Startups, Wanderlust, and Life HackingShare
Lessons from The World’s First Space Elevator Bootcamp. Or how a community of entrepreneurs based in Chile did “Rocket Science” in a Hungarian castle.
“Space Elevator? Entrepreneurs? Hungarian Castle?
What the heck are you talking about?”
Yes, you read that right. A bunch of entrepreneurs decided to get into Space Science and do a bootcamp, because that is what we know how to do. This is the story of what happened and the lessons we learned in the process.
What is Copernicus I?
The venue: marvellous Chateau Bercel
The 3-week program at Chateau Bercel outside Budapest, Hungary was comprised of participants from diverse backgrounds in science, mathematics, engineering, and economics, ranging from recent high school graduates to professionals in academia and the aerospace industry. It took place from July 13th to 31st, 2015. I will go into more detail below.
The Copernicus Series
Read this article by Exosphere Founder Skinner Layne to learn more about our proposed formats for learning like problem-identification laboratories, skill bootcamps, and one-on-one mentoring.
Among the goals of the Copernicus Series is to provide young people a hands-on learning experience that is directly connected to leading-edge research in science, which is usually only available to graduate and post-graduate students.
Why is this important? Worldwide demand for STEM educated professionals is growing rapidly but access to elite-level education at traditional learning institutions on a global level (I am aware of the postdoc problem in the US) remains limited to an elite few with the resources to pay for it. Online learning, blended learning, and micro-learning are part of a whole host of proposed answers floating around and while we encourage experimentation with all of them we take a non-ideological approach. Continuous experimentation with locally useful solutions is needed.
Exosphere’s thesis is that countless young people opt out of careers in science and technology because science education fails to expose them to the interesting applications of science to their life and the problems of the world. Furthermore, careers in science have come to be attached to a stigma concerning their earning potential, especially in traditional academia.
It is often years and years before students come in contact with actual applications of the skills and fields of the study they spend so much time acquiring. When they don’t develop a clear, experiential understanding of what, say, a physicist’s day to day work life looks like, it is no surprise that droves of STEM students change majors (~ 50 %) or abandon their studies entirely (~ 30 %) (though the lack of good employment opportunities is also a big factor). This can be counteracted by offering experiential learning opportunities before they start studies or during semester breaks. There those students curious about a particular field can sample it before committing years of their lives to it along with a pile of money in student loans tying them to risk-averse behaviour after graduation. Many of them are forced to take the first job they can find to start paying their installments.
The mission of Exosphere’s Copernicus Series is to expose youths to the exciting potential of science and prepare them for success in a quickly changing world, while helping experienced researchers commercialise and profit from their innovations through entrepreneurship. Through this process, the program will serve as an ongoing, productive platform for building the requisite brain trust of experts and practitioners in academia and industry to provide the resources and know-how necessary for further development of space related technology into commercializable endeavours while advancing space research and raising awareness for space exploration.
Why, oh why is science still not appealing to so many people who physically and mentally are fully able to engage in research and likely to make valuable contributions? One reason may just be the lack of excitement associated with not only the day to day work, but more importantly the public perception.
While we have made progress in making science more “sexy”, it still doesn’t hold the same appeal as entrepreneurship or programming. Both these areas champion a sort of “hacker mentality”, which is about overcoming limited resources, circumventing suffocating rules, combining old things in new and interesting ways, etc. All of these can, have been, and should apply to science, too.
Our slogan HACKING THE FINAL FRONTIER is about that: providing an experience along with a sexy public perception. Our participants should be proud to tell their friends about “this cool thing I went to in summer” instead of apologizing for “going to nerd camp”.
Another important feature of our programs is the mix of participants along a whole host of axes. This leads us directly into the lessons that I took away from the experiment of Copernicus I.
Diversity over Mastery
Discussing a simulation of Economic Development for the Space Elevator
Having people from many different backgrounds and of varying experience levels was both a challenge and an asset. Though every individual participant felt out of their depth a majority of the time, we advanced quickly through individual problems. Everybody got to learn things they wouldn’t have had an inclination or incentive to try and understand otherwise.
Let’s take a closer look at these axes of diversity and how they affected the program.
