“Rocket science is no easy feat”: Fleet’s CEO on paving the way for space startups in Australia

Flavia Tata Nardini, co-founder & CEO of space startup Fleet

When Fleet launched in 2015, its three founders faced an uphill battle. They had created an IoT nanosatellite technology startup in Adelaide at a time when Australia’s commercial space sector was practically non-existent and – in the absence of a national space agency – they were told the venture would likely fail.

Fast-forward to today and Fleet is in the midst of a hot streak that has helped give life to Australia’s once-static space startup ecosystem. In less than 12 months, the startup has completed a $5 million Series A capital raise, partnered with French space agency CNES, opened offices in LA and the Netherlands and seen its workforce balloon to more than 20 employees. Most recently, Fleet secured a $500,000 Future Jobs Fund grant from the South Australian Government, giving it the means to create a mission control centre in Adelaide as well as 17 ongoing jobs in IT and advanced manufacturing.

According to Fleet’s CEO, Flavia Tata Nardini, she and her team aren’t just getting started, they have long-term plans to become a unicorn. The Italian-born entrepreneur spoke to Dynamic Business about the startup she co-founded with Matthew Pearson (COO) and Matthew Tetlow (ex-CTO), including the ins-and-outs of Fleet’s core technology, its major wins and the influence its success has had on Australia’s commercial space sector.

DB: What is the elevator pitch for Fleet?

Nardini: Determined to transform the future of industries from space, we’re launching a world-first constellation of 100 nanosatellites to ubiquitously connect the world’s IoT devices, which are predicted to number 75 billion by 2025. Once live, our network will create a digital nervous system that covers the planet, creating a world more connected than ever before.

Our world is facing some huge challenges – we live in an era of exponential population growth, increasing environmental challenges and rapid resource depletion. The constellation of nanosatellites will power the next industrial revolution, giving businesses new access to data and connectivity, so that many of these issues can be solved.

Using our patented IoT nanosatellite technology (i.e. the software payload within the satellites), we’re able to gather data for our customers and provide them with insights necessary to operate more efficiently. From equipping the Defence Force with instantaneous data for maritime safety exercises, to providing the digital infrastructure to create vertical fences for precision agriculture, and even monitoring tree regeneration in the Amazon rainforest –  there are endless possibilities.

DB: What circumstances led to the creation of Fleet?

Nardini: Due to a life-long passion for rockets and engines, I studied to become an aerospace engineer. Then, ten years ago, my career took off when I started working as a propulsion engineer for the European Space Agency (ESA) in the Netherlands. During my three years with ESA, I began exploring ways to put miniature engines into nanosatellites known as CubeSats. At that time, they were still being used for research purposes, not commercial.

After meeting my husband (he’s an Aussie) four years ago, I moved to Adelaide to be with him. There was only one space startup in the country (Saber Astronautics), so it was tough finding a job that truly interested me… especially without an Australian passport. It made me realise that entrepreneurship was the right path for me.

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before I connected with fellow aerospace engineer Matthew Tetlow and serial entrepreneur Matthew Pearson (Co-founder & CEO, Honcho). Like me, both wanted to see the Australian space industry thrive. In early 2014, we co-founded LaunchBox, determined to affect real change by improving engagement with STEM and inspire school students to look to the stars for their futures. We did so by supplying a kit that enabled students to build a miniature CubeSat satellite using 3D printed components.

The following year, the three of us co-founded Fleet. We saw a massive opportunity to solve some of the world’s big issues from space using our patented IoT nanosatellite technology.

DB: What are the advantages of nanosatellites over traditional ones? 

Nardini: Nanotechnology is transforming the space industry. The miniaturisation of electronics and the use of lightweight materials to build components has seen the rise of cost-efficient and lean manufactured nanosatellites. Instead of spending billions launching very large satellites 36,000km from earth, which is a complex exercise, we will piggyback on rocket launches scheduled across the world to deploy a swarm of little satellites (roughly the size of a shoebox) into low orbit – at a fraction of the cost. We’re gearing up to launch our first two nanosatellites this year but we’re in a positon to launch the entire constellation within the next three to four years.

