Space is hot property right now, despite temperatures hovering around -270 deg C. From the Mars landings to the launch of the James Webb Telescope, it has made plenty of headlines, but not always for the right reasons.
Attempts by billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson to venture into planetary orbit have come under fire for being eye-wateringly expensive ego trips, instead of tackling real problems here on Earth.
Lynette Tan, however, thinks that’s missing the true value of ongoing efforts to push the limits of space travel. “Space connects the dots for life on earth,” says the chief executive of Singapore Space & Technology Limited (SSTL), the region’s leading space organisation. “It is the new starting point of inspiration, innovation and invention; the first stop for ideas, not the last frontier.”
Tan believes that space holds the answer to many existential issues we face on Earth, including global warming and living sustainably. The use of satellites to monitor climate change, the creation of impossible meat, and indoor urban farming are only a few examples of space technology that could have a tremendous positive impact on Earth.
“The very fundamental approach to sustaining life in space is to rethink the conservation and use of resources,” she adds, touching on an idea that has held a special place in her heart ever since she launched SSTL (then called Singapore Space Technology Association) with her then colleague and now husband in 2007.
“We wanted to stretch ourselves and show what was possible in terms of space, but in retrospect, we were a little ahead of our time,” she says of the early days when the idea of a vibrant space industry in Singapore seemed far-fetched.
Blazing A Trail
Despite this, the 41-year-old has never been put off by a challenge, and has perhaps been happiest when carving out a path others can follow. “I guess I am a pioneer, but I never thought of it like that,” says the enthusiastic but typically modest Tan.
Her Master’s in chemical engineering from Stanford University, her stint as the first female centre director of India for the Economic Development Board (EDB) and her role of finding new markets and overseeing acquisitions in Asia for leading multinational GlaxoSmithKline all attest to her success in almost everything she tries.
And it seems that Singapore and the rest of the world have finally caught up with Tan and SSTL’s original vision. Founded 15 years ago, the organisation has helped our space industry develop from a few professors working on Singapore’s first satellites in university labs into a million-dollar industry employing over 1,500 people.
There was direct evidence of international interest in what’s now happening in the city-state this February at SSTL’s Global Space and Technology Convention. Over 1,000 delegates from 30 countries and 150 companies, organisations and space agencies attended the 14th edition of the annual conference that brings together space experts and government leaders from around the globe.
Yet the energetic and driven Tan is certainly not one to rest on her laurels. Despite the pandemic, she has continued to push the space agenda in the region and boldly lead new initiatives.
Through SSTL’s Space Accelerator Programme, launched in January 2020, space start-ups in the region have access to funding, business advice on refining their products, and a connection to a wider space network. In just two years, the combined value of the 35 start-ups currently in the programme is estimated to be over US$800m (over $1 billion).
Tan is particularly proud of the fact that two members of the accelerator programme, MyelinS and Mission Space, made it to a list of the five most exciting space start-ups in 2022. US-based MyelinS creates revolutionary space robotic software using neuromorphic computing technology, which helps robots working in space mimic the thinking and sensory capacities of humans.
Latvia’s Mission Space is developing a fleet of satellites with custom sensors capable of measuring Earth’s magnetic field and solar wind conditions, and using this data to predict the weather in space.
When she talks about the technology that powers these companies, her eyes light up, perhaps revealing her true passions. Though Tan has an impressive business pedigree—she is currently studying for her Executive MBA at INSEAD—she is first and foremost an engineer.
“I have always been interested in what makes things tick, how they are broken down and how they are connected,” says Tan. “It’s all about understanding the world around us, that’s what led me to science.”
As one of five children, she credits her parents for giving her the freedom to pursue her many passions. She attributes much of her world view to her father in particular. “He was always wanting to dig into a story, to analyse things beneath the surface, and to talk about the world outside of Singapore. He had a very global perspective, which piqued my interest and convinced me to go study in the US.”
Though she traces her interest in space to watching reruns of The Jetsons and using a large cardboard box as her personal spaceship, she confesses she never thought of it as a career until she went to the US.
“It was the first time I had been exposed to space and the technology involved as a real thing rather than an abstract concept,” she remembers. “It took me some time as a 19-year-old girl from Singapore to make the connections and to investigate things properly, but the US showed me what was possible.”
When she finished her Master’s degree and joined EDB, she found a kindred spirit and a husband, who shared her enthusiasm for the space sector and desire to make something happen.
When asked about the decision to start SSTL back in 2007, she says, “I didn’t have a mortgage or children, so we could do this in our spare time. It was never meant to be a career, we just wanted to create something that stimulated people.”
The Next Generation
Ironically, it was the births of her son and daughter that encouraged her to devote herself full time to SSTL. “It makes you think more deeply about what kind of future you want to leave for the next generation,” she says of her decision back in 2015 to give up a well-paying position at an MNC.
The SSTL’s new Space Faculty aims to inspire the next generation by providing space-related educational resources, teaching programmes and learning materials to anyone interested in space, from youths to professionals already in the industry. For Tan, it’s all about reaching out to young people and positively influencing their futures by offering them the right opportunities and connections within the global space industry.
“I want to create as ubiquitous a pathway as possible, to be the north star to show others how and where they can get started,” explains Tan, who advocates for women in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) sector.
A primary focus of SSTL’s Space Faculty are its Space Camps for children and the popular Space Challenge, a competition that brings together teams of young scientists aged between 15 and 25 to work on solving space-related problems.
Singapore Space Challenge began in 2007 and has grown into an international competition. Last year, more than 500 people in teams from Belgium, Cambodia, India, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Singapore participated. Inspired by the work of Mission Space on space weather, the 2022 edition has been renamed the International Space Challenge, reflecting the truly global character of the competition.
Asia As A Player
A broader international perspective is clear in all aspects of SSTL’s work, as opposed to when it began. Now, 50 per cent of the start-ups in the Space Accelerator programme are based outside of Singapore.
As part of this bold new direction, Tan says, “We want to connect Asia’s space industry to the world. It’s time for Asia to step up as a leading influential invention leader in the global space dialogue.”
SSTL aims to play a major part in this mission and is in the process of establishing Asia’s first private space fund that will make investments in early- stage space and deep-tech start-ups. Tan believes the timing is right because the space sector now has a maturity that wasn’t there before.
“Communities, companies, and countries recognise that space is the first stop for innovation,” she explains. “In addition, there is a thriving start-up ecosystem that operates with the unique lens of space as the cradle of innovation.”
SSTL has also created Innovation Sprint to bring together established players and young start-ups to solve both large and small problems. A current partnership with the World Bank to help it connect with companies using satellite technology to analyse urban heat islands in Asia is a prime example of the kind of relationships being built and the kind of global problems it is tackling.
SSTL also runs a Tech Scouting programme, which covers everything from finding better cybersecurity tools to artificial intelligence and machine learning solutions for climate control.
“These areas are going to be huge for us in the next decade,” she confirms. “The world has reached a point where we are ready to double down on space: we are beyond exploration, now it’s time to consumerise space and Asia is the perfect launchpad.”
(Related: The World’s First Luxury Hotel… In Space)
Photos: Veronica Tay