Age Distribution at Copernicus
Where the younger team members prodded the experts to explain their statements and justify their assumptions, the older ones helped co-curate the experience by channeling the work towards fruitful avenues.
Gender distribution at Copernicus
While many women from the Economic and Social Sciences applied, very few applied from the STEM fields. Only those women came to the program who were already working as professionals or entrepreneurs. We will continue to work on building an environment welcoming to our fellow female scientists and entrepreneurs.
One piece in this strategy is our Athena program for women in entrepreneurship and technology. The program is designed to offer ambitious and innovative women the opportunity to come together in a welcoming place, work and learn from each other, be inspired by successful international women visitors, and understand emerging technologies.
Exosphere Alumn Brigitta Sugg playing with Google Glass and Neurosky Tech at Hydra II
Curiously enough the women we did have at Copernicus were successful entrepreneurs in Tech and Space.
Occupation at Copernicus
3/4 of participants were pursuing degrees at traditional universities while the rest was split between paid employment and pursuing entrepreneurial ventures. Curiously enough two of the three women were entrepreneurs in space and tech, the other a consultant at Bain & Company. Copernicus II is going to be focused much more on building new ventures out of the findings at the program.
(If you are an entrepreneur or investor interested in space startups, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Fields of Study represented at Copernicus
While most participants studied either Physics, Mathematics or Economics, there was a surprising level of diversity. Several people held several degrees or were working towards additional ones.
We even had one of the very few space lawyers present: Kamil Muzyka is the legal advisor to TRED Laboratories and extremely knowledgeable about the legal landscape in space exploration, asteroid mining, etc.
Educational Level at Copernicus
This counts only the highest level of formal education achieved. Multiple degrees and skill not certified by a university are not included. Many had additional knowledge in coding.
Most participants were studying either in the US or the UK, but their nationalities covered 3/5 continents. Our notable guest from Japan was the lovely Kayoko Oshima, co-founder of the Japanese Space Elevator Association and principal at Jump To Space.
All in all a rather diverse group and by no means expertly knowledgeable in space elevator research. That is not necessary — though each and every participant did feel very much out of their depth a majority of the time, there was always somebody else to go to for a missing piece in the puzzle.
Experts are important, but only as resources to the participants. The depth of knowledge about a specific field is useful for speeding up the research done by participants, but it cannot replace it. Neither should it.
Availability over Structure
Michael Laine presenting his Lunar Space Elevator Infrastructure module
Going into the program we had a well defined schedule with quite a few theoretical sessions planned. With titles like “The Noumenia Process for the Lunar Elevator”, “The state of the art in Nanotechnology”, “Commercialisation of Space”, and “Space Colonization” we believed we had covered all our bases for getting everybody on the same page. Apparently too many bases…
Having lectures was good for building a common understanding of the problem and field, but it proved hindering in Week 2 when participants were dying to get to work. It reminded me of our very first entrepreneurship bootcamp, where we stayed too close to what you might call the “lecture model” we were trying to break away from. The theoretical part cannot take up more than 20 % and should be well fitted to the program. Though there are many interesting topics in space science, not all of them add value to a program that deals with a very specific problem like the endogenously-powered space elevator.
The lesson here is that having experts present is incredibly valuable, provided they spend more time helping the teams to refine the questions they’re investigating than presenting content in a one-way street. It’s the hard-won, hands-on expertise of many years spent in their respective fields that enables the participants to work through problems faster and close in on the right questions to ask in less time. There needs to be some structure so that people can work without having to worry about where to meet, when to eat, and so on. But this structure should always be amenable to change and stay in service of the goal, not become an impediment to work.
Creating over Expanding
Alan and Alex at work
While the challenge we had set up with the Endogenously-Powered Space Elevator (“EPSE”) was maximally interesting (real bacon as our friend FAKE GRIMLOCK calls it), the prospect of doing detail-oriented research on somebody else’s idea did not appeal to the bright minds at Copernicus. I am unsure what exactly the reason was. Most likely it was a combination of the following factors:
- Little trust in their own ability and that of the group to make significant progress — that is to say paper-worthy — on the complex problem of the EPSE in the limited amount of time available. In the introductory exercise of writing down both a hope and a fear, the most common fear was “not knowing enough/being the least competent person in the room”.
