1. First of all, can you tell us a little about your background — how you got to where you are today, and how long you’ve been here in New Zealand?
My journey started as a little girl growing up in the Philippines and dreaming about space. I caught the travel bug and never recovered. I chose a career path that would fulfill my passion, and pursued degrees in Physics and Earth and Space Science. Back then, I would never have imagined that that passion was going to open up as many opportunities as it did. I’ve been able to live and work in multiple countries, travel the world on seven continents and have the opportunity to work on moonshot ideas and organisations. I worked with cutting edge organisations like the International Space University, a non-traditional space educational institution lauded as a right of passage for anybody who wants to have a career in space or a small Space Adventures team that would open up human spaceflight for private citizens around the world. My last 8 years were devoted to building a think tank and incubator called Singularity University, leveraging disruptive technologies to solve humanity's big problems like energy, climate change, global health or space security. I’ve worked between the intersection of education, impact, and space.
My background is in physics, astronomy, and space engineering. I worked as a contractor on NASA projects, including many years on the design of the International Space Station (ISS). For the last 8 years I have been a consultant for space startup companies in Silicon Valley. I have also been involved with International Space University (ISU) for many years - which is where Emeline and I met. I am on the faculty at ISU and have taught in 10 countries for the University. This international connection is part of our motivation for opening space opportunities for people around the world. Another aspect is our backgrounds with exponential technology and Singularity University. The increasing power and lower cost of technologies (like those inside smartphones) has changed opportunities in many areas in the last 5 years - and it is happening in space technology. The new technologies mean the barriers to opportunities in space activities have been lowered, which make it more possible to develop space systems in places like New Zealand.
We’ve been in New Zealand for about 3.5 weeks in preparation to start our Edmund Hillary Fellowship programme. We have been coming to NZ on vacations since 2002 and love it here. We were also in the country (in Auckland and Wellington) for a few months to learn and network earlier this year.
2. What global challenge(s) are you driven to solve? Tell us about your innovation, venture or work. What are you doing that is different to others in your field? How are you pushing boundaries?
Growing up in the Philippines, then later being blessed with the opportunity to travel and live in the most advanced and affluent places in the world, exposed me to the widening gap and disparity between those two worlds. Being a fan of space exploration since I was a kid, I believe that humanity’s ultimate destiny will eventually depend on the stewardship of the planet and our ability to migrate out for resources and settlement. However, I want that future to be shared by everyone and not just those that have the means to pursue these goals while leaving the rest of the world in a ‘Mad Max’ like place. With this in mind, we are not leaving this future to chance. We are starting now, one nation at a time, to build this future of shared opportunities.
We believe that there is a roadmap to creating a sustainable space industry within a country from capacity building to creating successful thriving businesses. Therefore we are co-creating an open sourced networking platform of local NZ stakeholders as well as global space players to collaborate together toward this goal. We are also building a blockchain based funding platform to help entrepreneurs and startups in New Zealand find the resources and funding they need to succeed. We have since talked to over 50 organisations in New Zealand and are continuing to network to bring local partners into the ecosystem. We are looking at collaborative and cooperative models that have been pioneered by NZ companies to help incentivise partnerships between organisations rather than competition.
We think that New Zealand can pioneer a roadmap that other emerging nations can follow suit to create their own space ecosystems. Our long-term goal is to connect all of these ecosystems within the region with other established communities in Berlin, Silicon Valley and New York to name a few.
3. What initially made you want to bring your work to New Zealand?
We’ve always been drawn toward New Zealand. Last year when we heard about the formation of the NZ Space Agency, the impending launch of Rocket Lab, and the opportunity to apply to the Edmund Hillary Fellowship, we were jumping for joy at the opportunity! It was the chance we were waiting for – starting an impact venture focused on space in the most beautiful country we have visited and hope to live - what else can one ask for? It’s a dream come true!
4. Can you tell us a bit about the process of applying for the Global Impact Visa through the Edmund Hillary Fellowship? What was it like to go through and be selected?
The process to join the cohort was surprisingly unbureaucratic, starting with an online application followed by the initial interview process. The screening interviews that followed were very much focused on ensuring we had the professional calibre to be able to contribute to the Fellowship ecosystem. All throughout the Edmund Hillary Fellowship team was an email away for questions and clarifications. And after the EHF selection, the Global Impact Visa (GIV) screening process was very thorough (FBI checks, etc.) but also straightforward. Earlier in the year we had something of a preview of the EHF program - we were invited to speak at the New Frontiers event last February where we had the opportunity to give a presentation on our initiative and talk to most of the EHF team. At the event we could see the kinds of curious and innovative things Fellows they were exploring in their professional lives, and thought it would be the perfect community to be a part of.
We have participated in webinars and campaigns to help spread the goodwill further. EHF has established Facebook and Slack channels to further encourage networking within the cohort before we even got to the kick-off. It was great to see a lot of synergies between the focus and projects of the fellows and I look forward to potential collaboration efforts that would arise. We are super excited to meet the other fellows in the cohort at the official opening of the program, as well the rest of the community at New Frontiers.
