How the Brazilian Startup Ecosystem Is Driving Innovation in the Space Industry
Space. Tech. Futures that empower. Research conducted | views expressed are my own.
I have close Brazilian friends. Talented, tech-savvy, and extremely creative, my friends come from a diversity of professional backgrounds in software engineering, project management, information technology, design, and marketing. Rarely a dull moment when we connect, they have become like an extended family to me. When I told them I was researching and writing about the space industry in Brazil, they were both enthusiastic and a bit surprised. Space efforts at home emerge in the media on a relatively sporadic basis…
The famous astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson shared his point of view recently on Brazil along these lines. The letter is part of the Brazilian Portuguese edition of his book Letters from an Astrophysicist (2019). Dr. Tyson points out the importance of Brazil’s legacy in aviation and aeronautics with its home-grown and publicly traded aerospace conglomerate, Empresa Brasileira de Aeronáutica – EMBRAER. Based in the state of São Paulo since 1969, EMBRAER is a robust powerhouse that designs, manufactures, and sells aircraft and its parts for commercial, business, and military uses. Tyson also highlights the achievements of the first Brazilian astronaut, Lt. Col. Marcos Pontes, who flew on board the Russian Soyuz TMA-8 to the International Space Station. Since 2018, Pontes serves as Minister of State at the Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovações – MCTI (Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation).
Pontes and fellow crew members at the International Space Station. 2006
I wanted to offer a different angle of inquiry to my readers. Momentum, energy, and vibrancy dominate the tech startup ecosystem in Brazil. This tech startup dynamism is especially evident in the city and state of São Paulo. If I borrow the philosophical principles and questions from the laws of physics, which explain that energy can neither be created nor destroyed in a given system – only converted from one form of energy to another, I ask myself the following questions. Can the space industry in Brazil also leverage the energy and vibrancy currently present in its tech startup ecosystem? With so much tech momentum, what’s the status of space startups in Brazil?
Setting the Context: The Startup Vibrancy
Rich in precious natural resources and among the top world economies, Brazil is also the largest country in Latin America. The city of São Paulo, which is home to most of my friends, is one of the most populous cities in the Western Hemisphere. The University of São Paulo is ranked in the top 100 by The World University Rankings. With some of the best academic programs and research in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), it is no surprise that the city is also full of tech companies and startups. The city hosts the innovation and data centers of global titans such as Microsoft, Google, and Facebook. São Paulo is also the regional headquarters for Airbnb, Netflix, and Amazon.
The startup ecosystem in São Paulo city is an impressively fine-tuned conveyer belt. In the year 2019, Brazil ranked third after the United States and China as the country in the world with the most tech startups that reach unicorn status. Unicorns are startups valued at US$ 1 billion or above. Brazil shared this spot with Germany. Some of these Brazilian tech unicorns leverage mobile gaming technologies, fintech, service delivery, healthcare, and real estate. Several unicorns are based in the city of São Paulo.
Brazil has become an attractive market for venture capital and investors. In fact, it is the country in Latin America with the most venture capital funds for its startups. The influx of venture capital reached an approximate US$ 2.49 billion in 2019. According to The Association for Private Capital Investment in Latin America – LAVCA, investments spread across 222 deals. The amount in 2018 totaled US$ 1.3 billion. Additionally, there is also the recent SoftBank-led Latin America tech fund of US$ 5 billion, which has heavily invested in Brazilian startups.
This startup boom in Brazil dates back to the late 1990s and early 2000s. With access to the Internet and increased web and mobile connectivity, the cascade of technologies, businesses, and startups followed. This growth is especially prevalent in the IT and tech worlds including, software development, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things – IoT, and mobile gaming.
