Tina Ghataore Talks Joining Aerospacelab and Building its US Business
In August of this year European startup Aerospacelab announced the high-profile appointment of Tina Ghataore as its new group chief strategy and revenue officer, and CEO of Aerospacelab’s new branch in North America. Ghataore comes with a big reputation. Thanks to her work at Mynaric, she was Via Satellite’s Satellite Executive of the Year (SEOTY) in 2021.
Aerospacelab is one of the bright new things in the small satellite space. The company designs manufactures and operates small satellites. It is an interesting career move for Ghataore who has been part of the industry for over two decades. In this interview, Ghataore talks candidly about why it was the right time was to make this move, and her aspirations to put Aerospacelab on the map.
VIA SATELLITE: You leaving Mynaric is clearly big news. Why this was the right move for you now?
Ghataore: I was trying to sell lasercom terminals to Aerospacelab about two years ago. That’s how I met Benoît Deper, the founder, CEO and CTO. I remember it distinctly, it was at World Satellite Business Week and I was with Mynaric’s CTO. It was like watching two CTOs do the tech talk. The company was three years old and already looking to put up a satellite. He knew so much about the value of lasercomms and was very technically astute. When he left the room, the Mynaric CTO said ‘We have got to watch out for that one. He is very smart’ — and that is a high endorsement to get from one CTO to another. That is how it started.
We would often run into each other at industry events where I could witness that his ambition was turning into reality, raising 40 million euros ($43.4 million) for their Series B funding round. Benoît is very personable, knowledgeable, and attentive about the challenges in the industry and would talk about building constellations, scalability, and bigger satellites.
He was not the typical startup founder that exudes a level of arrogance. He was more pragmatic about to how to approach things. At SATELLITE 2023, I met him again. He would joke about us working together and I would say ‘buy my terminals.’ In the middle of this year, he said, ‘Aren’t you done with what you are doing at Mynaric?.’ I said, if you are serious, you should send something on paper. Benoît turned around an offer in less than a week. I was super impressed.
The timing was right. Mynaric was going through a leadership change. I thought if my growth is going to be stunted at Mynaric, this allows me to go back up the value chain, where I wanted to be, and work with someone who I believe I complement very well. It wasn’t a blind move, it was two people that gelled together.
VIA SATELLITE: It is a young company, around five years old, what do you see as its potential over the next five years?
Ghataore: If you look at what is happening in Europe and the U.S., you can see the potential. Europe has Thales and Airbus. That is pretty much it from a satellite manufacturing perspective. If you look at smaller companies, you have some doing cubesats, but nobody with the technical chops or the manufacturing capabilities and facilities to do large volume production of LEO [Low-Earth Orbit] smallsats, etc. Some operators are vertically integrating and want to do their own constellations and build their own satellites. You don’t really have someone to counterbalance the traditional companies with a size of satellite that works for these larger constellations, whether it is for European or U.S. customers.
Belgium pumps a lot of money into the European Space Agency (ESA). A lot of the development that is needed for core technologies that make these satellites and platforms was pumped into traditional European primes. We are this scalable, small satellite production house which already has a capability of up to 50 satellites a year. This is about a real factory with real hardware in it, and it is a joy for me to see a large young talent pool in action. Benoît has invested R&D dollars very smartly. Most importantly, we have achieved space heritage with four satellites launched and four more coming up in February 2024.
If you look at the North American market, some of these earlier smallsat companies, whether Millennium Systems (bought by Boeing) or even Blue Canyon Technologies (going to Raytheon), I don’t know if they continue to operate at the same agility level as when they started or have cost structures that are competitive. Aerospacelab has come out in the last five years doing incredible work from designing payloads, avionics, and building platforms, growing a factory, and achieving flight heritage at a really opportunistic time.
In Europe, IRIS2 program is coming up, the OneWeb Gen 2 RFP is out in the market, Rivada Networks is very active. In North America there are several Space Development Agency (SDA) programs on a regular cadence, Telesat Lightspeed has accelerated momentum after securing funding. There are also some EO constellations being planned globally. In the next three to five years, there is going to be a market opening for a company like Aerospacelab to capture a sizable amount of this business.
VIA SATELLITE: What are your short to mid-term goals for Aerospacelab? Could you tell us about your role and the specific challenges?
Ghataore: I wear two hats here. I am on the group executive committee. Aerospacelab is a Series B company. I have equity in the company and although not an original founder, it feels very much that is my company as well. At the group level, I am the chief strategy and revenue officer. I have pretty much all customer touchpoint function — sales, marketing, business development, product strategy, and program management. I also work with Benoît on our growth strategy, our five-year plan, or even our longer-term plan. We have built our heritage on EO satellites, where we built the payloads. We know how to do this for ourselves and others. Would it make to sense to enter the data business? Whether this is the transport of data or analyzing data, this is something we are actively looking at and will be dictated by market opportunities.