DB: What sort of capital will be required to launch the constellation? 

Nardini: Let me tell you, rocket science is no easy feat! Unlike a software company, which you can bootstrap, a space company such as Fleet is very capital intensive due to infrastructure requirements, including the nanosatellites and ground stations. We couldn’t survive without VCs and private investment, which is why capital raising is part of our daily job at Fleet. Securing $5m in Series A capital from Blackbird Ventures, Mike Cannon-Brookes and Silicon Valley’s Horizon Ventures last year was a huge win for us. It also made us one of the first companies in the world to raise capital for nanosatellite IoT.

DB: You’re also the first space startup in Cannon-Brookes portfolio…

Nardini: Yes, It’s very flattering! Being the co-founder of Atlassian, his name affords us a great deal of credibility and we’re also benefitting from his passion, advice, encouragement and support.

DB: How significant is your partnership with French space agency CNES?

Nardini: When we announced our partnership with CNES, last year, it was especially significant because the Australian Government hadn’t yet announced its plans to launch a national space agency. CNES is the second biggest space agency in the world after NASA but they’re the first to have a program which deploys satellite in IoT.  Having them partner wth us means we’ve not only been validated by the VC community, we’ve also been validated by the space community! CNES is providing us with access to not only fifty years of industry knowledge but also vital infrastructure. For instance, the agency will be using their network of ground communications antennas to track our first two nanosatellites once they launch. Our mission control centre in Adelaide will also be critical for the operational support of our nanosatellites and will ultimately safeguard the connection of our network of billions of online devices.

DB: What will the creation of a national space agency mean for Fleet?

Nardini: It will be a huge turning point for Australia’s space industry in terms of legislative support, funding opportunities and promoting STEM education. For Fleet specifically, the agency will provide opportunities for us to apply for greater government grants, attract more world-class talent and keep Fleet’s headquarters on Australian soil.

DB: What has been a major barrier to realising your vision for Fleet?

Nardini: It hasn’t been easy creating a space startup from this side of the planet… but we’re proving it can be done. If Fleet had been a Silicon Valley startup, we’d be very rich; instead, we decided to create a space startup in Australia at a time when a commercial space industry didn’t really exist and there wasn’t even a national space agency. Maybe we were being a bit naïve but Matt (Pearson) and I didn’t listen to the environment… if we had, Fleet would never had succeeded. In the very beginning, we had people tell us, “it will fail, there’s no money”. We chose to ignore them and just do it. To get to where we are, we’ve had to have a great story, a customer focus, a global mindset and be very bold.

DB: How is the overall health of Australia’s space industry today?

Nardini: In the past year, Australia has gone from a couple of space startups to more than two sixty. So, the commercial space sector is booming. Part of the reason is that Australia offers many geographical benefits for space activities including minimal light pollution, expansive land areas to test on and highly educated workers. Also, ambitious space startups are thriving due to state government support and interest from private investors and global VCs. As one of Australia’s first successful space startups, we’ve helped validate the market, paving the way for others to create their own success.

DB: Looking ahead, what growth plans do you have for Fleet?

Nardini: This year is gearing up to be incredible one for Fleet. In addition to launching our first two nanosatellites, creating the mission control centre in Adelaide, undertaking a variety of pilot projects and working on our product pipeline, we will be launching a Series B funding round.

We also have plans to build our first ground station in South Australia to support the telecommand of our first nanosatellites and the customer data collected. This ground station will be the first of many that we’re looking to create around the world to support our constellation of nanosatellites.

I’m also really focused on showing industries address pressing issues, such as food and water wastage, with the aid of low-cost IoT nanosatellite technology. Ultimately, we want to grow Fleet to become unicorn company. A lot of work to do but we’ve got the team to do it, so we’re quite positive.