Brazil’s IT market in 2018 beat the global average yearly increase with a solid 9.8%. Brazilian software developers and IT professionals are in top demand as well. Brazil is one of the top outsourcing destinations for IT. Frequent international events and trade shows continue to position Brazil’s tech leadership in the region. Surprisingly, none of these unicorns relate to the space industry…
The Case for Space Startups
In the space industry, startups can be bold and efficient. With initial shorter cycles for experimentation and iteration, controlled risks facilitate scientific and technological breakthroughs. Today’s big global space players were once just startups and ideas. However, numerous space startups face the common challenge of rallying investment and venture capital with a length of time and effort greater than for other tech startups.
In this sense, and despite growing interest in the global space economy, many tech entrepreneurs have remained at the periphery of Brazil’s space industry. There are a few and remarkable space entpreneurs, however, which are currently driving innovation in the space startup ecosystem. I met Lucas Fonseca earlier this fall. Lucas is the CEO and Founder of the space startup Airvantis. Based in São Carlos in the state of São Paulo, Airvantis works in tandem with private and public partners in Brazil and overseas for space science. The company also has activities in the United States. It is part of the international network of startups in the New York Space Alliance (NYSA).
Lucas Fonseca, CEO and Founder of Airvantis. November 2020.
Airvantis sends scientific experiments to the International Space Station. It also serves as an incubator and innovation center for the collaborative Mission Garatéa – L. Garatéa-L is the first proposed Brazilian lunar commercial space mission. On its lunar orbit, the mission would test the survival of specific bacteria and fungi.
Lucas was born and raised in Santos in the state of São Paulo. His interests in space start early on in childhood. Lucas remembers growing up in the eighties in Brazil. Science fiction masterpieces and iconic space operas surfaced during this decade. These include E.T., Blade Runner, 2010, Dune, Aliens, The Terminator, Star Wars Episodes V and VI, and many others. Without a clear path to pursue his space ambitions at home, but with a vision to be part of the incredible world showcased in films, Lucas pursued studies overseas. This path opened doors for him to work in international space missions.
“I never gave up being a space guy. And this is hard in Brazil, especially when I went to university. We didn’t have a space course per se at the university, so I pursued mechatronic engineering as my path to the space industry… When I was invited to work for the Rosetta Mission after my studies in Space Systems Engineering in France… I realized it was an opportunity to land on a comet that was very unique.”
The European Space Agency – ESA Rosetta mission launched in 2004. During a period of 12 years, the mission achieved historic milestones. It was the first time that a spacecraft did a rendezvous to study and follow the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in its orbit around the sun. During its journey, the Rosetta spacecraft conducted flybys of Planet Earth, Mars, and the asteroids 21 Lutetia and 2867 Šteins. The Philae robotic lander on board the Rosetta spacecraft was also the first-ever to successfully deploy in 2014 on the surface of a comet. The Rosetta mission definitely made a deep impression on Lucas and his own sense of purpose.
“Brazil was a blue ocean for me. I thought maybe I could try to catch the new space movement in Brazil. That’s why I decided to open my own company in Brazil in 2012…”
Invited to speak often to other countries in Latin America about his career and entrepreneurial path, Lucas assesses the challenges of getting visibility and traction as a space startup. A lot of the media coverage in Brazil tends to focus on what is being done overseas at the expense of local efforts. The government space program is very established with intricate systems and structures. Its strength has been on space cooperation for satellites rather than rocket launches. However, the sparks of enthusiasm and motivation are needed across public and private sectors to build and rally support for space.
“People have no idea that we have such a varied space program in Brazil…We should be proud of the things we do in Brazil. This is something that I’m trying to evangelize. How to talk about space. How to train the right person to reach out to the media… You cannot expect the media to come to us… We need to know how to sell it.”
“Things are happening in the space industry… But we need to have this spark of people in Brazil that want to do it even if it’s hard. It’s possible to have a space startup just like a delivery service startup. It’s getting easier because it’s more accessible to send things to space or to work on things related to space… It doesn’t matter if you have a space background or not because the possibilities are huge. You can work in communications, satellite imagery, and so much more…”
Startup-driven innovation is especially relevant to the world’s older and more established space programs like in Brazil. Startup vibrancy is a good benchmark for the future health of a country’s role in the growing globalized space economy. In this respect, a consolidated effort across sectors in Brazil to generate awareness of local efforts matters. Lucas agrees with this.