The U.S. subsidiary was formed for me to join and to push into this large market. This is the big challenge. Benoît realized mass manufacturing needs might be lagging in Europe, compared to North America. Every couple of years, the SDA and others are going to be putting out 100+ satellite constellations and replenishments. We need to be an active player in this market. My goal is to take this already built-up R&D and investments in our satellite product family and create a new footprint in the U.S. We will put up a factory for assembly, integration and testing of our satellites/platforms. I am actively looking for a location for our facility. Somewhere we can start small and grow as the market dictates. It could be California, Colorado, or wherever the incentives are to keep our cost structures low. In parallel, we will build our team in the U.S. and engage with the U.S. primes, various U.S. government agencies, and commercial customers.
My goal is to ensure we have a strong position on both sides of the Atlantic. Within a year, we should be up and running in the U.S., sooner if I can do it. We already have a commercial customer in Albedo. We sell them our avionics suite of products for their EO mission. Because we have a ‘go-to-product’ mindset, I don’t need to sell just complete satellites, I can sell our homegrown avionics suites, platforms only, or even some payloads as needed.
VIA SATELLITE: When do you think you will be able to sell more full satellites?
Ghataore: We currently already sell satellites. Since August, we have responded to four satellite proposals and we are working on responding to two constellation programs. I hope in 2024 we will be able to sell a handful of LEO small satellites, 150 kilograms+.
Some of them are actually about 300 kg to 450 kg class, 2-3 kilowatt class. It is really about the payload power needs. We can grow our platforms to accommodate the payloads that need more power. 2024 is about booking sales for the products we have, and then it is about refining and growing the product portfolio. At the same time, I am engaging with U.S. customers to let them know we exist and that there is an alternative option to the very limited set of suppliers that can build satellites on scale and at attractive price point. It is already working.
VIA SATELLITE: Where do you hope to be by the end of 2024?
Ghataore: We will certainly have more satellites launched and have more experience under our belt for operations. We will have several satellites in production. There are active proposals in Europe and U.S./ North America. We hope to win those. Depending on how my site visit go in the upcoming weeks to find our facility in U.S., I will probably be integrating one to two satellites, perhaps more depending on how fast we staff up and secure business and a facility.
Many startups have basic manufacturing, but then they do their testing at third party facilities. where they have access to shaker tables, T-VAC chambers etc. Many startups on the SpaceX transporter missions use these kinds of facilities. We can get the orders and get started quickly because much of our avionics is in-house and we have a much shorter lead time. We already have a large volume operating facility in Belgium, we can cater to customers there and focus the U.S. on AIT for customers that absolutely need it done in the U.S.
VIA SATELLITE: The company closed a $45 million Series B funding in 2022. Will it need more funding soon?
Ghataore: I believe we will be looking for a bigger round in two years. We are already revenue generating as a company because we have orders and programs that we are delivering against. We are 200 people at the moment. The idea is to keep it small and around this number, so we function like a small, agile company and keep our overhead in check. We are not looking for a fancy high rise for an office. I am literally looking for a hangar at an airport. I think the larger Series C round will be done to extend the manufacturing capabilities both in the U.S. and in Europe. By then, hopefully IRIS2 will have gotten its legs. And this is where having an alternative to the big players is really key. SMEs need active programs to survive and innovate in Europe. SMEs are embraced in the U.S. The talent pool today is attracted to what SMEs can offer and are no longer looking to spend 30 years at one large company.
VIA SATELLITE: –Who do you see as the main potential customer targets for Aerospacelab’s satellites?
Ghataore: The perfect immediate fit is a customer that has an Earth Observation/remote sensing mission and may have or need a payload for this. It could be a country that wants to own a satellite for insights on agriculture health or to acquire surveillance data to reduce the fishing traffic that jeopardizes the global economy. With our ability to be agile and flexible, we can accommodate them by designing, building and operating a very powerful EO satellite for them.
We have space heritage with EO missions that have flown on SpaceX Transporter missions as well as Vega. There will be four additional launched in February 2024. All of these have different EO and communications payloads developed in-house. If anyone needs a very high-resolution (VHR) payload, multi-spectral imaging (MSI) payload, we have developed in house products. Signal intelligence is another payload capability we have and will be deployed on three satellites that fly together.
We can immediately do missions like these. There are a few EO companies out there that might have a payload but are spending all their time and resources trying to build satellites. These companies can come to us.
VIA SATELLITE: What about opportunities in the U.S.?
Ghataore: The SDA just awarded SDA Tranche 2, Beta and Alpha awards. I am super excited for my previous employer and my former team. I am watching what is going on closely. Tranche 2 has not ended here. Gamma solicitations are already out, and people are gearing for capabilities and ideas for Tranche 3 in a couple of years. That is precisely what we need to be positioning for. I want us to be an alternative to the incumbents. We already have products that can be scaled up to meet the ever-growing mission needs of these Tranches. We have space heritage, agility, innovation, vertical integration on key technologies, and we are very attractive from a price point.
I am also looking at responding to some large commercial opportunities that are coming up in the U.S for hundreds of satellites, for which our enhanced product portfolio is key. Government, commercial and institutional opportunities are all on my radar. We will look to enable EO, communications, and other missions as needed for a variety of customers big and small.
The successes to date are a testament to what Benoît and the team have been able to do so far at Aerospacelab. I am looking forward to riding on these coat tails and helping expand this vision and capability.