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New Zealand Innovation Awards: Rocket Lab

And the 2017 winner of the Bayer Supreme New Zealand Innovation and Innovation in Design & Engineering is... Rocket Lab!

It's about as sci-fi as any innovation can get: 3D-printed, battery-powered rockets, taking off dozens of times a year to head to the stars. It sounds more Thunderbirds than reality. But it's happening right here – and we can thank Aotearoa’s own Rocket Lab for that.

As founder and CEO Peter Beck told Idealog: “If the best place in the world to launch rockets was in the middle of a desert, that’s where I’d be – it’s that simple. But it turns out that launching satellites into space is best done from right here, in New Zealand.”

To say Rocket Lab has captured the world’s imagination would be as much of an understatement as saying the All Blacks are an okay rugby team. Name the worldwide media outlet, and odds are they’ve done stories on what the company – which has major operations in New Zealand and the United States – is doing, and Beck’s vision of “democratising” space. Pretty impressive for a rocket-loving lad from Invercargill (in 2000, with help from his colleagues at Fisher & Paykel, he built a rocket-powered bicycle that he demonstrated to the bemused public with a 140kph blast down Dunedin’s Princes Street).

As Rocket Lab describes it: “Rocket Lab is opening access to space by providing dedicated, frequent launch opportunities for the small satellite industry. The Electron launch vehicle showcases innovative, ground-breaking technology which can deliver small satellites (up to 150 kg) to orbit at an unprecedented frequency.”

But that’s not all. 

“Currently, small satellite companies wait years to get on orbit, often at the mercy and schedules of larger payloads. In the current market, small satellites need to ride as a secondary payload on large rockets, which often do not go to their perfect orbit, and changes are often made in favour of the much larger primary payloads. A major problem is launch frequency, and access to space, as well as the high cost associated with getting there.”

In 2016, the United States went to space a total of 21 times and the average cost of a dedicated mission was US$150 million. And Rocket Lab aims to open space up for business “with world first frequency of flight, launching once per week, with dedicated launches from US$5.6 million. The small satellite industry is booming, as technology becomes more efficient and compact, and there is a huge demand for Rocket Lab's services.”

So of all the things Beck could have focused on, why space? He has a simple answer.

“Why space? This is one of those things that captures the imagination, but one that’s ripe for disruption. What we’re trying to do is democratise space.”

And to do that, Rocket Lab wants to send its rockets up towards the stars – a lot. 

“We’re licenced to launch every 72 hours for the next 30 years,” says Beck.

In fact, Rocket Lab is authorised to launch more often than any other company on Earth. Conceivably, this could mean that its launch site at Mahia Peninsula on the east coast of the North Island could one day become the busiest spaceport in the world.

No matter how you slice it, that’s pretty incredible. But Beck is not one to self-congratulate. Going to space – no matter who it is – is incredibly important because even in the second decade of the 21st century, it remains so rare, he says. 

Helping Rocket Lab get into space is the Electron Launch Vehicle, a rocket that Beck calls Rocket Lab’s single greatest success thus far. Beck is matter-of-fact when explaining its incredible properties. 

“It’s the most powerful machine ever built in New Zealand – over a million horsepower.”

The Electron Launch Vehicle was first tested this past May, when it was launched and performed first-stage separation. After reaching an altitude of about 224 kilometres, telemetry was lost and it was destroyed by range safety officials. Technically speaking, the launch was a “failure,” but Beck is undeterred; after all, another test is already planned in the coming months.

The company itself says: 

“The Electron vehicle offers a premium service, designed to solve the market's pain problem. With Electron, customers are provided with a high-frequency, quality launch service, when they want to fly. The commercial and humanitarian applications are endless. The satellites Electron will launch are used to provide optimised crop monitoring, natural disaster prediction, internet from space, improved weather reporting, up-to-date maritime data and search and rescue services. 

“The United States currently has less than 30 weather satellites. Imagine the impact if space was accessible and they could now easily have 300. Weather monitoring would be improved, natural disaster prediction would become more accurate, internet from space in all corners of the world is truly feasible and would change the world as we know it. The possibilities are endless and the potential impacts are remarkable.”

Peter Beck.

Beck says Rocket Lab has no plans at present to take humans into space. But that doesn’t make what his company is doing any less important, he says, because of the need to quickly send things all over the world and the need to possibly even send supplies from New Zealand to the people in space, such as at the International Space Station. 

And if Rocket Lab’s  journey thus far has taught Beck anything that other entrepreneurs might learn a thing or two from, it’s this: think big. As in, really big. 

“Go after the really big problems, and the really big opportunities,” he says. 

“There’s no point in going after a company or an idea that can top out at $100 million.”

Beck is certainly doing that, and while the early stages of the business are high-risk, if his plans work out, the Government believes the New Zealand space industry could be worth more than the kiwifruit or wine industries in just a few years. So how would Beck describe Rocket Lab, working in an industry where failure often means explosions that have the potential to literally stall humanity’s progress towards one day leaving Earth? He pulls no punches.

“Innovative. Leader in the industry. And beautiful.”

Beck adds that’s a point that’s often overlooked when it comes to the type of innovation Rocket Lab does.

“Everything we do – from the hardware to the software – has to be beautiful,” he says.

There’s one more thing, too.

“And premium. We’re not in the business of making crap.”

Evaluator comments:

Such a compelling innovation story – both the enabling technology and the business strategy. Rocket Lab has created the birth of the  New Zealand space industry, attracting incredible talent to our shores. This is awe-inspiring work and something to be truly proud of.