Discovering career opportunities for women in ‘new space’ – Shefali Sharma, Business Developer at Oxford Space Systems

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Shefali Sharma works at Oxford Space Systems (OSS), a venture capital backed, early stage space tech business, alongside Mike Lawton – company CEO, founder and serial engineering entrepreneur. She successfully completed her undergraduate degree in Aircraft Engineering and later joined Cranfield University for a Master’s degree in Space Engineering and Astronautics. Shefali supports a range of STEM initiatives with the aim of inspiring the next generation of graduates and engineering entrepreneurs, and she has recently been selected as a “promising leader” under the Royal Academy of Engineering SME Leaders’ programme.

Shefali Sharma - Oxford Space Systems

Shefali Sharma

 “…if something has caught your attention or you have developed a passion for something then you must give it a shot. Find an industry champion who you can talk to about it. For those considering a career change, don’t think space is only for engineers and scientists…”

Discovering career opportunities in ‘new space’

I completed my schooling in India and came to the UK in pursuit of higher education in engineering. Upon successful completion of my apprenticeship in Aircraft Engineering in Scotland, I joined Cranfield University to pursue a Masters in Space Engineering and Astronautics.

After my Masters, I had a slightly tangential career trajectory; for almost a year I was trying to push open a closed door to enter the space industry, but to no avail, due to visa and security restrictions. Rather fortuitously, I was presented with an opportunity to work with a small mobile phone company called, DOGFI.SH Mobile. I was grateful for an offer of employment, which led me on to the work I’m doing now.

I worked alongside the CEO as a market analyst and quickly became interested in the ‘dark-art’ of the business world. I refused to give up on my space career and changed my approach towards job-hunting. Initially, I only applied for jobs with large space organisations such as Airbus, Lockheed Martin etc.

I soon realised that a similar phenomenon to ‘digital disruption’ was taking place in the space industry. As such, a new generation of this industry was emerging globally, known as ‘new space’. Companies such as SpaceX, Oxford Space Systems, Planet Labs etc., were being founded to change the industry’s landscape and challenge its risk-averse approach to developing technology.

I was inspired to become a part of this industry with the advent of new space now more than ever and cold-called the CEO of Oxford Space Systems to find out whether there was an opportunity for me – and the rest is history!

My role at Oxford Space Systems on a day-to-day basis

As consistent with other SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises], I take on a variety of roles and responsibilities at Oxford Space Systems. My day-to-day activities cover business development, bid writing, media management, company promotion, networking and customer engagement. I’m also heavily invested in promoting STEM activities and I am often invited to speak at events to inspire and encourage the next-generation of engineers.

As you might imagine, working in a growing early stage technology means things can change very quickly and what I had planned for the day can be disrupted! It’s not unusual to be called on with zero notice to support things like handling urgent new enquiries, hosting an unexpected visitor, and sometimes even covering for the CEO!

Failure is not only an option, it’s expected

During my Aircraft Maintenance Engineering degree, I wanted to learn how to actually design aircraft. Little did I know that it’s not just a simple ‘how-to’: the devil is in the detail. My undergrad degree didn’t offer any aircraft design modules, but I refused to give up.

I decided to teach myself Matlab, a ubiquitous programming language used for engineering design and modelling. My final year design project received accolades from the faculty and I graduated with distinction. Shortly after, I enrolled in Cranfield University’s Pre-Masters course to further enhance my knowledge on designing aircraft and I again graduated with distinction. However, I didn’t want to restrict myself to just one career path and decided to pursue my Masters in Space Engineering and Astronautics.

It’s worth noting that now the space industry is moving into the ‘new space’ era it is characterised by smaller, commercially focused and aggressively paced companies with an appetite for risk. The satellites that this industry is focused on are a lot smaller, significant lower cost, allowing for failure to be an option. In fact, CubeSats (the smallest and cheapest type of commercial satellite that are roughly the size of a loaf of bread) are seen as on-orbit research and development platforms – an extension of the lab bench.

Failure is actually expected as part of the test and validation process. This use of low-cost satellites was unheard of a decade ago and it’s exciting to be a part of this rapidly changing landscape. A new breed of privately backed space companies, like Oxford Space Systems, is pushing open a new window of opportunity and I’m really glad to be at the heart of the UK new space industry.

In addition, my desire to stay with space and Oxford Space Systems is further fuelled by serendipity as it worked out brilliantly for me. By virtue of a fantastic stroke of luck, I got a wonderful mentor, our company’s CEO and founder Mike Lawton, who encourages me to be fearless and challenges me to be innovative and creative in my problem-solving skills.

Oxford Space Systems products

Oxford Space Systems - AstroTube Booms

Our longest yet – antenna development based on our innovative material, AstroTube™

Oxford Space Systems is a multi-award winning, new space business that’s developing a new generation of deployable structures for the global space industry. By ‘deployables’ we mean things like solar panels, antennas and boom systems – a whole paraphernalia of technology that needs to stow against the side of the satellite so that it can fit onto the launch rocket.

