The Irish Space Race Lands
Sinead O’ Sullivan is an aerospace engineer, entrepreneur and innovator, with experience in fields as diverse as machine learning, asteroid capture and underwater robotics. As an Entrepreneurship Fellow at the Harvard Business School, she’s been examining the landscape facing start-ups in the space sector, and the changing nature of open data.
Sinead is CEO of Fusion Space Technologies, where she leads a team of engineers who are integrating data from satellites and drones, and applying them to solve global problems. She’s an ardent proponent for innovation, and has been interested in New Zealand’s growing tech sector for several years. When she was offered the opportunity to visit New Zealand she leapt at the chance. We caught up with her towards the end of her trip, to find out if the land of the long white cloud lived up to her expectations.
Sinead, can you tell us a bit about your background?
Sure. I did my undergrad in aerospace engineering at Queens University Belfast before working in finance for two years. While I really enjoyed the technical challenges of the analysis, it wasn't hands-on enough for me, so I went back to engineering. I attended the International Space University for three months, which kind of dropped me into the middle of the space industry, and I worked on projects with the European and Brazilian space agencies.
After that, I went to the Aerospace Systems Design Lab at Georgia Tech. They deal with next generation tech – anything from supersonic aircraft to swarm drones – and I got to work on a huge range of projects. I worked on two fairly well-known NASA missions and did a project with the Federal Aviation Administration on drone regulatory issues.
I joined the Harvard Business School to do my MBA and now I'm looking at various routes to commercialisation of space technology. Most large, private companies in the US aerospace sector experience very slow innovation because a lot of their contracts are government-facing. So, among other things, I’m exploring how these companies can keep their competitive advantage over other countries who are innovating very quickly such as Russia, China, and India.
Last year, I founded a company called Fusion Space Technologies, which is still kind of operating in stealth mode. Our work is based on two hypotheses:
1. Satellite data is quickly becoming irrelevant for developing an understanding of microeconomic events, because it can only offer a snapshot.
2. With the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), we’re producing lots of hardware that collects data in a specific format, which then doesn’t align with any other format.
We’re attempting to aggregate data – open data, for now – into a universal platform in which it can speak to each other. And we’re using that to create live, visual and non-visual maps of urban areas.
What brought you to New Zealand?
It was all a bit serendipitous. A few months ago, I was having a chat with New Zealand tech entrepreneur Blyth Rees-Jones in New York who has multiple connections to New Zealand. He asked if I’d be interested in working with Groundswell to deliver a talk via weblink at their Innovation Awards. But New Zealand has long been on my travel wish list – like most Irish people. I have a lot of Kiwi friends and my sister lived here for several years so I thought, “how about I deliver it in person?”
It snowballed from there. Callaghan Innovation very kindly stepped in to organise and fund what’s turned into a two-week innovation tour around the country! It’s been busy, but I’m feeling incredibly inspired, and I can’t wait to formalise some of the links I’ve made here.
What did you expect to find before you arrived?
I had a sense that I’d find a lot of fun, creative, liberal people who were full of energy and good ideas. I’d looked into the tech scene here a bit, but I knew I’d find a lot more once I’d scratched the surface. I haven’t been disappointed on either front! I’ve met some incredibly friendly, smart and easy-going people who are creating truly innovative companies, while helping to drive growth in New Zealand.
The whole trip was a great introduction to the country’s innovation landscape; to see how it scales from small groups up to international organisations, and what that means for the challenges they face. It’s impossible for me to pick a single highlight. I loved the NASA Mission Patch workshop that we ran with the Groundswell YiA finalists and meeting the Machine Learning/AI communities across the North Island was very special. My visit to the AR/VR Garage in Auckland was mind-blowing!
How does what you’ve seen here compare to your experience in the US and Europe?
There are loads of tech innovators here, and the work they’re doing is great, but one thing I’d say is that the tech industry seems to be fairly siloed. So, while I saw a lot of innovation in the Bay of Plenty and across greater New Zealand, some of it was hidden beneath the surface and not very obvious. Also, it seems that people don't really talk about what they're doing, or advertise when they’re doing well. It’s a bit like Ireland, actually – people really don't want to be seen to be blowing their own trumpet. That approach just doesn’t work in the US!
With organisations like Rocket Lab, you’ve got New Zealand innovators making huge strides on a global stage. For the first time since SpaceX was born, Elon Musk is probably wondering if he's got a competitor, and it turns it’s an engineer from Invercargill! But there are loads of other very cool things happening here that even people in the local area have never heard of. So there’s a discrepancy between the work being done and the stories being told.
But there’s no doubt that future of New Zealand tech is bright. I’ve loved being here, giving talks to the public, meeting business owners – especially Māori entrepreneurs, university students, and the team at Callaghan Innovation and New Zealand Trade & Enterprise, who have the desire and drive to push into other industries.
Well, the first thing I’m going to do once I get back to Harvard is start working on a paper that discusses New Zealand innovation. And I'm going to try to publish it in a media outlet with a readership in Silicon Valley, because I want it to reach the right audience. The tech start-up ecosystem here is good and growing, but from what I’ve seen, most of the support focuses on people who start companies. There are also lots of people who want to join high-tech companies, so we need to think differently, and that leads us to something called ‘talent arbitrage’.
I keep asking myself, why are organisations in Silicon Valley not looking to New Zealand for young, talented, innovative engineers? As I see it, with the rise of globalisation and the proliferation of high-speed internet, New Zealand should be considered a key R&D resource for high-tech companies on the west coast of the US. The cost of living there is so high that employing a single software engineer can put a start-up in financial difficulty. I’d like to see companies look to New Zealand, where frankly, they can get more bang for their buck. For the equivalent cost, they could hire two or three hugely talented engineers based here, growing the business and speeding up their development timeline in the process.