Swedish Startup Space

Startup Grind: Karin Nilsdotter & Spaceport Sweden

Written by on August 25, 2014

Kiruna. One hundred and forty five kilometers north of the arctic circle. Home of the midnight sun, reindeer, iron ore….and orbital space tourism. On actual spaceships. To actual space.

It’s a quiet town-so quiet that if you listen closely at times you can literally hear the sky crackling, making it the perfect place for astronomical research, atmospheric sounding, and suborbital tourism. Kiruna is as far north as you’ll ever go, and it’s where Spaceport Sweden is hoping to take you as high up as you’ll ever dream.

That’s precisely why CEO Karin Nilsdotter is here tonight, talking to over 100 Grinders (including a Jawa, R2d2, a Tusken Raider, and of course His Great Dark Highness Lord Darth Vader) about the role Spaceport Sweden will play in the future of astro-tourism. Her company is hoping to become Europe’s portal to the stars, and she’s working with other astropreneurs like Anousheh Ansari (X Prize), Elon Musk (SpaceX), Stuart Witt (Mojave Air & Space Port) and Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) to make that a big fat reality.

Kiruna is as far north as you’ll ever go, and it’s where Spaceport Sweden is hoping to take you as high up as you’ll ever dream.

Spaceport Sweden is building both literal and figurative launchpads in Kiruna, enacting terrestrial projects that facilitate academic research and foster entrepreneurial growth. They host talks and technical visits, they’ve founded a space camp for children as well as a northern lights academy, all in addition to their northern lights flights, Zero-G­ parabolic flights, and centrifugal G-force training in some of the world’s most advanced long-arm dynamic flight simulators. There is a lot going on here.

What!? Christer Fuglesang is here! Sweden’s spaciest spaceman and first Swede in space (and let’s not forget former Swedish national Frisbee champion). How cool is that. And he’s not alone. Together with aerospace guru Sven Grahn, MTGx CEO Rikard Steiber (our awesome interviewer/guest hybrid for this segment), Chad Anderson (Managing Director of the Space Angels Network) and Karin, they’ve just announced the launch of the Space Travel Alliance, and this announcement is as official as it gets because there’s champagne and clapping and everything.

So when do we all get to go to space? For the time being ticket prices (warning) are still quite (pun alert)…astronomical. Tickets for spaceflights cost upwards of $200,000. A trip around the moon and back will cost you $150 million, because the in-flight peanuts are extra-salted and organic.

Back on earth, there’s a lot going on. If there is one thing Karin reiterates, it’s the need for entrepreneurs to rally round the commercial space industry and do what they do best; innovate. Innovate for STEM; innovate for tourism; innovate for Sweden. She hopes to attract cross-sector talent and startups likes ones producing heat resistant fabric, 3d printers on space stations for quick access to spare-parts, as well as space habitats (i.e. bio-domes in space). But after hearing those aforementioned ticket prices, I’m a little reserved as to how feasible (or sustainable) this is, at least in our lifetimes. However, Karin is adamant that any great challenge is a magnet for great talent, and talent is one kind of fuel that we have plenty of in Sweden. For this reason, she believes the world of space tourism and its adjacent industries will be very different in the near future, with Kiruna leading the charge.

Karin is adamant that any great challenge is a magnet for great talent, and talent is one kind of fuel that we have plenty of in Sweden.

Today, Spaceport Sweden and the Space Travel Alliance are looking to partner with government agencies, academia, startups, and international corporations. The focus on academia is particularly interesting, where there is strong potential for student research and experiments; a sort of astro-academic-industrial complex, but in a good way. And, as Chad Anderson reminds us, the space industry is broader than one might presume. He lists eight verticals of investor interest in space innovation:

  • Satellites (suppliers, OEMs, operators)
  • Launch Providers (primary launch providers)
  • Human Spaceflight (actual space travel and entertainment)
  • Micro Gravity Research (scientific experiments)
  • Habitats & Real Estate (real estate in or related to space)
  • In Space Services (asset servicing in space)
  • Space Resources (value from non-terrestrial sources)
  • Space Energy (energy production in/from space)

The industry is indeed broad, and the potential for these verticals is indeed sky high (sorry). We break for a fika and return for the cozier fireside chat part of the evening. Sven, Christer, R2 and Darth have all vanished. Even Elsa the evening’s canine guest is sprawled out on the floor, napping. The chat takes on a more personal tone as this segment’s tactful host Per presses into the more personal aspects of Karin’s life. She, like many entrepreneurs, has come a long and arduous way, coping through hardship by keeping her family and friends near, as well as connecting with so-called ‘business soulmates’, those going through similar challenges with similar goals.

She likens her journey to that of a marathon where practice, pacing oneself, counting one’s milestones and focusing on the horizon are all essential to one’s success. She studied math and physics before shifting to business management, and identified the potential market for commercial space travel when reusable space vehicles became a thing. “That was the game changer”, she says. Today, she compares the space industry to the gold rush; a myriad companies and entrepreneurs paving new paths into the commercialization of space and adjacent terrestrial industries. But she says her role in the gold rush is selling sticks and shovels, not prospecting for gold herself.

She identified the potential market for space travel at the arrival of reusable space vehicles. “That was the game changer.”

Karin is driven. Her passion is all about focusing on things she enjoys the most. She cites Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a formative element in her entrepreneurification (it’s a word now). If given the chance to restart her life, she says she wouldn’t have done anything differently, and is grateful for her background- crafting her into the person she is today. Naturally, in a male-dominated field, she wants to encourage more women to enter the industry, as a role model, enabler and pioneer. She says humans are inherently risk-averse and afraid of failure- but we shouldn’t be. A lot of people tell us we shouldn’t be afraid of failure, but for some reason it hits heavier and perhaps rings truer when told by someone from the aerospace industry.

Her ultimate goal for Kiruna as a space hub is to invigorate tourism locally, empower communities globally, and advance Sweden as an aerospace innovation leader. Someone once said that our generation was born too late to explore the earth and too early to explore the stars. But thanks to Karin and others, objects in the night sky are closer than they appear.

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