Once in orbit, these structures need to unpack from their stowed configuration to an operational one and thus permit the satellite to become useful. The weight and stowed volume of a deployable structure are critical concerns for the space industry – if the overall satellite can fit into a smaller area and be lighter, it can often be launched on a cheaper rocket. So, the art of designing deployables that are lighter and more stowage efficient than competing technologies is what Oxford Space Systems is all about.

What differentiates us is our novel design approach – we often use origami – together with our own proprietary materials, such as our AstroTube™ flexible composite. OSS recently set a space industry record with the rapid development and on orbit demonstration of its first product, the AstroTube™ boom.

This successful first flight was achieved in less than 30 months, much less than the usual ten years for a typical European Space Agency or NASA product development. AstroTube also represents the longest boom ever deployed and retracted from such a small satellite. You can see it in action here:

New technology underpinned by a new breed of entrepreneurs

Genuine disruption in space sector has begun despite its notorious risk-aversion. This is mainly driven by the emergence of smaller satellites to replace part of the functionality provided today by large expensive satellites.

These small satellites continue to bring about a size and cost revolution, cutting down the costs of some satellite capabilities from tens of millions of pounds to tens of thousands of pounds. This in turn, has enabled start-up companies like Oxford Space Systems to launch niche, disruptive technologies for the space industry.

The technology is underpinned via a breed of entrepreneurs, some from non-space backgrounds, entering the industry. This is then attracting private investment money, so we’re now seeing well-funded entrepreneurs with a high-risk appetite chasing real commercial opportunities.

Mega constellations

There’s a new trend towards ‘mega-constellations’ and I’m really excited to see how this will unfold. New space entrants such as OneWeb, SpaceX etc. plan to launch massive constellations of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. OneWeb, for example, is developing a constellation of initially 648 satellites in LEO to provide broadband communications services globally.

Other proposed systems, also primarily in the communications realm, are even larger: Boeing has filed with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans for a satellite system of between 1,400 and 3,000 satellites, while SpaceX is studying a system of about 4,000 satellites.

This trend is set to take advantage of the work done on satellite miniaturisation, digitisation of communications and production line approach of spacecraft building by companies such as SSTL and Airbus.

Wanted: The next generation of women to work in space

Sadly, when it comes to the current gender distribution in the space industry, women only make up 21% of the work force. However, this is changing, all be it gradually. It’s worth noting that there’re a significant number of both men and women between the ages of 48 and 58 who are employed in the space sector right now.

The industry is well aware that this could prove to be problematic, once this major age group retires. As such, change needs to happen at home and at school-entry level now to ensure we bring young talent into space engineering. Part of this drive is to encourage the mindset that ‘new talent must have women at its core’.

There are really a substantial number of people required to pick up the baton from the retiring population in the industry, plus support arising from the UK Government’s desire to grow direct employment in the sector from around 38,000 to 100,000 by 2030.

Space companies such as Oxford Space Systems pro-actively support the industry by encouraging the current generation of engineering and science students to consider a career in the space industry. In addition, initiatives such as Women in Aerospace (WIA) provide a vital platform for females working in the space industry. This is designed to increase the visibility of women, provide support and guidance to them in order to take up leadership positions within the sector.

The importance of ‘ferocious’ job hunting

My advice for girls and women who are looking to work in the space industry is: Don’t give up! If you don’t hear back from someone, follow up. If you don’t get a job, ask why not and keep applying. I can’t even imagine my life had I not been ‘ferocious’ in my approach to job-hunting. The space industry is very insular – we’re great at talking to ourselves, less so with the outside world.

I’ve recently started a YouTube channel to demystify the space sector and make it accessible to all. I post videos routinely, so please do check them out!

If you’re seeking a career in the space industry, I strongly recommend attending industry events. Networking is key and in the process – remember you’re always selling yourself. In addition, don’t be conventional; take risks, be entrepreneurial – it’s all about making yourself stand out from your competition for a job.

Or why not do it yourself?

Last but not the least – consider starting your own space company if you have an innovative idea. There’s an unparalleled level of support in the UK for entrepreneurs from Government agencies such as Innovate UK and the UK Space Agency, plus multiple opportunities to secure mentoring. The UK space start up scene is currently the envy of the world.

In a nutshell, if something has caught your attention or you have developed a passion for something then you must give it a shot. Find an industry champion who you can talk to about it. For those who’re considering a career change, don’t think space is only for engineers and scientists. The rapidly growing space sector needs plenty more of commercially aware women in roles such as business strategy, marketing, HR, legal, finance, project management etc.

Taking the business out of this world via contracts at home and overseas

Things are getting really exciting; there’s a real growth taking place in the UK space industry. Oxford Space Systems is currently negotiating a number of significant multi-million pound contracts in the UK and the US. Securing these contacts will be transformational to us. We’re also displaying and presenting at a number of trade shows, both in the UK and overseas. Planning, promoting and attending these is my responsibility.

The company is planning its next round of major external fund raising toward the end of 2017. I’ll be called on to talk with existing and potential new investors. Also, as a part of the company’s growth plans, I’ve been assigned with the task of exploring how we might expand to address market opportunities in Asia. We’ve already had some market traction in Singapore, so I’ll explore how we build on this to establish the Oxford Space Systems name in that region on the world.

 

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CubeSat image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CubeSat

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