“When you do something different for others, people love it. If you like space and you like being entrepreneurial, it doesn’t matter if you have a space background or not. We need to work for our future in space. We cannot rely on the government alone to link up and build a huge ecosystem…”
Looking Back to Look Ahead
Brazil’s government-led space program is one of the oldest in the world. It was formally established in 1960. This is just two years after the National Aeronautics Space Administration – NASA officially set up shop in the United States in 1958, and years ahead of its home-grown conglomerate EMBRAER.
The origins of Brazil’s program date to work of the Grupo de Organização da Comissão Nacional de Atividades Espaciais – GOCNAE (Organization Group of the National Commission of Space Activities). This commission was appointed by presidential decree for space exploration, travel, and research. The researchers at GOCNAE contributed in its early days to numerous scientific international projects. This dynamic changed abruptly under the authoritarian military regime (1964- 1985).
During this turbulent time in Brazilian history, the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais – INPE (National Institute for Space Research) substituted GOCNAE. INPE is based in São José dos Campos in the state of São Paulo. It quickly becomes the technical and scientific backbone for Brazil’s space program.
The SONDA sounding rockets series for high atmospheric research are also developed early on. These rockets were launched multiple times as early as 1965. For the sake of comparison, a historical summary from NASA’s first sounding rockets reflect the beginnings of the usage of sounding rockets in the United States in the late 1940s. In South America, only Argentina managed to develop the capabilities of sounding rockets during this same period.
Under military rule, the construction of launch vehicles started in Brazil. A couple of the prototypes of the Veículo Lançador de Satélites – VSL (Satellite Launcher Vehicle) get launched. They do not complete the missions due to technical problems. Diplomatic relations worsen in the South American region, which was already suffering from grim military dictatorships. This declassified U.S. foreign intelligence report in 1982 shows just the extent to which Brazil’s R&D in launchers and satellites further complicated foreign relations.
Likewise, Brazil’s two and only launch sites were also built under military rule. The Centro de Lançamento da Barreira do Inferno – CLBI (Barreira do Inferno Launch Center) was constructed in 1965 under the wing of the Estado-Maior da Aeronáutica – EMAer (Air Force General Staff). A typical site for launching sounding rockets, CLBI is located on the far northeastern coast of Brazil. The Centro Espacial de Alcântara – CLA (Alcântara Launch Center) was built in 1982 in the historic city of Alcântara. This is the closest launch site to the Earth’s equator.
Post-military years and under democratic leadership, INPE became part of the newly-created Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovações – MCTI (Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation) in 1985. With INPE’s early leadership, more than a dozen satellites launched successfully since the 1990s. Brazil’s first satellite launch for Earth observation in 1993 was onboard a U.S. commercial small launch vehicle, the Pegasus Rocket. The rocket launched from a NASA B-52 aircraft. The Satélite de Coleta de Dados 1 – SCD-1 (Data Collection Satellite 1) remains in operation today to support weather forecasting, monitoring the water level of rivers and dams, and for other purposes.
In 1994, the Brazilian government created a civilian branch for its space program, the Agência Espacial Brasileira – AEB (Brazilian Space Agency). With a change in discretionary authority and a different regulatory capacity, AEB works in tandem with INPE. It focuses on joint space technological development programs and international space cooperation agreements.
The year 2003 was a sobering year for spaceflight in Brazil and across the world. Just several months after the STS-107 Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, which killed all seven crew members during atmospheric re-entry, the Brazilian VLS-1 VO3 exploded at the Alcântara Launch Center days before launch. The explosion cost the lives of 21 personnel.
