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Founder in focus: Space DOTS, Bianca Cefalo on building pocket-sized lab for space and latest preseed round

Space DOTS, Bianca Cefalo

Italian female entrepreneur Bianca Cefalo is on a mission to accelerate humankind’s exploration of space. And her startup, Space DOTS, is poised to play a key role in that acceleration. Rather than taking years to develop materials for spaceflight, it will take months to test them, reducing the development time.

If, like almost everyone, you aren’t a rocket scientist, it might seem like progress in space is not keeping pace with the advances of technology on earth. A launch today looks very much like a launch from the beginning of the space race. And part of that is the lengthy lead time for testing that Space DOTS promise to cut. Recently, Cefalo spoke with TFN about her — so far — earthbound journey into the space sector and how Space DOTS can get the space sector racing again.

From wanting to keep cars on the ground to working (almost) on Mars

Cefalo’s early ambitions were firmly ground-based, although still fast. “I was obsessed with aerodynamics,” she recalls, “I Googled ‘how do I become an expert in aerodynamics for Formula One?” A first-generation student, Cefalo began studying aerospace engineering to better understand the aerodynamics of cars. But soon, she was raising her eyes to the sky. “I realised, ‘Hang on, I can do hypersonic aerodynamics. I can do spacecraft thermal control. I can do microgravity.”

Specialising in thermal fluid dynamics, a field primarily used in interplanetary missions, she was soon following a new dream and working in Berlin for a company contracting with the German Space Agency’s contribution to a major NASA project. “I was the first and youngest Italian analyst to work on the NASA Insight Mars mission.” It was a slightly surreal period for her. “It was crazy,” she said. “2008 was a time when my family was struggling, and couldn’t afford my education. Then, five years later, I was working on a Martian mission.”

She has spent her time since working for a series of agencies, SMEs, and corporates in the space sector, gaining knowledge and experience from the different perspectives. “I realised there was a common thread across states, companies, businesses,” she says. “As much as we want to innovate the satellites, a satellite in space is really just a simple shape and panels. If you want to make it smaller and lighter, you have to play with advanced materials and manufacturing.” And this has been the biggest drag on the development of space technology.

Currently, developing something for use in space means a lengthy process of testing. This will include software simulations, and ground-based tests that aim to emulate the conditions in space. Even these physical tests are an approximation, since nothing can successfully test for the full combination of conditions. Then come tests in space, which come with the expense, and risk, of launch. Cefalo says this means little has changed since we went to the Moon more than 50 years ago, “we’re still using methods and materials that were used from the Apollo missions.”

A smartphone-sized lab for space

Cefalo and her co-founder and CTO James Shepherd Alden want to transform this process. “The final validation is always going to be space,” says Cefalo. “You don’t have the millions to pay for a one-off mission to prove you’ve gone into space, but that’s really what needs to happen before you can commercialise the product in space.” Space DOTS provides that opportunity on a small scale, with small units — their basic unit is 10 cm x 10 cm by 1 cm — that can carry out material tests. The size means that they can be an almost incidental part of the payload on another mission, testing and collecting data unobtrusively.

Non-disclosure agreements prevent Cefalo from disclosing much about their first clients, but did reveal it’s testing the tensile strength of a material. “We have miniaturised all the tests into a smartphone-sized lab,” she said. “And that goes straight into space, so you have a high validity in a shorter time, shorter cycle, and a less complex process.” The ambition is that Space DOTS shorten the testing process from years to months. It may even mean, one day, Space DOTS launching their own vehicles. Providing a one-stop service, allowing those who want to test a material to simply commission Space DOTS.

Preseed of $1.5M

Amazingly, Space DOTS has, until now, been bootstrapped, with Cefalo putting in her savings and funding the basic operations. However, she revealed exclusively to TFN that has changed.

“We started raising funding in October, and we’re closing the pre-seed round now,” she told us, “we’ve now around $1.5 million in the bank.” And with the funding to build their product to realise their vision of making space attainable for more than just agencies or the super-rich. “The space industry is moving from being just government or military into a more commercial space,” says Cefalo. “We won’t just do the usual spacecraft, the usual satellites; it will be more of a public environment.”

Interview by Akansha Dimri during London Tech Week.

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