. These are skills that are important for everyone’s future.”