A brief survey of Brazilian space history reveals difficult periods. Despite this past, the strengths of the Brazilian space program in satellites and international scientific space missions pave the way for the future. For example, INPE advances scientific research and development, especially concerning numerous small satellite missions. Preparations are currently underway for the launch of the new Amazônia-1 satellite. This launch is scheduled for 2021 from India.
Space-minded entrepreneurs, like Lucas Fonseca, continue to invest in Brazil’s space startup ecosystem. In conjunction with 11 startups, Airvantis is now part of the newly created Aliança das Startups Espaciais Brasileiras – ASB (Alliance of Brazilian Space Startups). Launched in October 2020, this alliance has been set up in the city of Alcântara. The members wanted to pay tribute to the sacrifices made in the quest for space research, travel, and exploration. By leveraging the economic opportunities for Brazilian space startups in the domestic and global space markets, the alliance also wants to create a new chapter in the economic life of a former colonial town.
Some additional recent developments:
–February 2020. The newly created Frente Parlamentar Mista para o Programa Espacial Brasileiro – FPMPEB (Mixed Parliamentary Front for the Brazilian Space Program) is composed of 186 deputies and 24 senators from across party lines. This parliamentary front emerges in Brazil to strengthen the cause and its support to its space industry.
–March 2019. Brazil and the United States enter a Technology Safeguards Agreement – TSA. This agreement seeks to encourage U.S. space companies to launch satellites from the Alcântara Launch Center.
–November 2020. The AEB signs an agreement to be part of the Global Spaceport Alliance.
Sound bites: Space Is A Positive-Sum Industry
The modern space industry is not a zero-sum endeavor. It cannot be led by the government alone, the private sector, or just the dreams of startups. Space research, travel, and exploration are expensive. It takes long-term thinking and sustained effort. It also takes a village of people: space-minded entrepreneurs, advocates, government leaders, experts, artists, communicators, investors, and many others with a positive-sum mindset to scale up healthy space ecosystems.
Brazil currently has at its fingertips competitive advantages. Tech unicorns are maturing and paving the way for new ones at one of the highest growth rates in the world. There’s already a colossal influx of venture capital funds for these startups that surpass the billions of dollars every year. Brazil’s history shows us an established and veteran space program. It has powerful expertise and leadership in aviation and aeronautics. It has engineering and research programs ranked as the top in the world. This perfect mix may well renew enthusiasm at home and overseas to consolidate a vibrant Brazilian space startup ecosystem.
New minds and fresh ideas can illuminate the way to Brazil’s new spacefaring future. I trust there’s a cadre of Brazilian entrepreneurs and investors like Lucas already looking forward to setting a steady course for space. The global space economy is growing at an accelerated rate. I hope that by giving visibility to the current space science efforts in Brazil, the space startup community leverages the momentum and energy already there for its tech unicorns. The payoff is out of this world.
Brasil, eu aguardo ansiosa por seus sucessos futuros e espero que nos encontremos em breve no espaço…
The Traveler (2017) at the top banner is by the prolific Brazilian artist Hugo Elias. Hugo was born and raised in Araraquara in the state of São Paulo. His work, under the name Ninjah, is characterized by the unique and whimsical designs of his murals, designs, illustrations, and paintings. The inspiration for The Traveler includes the rituals, music, and sacred geometry found in tribal indigenous customs in the Amazon jungle. I especially liked his subtle exploration of the passion for human spaceflight. Hugo shares my optimism for Brazil’s future in the global space industry.
The song and video titled Dormiveglia is also courtesy of the interdisciplinary artist, composer, and musician Alexandre Perotto. Alexandre was born and raised in Brasília, Brazil’s federal capital. I selected this exquisite instrumental piece as part of my article because it invokes the often indistinguishable state between dreams and reality. A space-enthusiast as well, Alexandre often wonders about the complexity and unknowns of the cosmos. A composer for more than ten years, he also plays the piano in Dormiveglia.
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