Why academia in an age of startup culture is not obsolete

ABOUT

The 3D Hybrid Fuel Printer was a result of collaboration between Gilmour Space Technologies and Design Innovation SG (SUTD) to create low cost additive manufacturing methods for space exploration.

CHALLENGE

Design and prototype cutting edge space technologies to achieve commercial viability.

THE OUTCOME

A fully functional 3D Hybrid Fuel printer capable of producing low cost fuel using composite materials.

ARTICLE

Every other day we hear news about how a young founder built a billion-dollar company in record time. Iconic university dropouts like Mark Zuckerburg have created this idea that traditional academic institutions are monolithic antiquated organisations antithetical to the “Movefast and break things” ideology of startups. 

Yet, startups have long been inextricably connected to academic research. In recent years, researchers have discovered the business value in their research and spun them off into startups. Other companies have chosen to invite PhD researchers to co-found or sit on their board. These companies are already making waves in the startup scene with billion dollar acquisitions – BioVex, a University College London spin-off being one of many

Closer to home, companies in Singapore are also tapping on cutting edge research to compete with industry leaders. One such example is in the increasingly crowded space in … well, space. As the space race continues to skyrocketzoom ahead with industry leaders like SpaceX and Blue Origin, finding the unique selling point to edge over their competition has never been more important. That was exactly what the what Gilmour Space Technologies was onto back in 2015 when they first approached SUTD.

Gilmour Space Technologies, now a $61 million AUD ($46 million USD) Series C funded startup, might not have seemed plausible at its early beginnings to the untrained eye did not always start of this way. Adam Gilmour, the co-founder of Gilmour Space Technologies today, would have seemed like an odd pick for a space entrepreneur, considering his 2 decade-long roots in banking and finance. Or perhaps, it had been a long time coming - a blend of well-molded leadership qualities, a wide network, and pure grit of anyone who thrives in the banking world, and of course, a lifelong love for space technology might not appear to have the qualifications of a space entrepreneur at first glance.

After years in the banking industry, Adam and his co-founder James Gilmour were inspired by the commercial possibilities of space technologies, opportunity in “disconnecting the industry from the big government agencies and developing and commercialising a whole range of new products and services,” said James. At that point, talks about space had largely been dominated by well-endowed government space programs like NASA and the China National Space Administration. 

His interest in developing commercial space technologies laid the groundwork for a successful partnership with the Design Innovation team at Singapore University of Design and Technology (SUTD). Through a series of co-creation sprints, the team co-created and explored various cutting technologies before settling on designing a bespoke hybrid 3D motor fuel. 

For some context, space travel predominantly employed two methods for combustion. The first was by having fuel (liquid or solid) to be ignited in the presence of an oxidizer (a source of oxygen). This produces a tremendous amount of heat and force – more than 3.5 million kilograms (7.2 million pounds) of thrust– to be more precise, allowing a metal tube to be propelled into the stratosphere. The second was a type of hypergolic propellant that combust upon contact with each other. In this case, an external heat source was no longer required to ignite the fuel and produce the thrust needed.

The hybrid 3D-printed fuel created by the team was supposed to incorporates the benefits of both types of combustion methods. As a solid fuel, it is not only more portable but it also has had a higher power density as compared to alternatives. Furthermore, the proprietary mix of carbon fiber and wax in the fuel provided all the necessary elements for combustion in a cheaper form factor instead of having complicated logistical mechanisms to ensure fuel mixing.

Team working on 3D Hybrid Fuel. Dinesh Baluraj, Adam Gilmour and Kabin Calan (From left to right)

This was made possible only by a deep collaboration between industry and academic institutions. SUTD provided the necessary facilities like state-of-the-art 3D printing and prototyping equipment required for rapid testing. However, the research capabilities and deep industrial knowledge was what really tipped the scale. Led by Dr Kristin L. Wood, who was well-established in product engineering design, the Design Innovation team supported the entire product designing process, offering adynamic intersection of design thinking and product engineering expertise that helped drive the innovative approach to a unique problem support.

What was innovative about all this was the use of additive manufacturing to produce composite fuel materials as a form of low cost and largely-automated production. By the end of 9 months, the team delivered a 3D printer fully designed and fabricated in-house.   

3D Hybrid Fuel Printer

Beyond working on printing 3D hybrid fuel, Gilmour also pursued other innovative endeavors like building drones “capable of lifting and transporting a 120 kilogram (264 pound) payload while being able to transition between vertical and horizontal flight”. Though such disparate explorations might seem scattered at first glance, they are actually crucial in creating truly innovative products. In the case of Gilmour Space Technologies, they were able to obtain their Series-A funding with their hybrid-engine rockets using additively manufactured fuel just a year after.

Presently, programmes like the Lean Launchpad Programme (LLP) continue to facilitate collaboration between academic and commerical domains. Hosted by NUS Enterprise with satellite nodes in Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) & Singapore Management University (SMU), the programme invites researchers and engineers to create commercially viable products together with business savvy founders.

Lean Launchpad Programme (LLP)

With over 20 programme runs and 245 teams and projects under its belt, the Lean Launchpad Programmes aims to emulate the success of programmes like United States NSF I-Corps. During the 10 week programme, participants will receive support in turning their research into viable products for users. In the words of Asst. Prof Goh Yang Ming, Department of Building School of Design & Environment, NUS, “getting innovation implemented requires understanding of the complexity in the interrelationships between customers, regulators, suppliers, competition and customers’ customers.”

The symbiotic relationship between academia and businesses cannot be understated. Collaborations like the one between Gilmour Space Technologies and SUTD provide a ripe breeding ground for innovation and commercial success. In a time when competition from pharmaceuticals to cyber security is fierce, the ability to leverage on pioneering research might just be what companies need to stand out amongst swaths of competitors out.

Let's see how we can work together.
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