5. What do you find inspiring about New Zealand?
New Zealand is a country of firsts. Sir Edmund Hillary personifies Kiwi drive to tackle seemingly impossible undertakings, a natural penchant for innovation, ingenuity and risk. The country that first allowed women to vote and first established national parks within their beautiful country. I admire the tenacity of the Maori and their ingenuity to establish treaties which is unique and serves as a great example for collaboration around the world.
Simply put, New Zealand’s beauty and land diversity is unmatched. From the mountains to the sea, its jagged and raw beauty complimented by cosmopolitan cities is a perfect place for people who consider both environmental sustainability and culture important things for a well-balanced life.
On the space side, New Zealand has all the ingredients to create a sustainable space industry. A progressive and supportive government to put policies in place to support a space ecosystem, the location (having little traffic to the east or south supports safe and frequent launches), new capabilities (e.g. Rocket Lab launch services), and a young but booming technology and entrepreneurial community. To have one place with the combination of all these elements is very rare.
6. What has been the most surprising thing about New Zealand’s innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem?
We are learning a lot more about the growing entrepreneurial and startup community in NZ. From what I have learned so far is that it has grown significantly in the last five years and is still learning and innovating. Communities in Auckland and Wellington seem very vibrant, but may lack the support mechanisms and funding opportunities to scale their ideas and projects. Some startup experiences show that the equity percentages for the amount of funding offered here in NZ puts the entrepreneur at a huge disadvantage at the get-go. This is very unusual and not what I am used to in Silicon Valley. We are hoping to find better funding mechanisms to get startups the seed money they need without almost giving away their ownership or IP.
We have been introduced to the “tall poppy” syndrome which is predominant here in NZ. The lack of self-promotion for one’s work and genuine humbleness makes it very difficult to uncover all the great and innovative things brilliant people are working on here. This is very different than the routine self-promotion we are used to seeing in Silicon Valley! We also hope to be able to incentivise and be able to create mechanisms that can showcase great work without infringing on time-honoured values.
7. Putting work and innovation aside for a second…what have you explored or done since arriving?
We have been coming to NZ since 2002 for vacation. We have driven up and down the North and South Islands many times. Being avid rock climbers and kayakers, we think NZ is paradise! Bungy jumping, jetboating, controlled base-jumping, skydiving, zorbing, multi-day kayaking – we’ve done all of them over the years! We are also unashamedly big “Lord of the Rings” fans and have been spectators to both the world premieres of “Return of the King” and “The Hobbit” here in Wellington.
To try to meet more local people, we created a “Space Enthusiast and Professional’s” Meetup Group here in Wellington and a Facebook group called “SpaceBase NZ”, with about 80 people in each, and growing. Everyone we have met has been very friendly.
8. What would you say to other entrepreneurs or investors thinking about building or supporting startups in New Zealand?
To investors, talent abounds in New Zealand. From a thriving film tech industry to niche entrepreneurs tinkering in their own garages. The MacGyver attitude of innovating with what you have seems to be the norm. The trick is finding them. We hope the Edmund Hillary Fellowship program and the platform we are building can identify the changemakers and the overachievers that can bring about impact at a global scale.
For entrepreneurs, NZ is a great place to prototype and incubate anything.
Risk friendly, and a community that is always eager to connect and help you along is a great plus that we ourselves have been experiencing since we got here. Funding sources and new ways of raising capital will have to be created. I think a lot can still be learned from other startup ecosystems (like Silicon Valley, Israel, etc.) for creating favourable terms for entrepreneurs. An influx of the right foreign investment could help mitigate this.
We are also impressed with how the NZ government can be innovative and responsive to new ideas. It was able to rapidly implement rocket launch regulations while simultaneously setting up a New Zealand space agency. We love to show our friends in the U.S. the 2011 video of Sir Paul Callaghan recommending NZ support of entrepreneurs, and then show them everything the Callaghan Innovation organisation is doing today. It is rare for a government to respond to proposals in a positive way.
9. Tell us about some of the people you’ve met in New Zealand so far, and how they’ve helped shape your journey.
The EHF team and community has been integral to helping ease our transition from California to New Zealand. We can attribute a major percent of our current networks and connections in NZ to EHF introductions. Several of the people we met through EHF seem to be “super-connectors” - no matter what you are working on, or what you want to do - they can connect you with several other key people that can help you. It was hard to keep up with all the opportunities they offered us. We have also created friendships with both tech and art entrepreneurs in Wellington and in Auckland. Our Meetup group that meets once a month has given us incredible insight to the local mindset and needs. We have given several presentations to government (MBIE), the general public (e.g. Hardware Meetup Wellington, Space and Science Festival) and University of Victoria. We continue to meet people and learn in person from the social media NZ groups we have established and also joined (NZ Tech Startups Eco-system, Kiwi LandingPad, Startup Garage).
10. What do you think the future holds for you and your work in New Zealand?
I’m a dreamer and my attraction to joining teams tackling ‘moonshots’ – whether it's to open spaceflight to private citizens or helping startups leverage disruptive technologies to solve the UN Sustainable Development Goals, I’m compelled to move around the world to make those dreams happen. I am not here for myself but for a vision of a future that leaves nobody behind. We can successfully co-create, with NZ stakeholders, a sustainable space industry locally that becomes a blueprint for other nations to follow. If we can make this a reality, we have a chance to build that truly abundant future we only aspire to in science fiction.