- No familiarity with concepts like serendipity and agile development, how they work, why they are important and how they can be applied to a research setting.
- A general feeling that the whole experience should be “fun”, leading to an overreaction to the anxiety inherent in doing anything new where there isn’t a map to follow and theoretical questions are accompanied by group difficulties. Rather than embracing the chaos, the urge to hold something concrete in ones hands by the end of the program was very strong (and understandably so).
In their applications our participants had the option to choose either the Technical Team or the Economics Team to work with, and they were allowed to switch during the first week after sampling their team mates and the type of work to be done. What ended up happening was that smaller groups formed, each coming up with their own ideas and concepts for space elevator related technology.
One group researched and developed a novel zeppelin design for Using Helium Balloons in Tower Construction, powered by solar panels and spanning several dozen meters.
A second group came up with a 20 km high tether tower serving as a base station for the space elevator while allowing for a comparatively simple construction and financing process because of its multitude of peripheral uses not tied to the SE — a similar design patented by the Canadian firm Thoth Technology made the news just a few days ago.
A third group wrote about a Tether Severence Scenario for Lunar Elevator Model that Visitor Michael Laine is working towards with his company Liftport Group.
And another group did a study on General Tether Design.
All of these papers were written solely by the participants. Visitors and Team Leads only helped to clarify the ideas and facilitated the process. Currently the group leaders are polishing these papers. Several people in our pool of Visitors, Advisory Board members and experts in our network have offered to proof read and give feedback. Steven Patamia, a leading expert in the space elevator community, has kindly offered to do a private peer review. Once these reviews have been completed they will be available online on the Copernicus I page and on the Open Science Framework (www.osf.io), a free collaboration tool built for project-based research. You can check the wiki of our research activities complete with version history today on the project pages here and here.
Momentum over Convenience?
The hacker mentality seems to take hold easily with space science research
Though it was surprising to see how much can get done when you put some 30 people into a room for three weeks and have them smash their brains together, I still feel that we could have achieved a lot more with a fourth week at our disposal. By week 3 people were all on the same page and busy doing stuff instead of figuring out how to do it. We had developed a momentum that got cut short because the limited amount of time left made it unlikely to make significant progress.
Our original plan was a 4-week program, but this wasn’t possible for logistical reasons. But then again, in that format it becomes difficult for students, and professionals especially, to take time off from their regular occupations. Indeed, many of the participants told us they would not have been able to participate in an even mildly longer program.
While we did work on very specific problems in space science, we also managed to have a good time in the process. You can see a selection of the best pictures in our album on the Copernicus Facebook Page. Below is a video of Team Puli’s Lunar Rover overcoming an organic obstacle…
The Importance of Cultural Technology
As I have written about before, we possess amazing technological capabilities never before seen. Near-instant communication, the unrestricted flow of information, access to the entirety of human knowledge, all on these handheld computers we still call “phones” — the shift from an economy used to scarcity of information to one based on abundance has been underway for not even two decades and already transformed the entire operating system of humanity (at least in developed and developing countries). A sea of possibilities has opened up.
Science is no exception to this trend. The way research is conducted has changed dramatically, because results achieved at the University of Shanghai of Science and Technology by a Chinese professor can be in front of the eyes of an American lab technician at MIT the next day. This allows for an extraordinary level of coordination of human effort on a global scale, thus reducing the need to redo a lot of research and instead focus on new experiments and, most important, on application of existing and new knowledge.
Skinner Layne introducing participants to life and entrepreneurship philosophy
So yes, technology brings with it great benefits. Allowing each individual scientist to specialize benefits everyone with the efficiency resulting from increased division of labor. But this strength is also a weakness with regards to solving the big problems facing humanity. To solve those big problems we need scientists from many different fields as well as businessmen to come together, exchange ideas, do the research, and commercialize their findings. Ideally you would involve young and brilliant curious minds as well to produce a unique environment poised to generate fresh ideas. What we miss is a mechanism to bring (and keep) all of this together. What we miss is cultural technology.
At Exosphere we have organized four 8–12 week bootcamps in entrepreneurship and life philosophy with our Hydra programs and its predecessors. In conducting these boot camp programs we have learned a great deal about people and understand not only how to bring very different kinds of people together in one place, but primarily how to build an environment where strangers can form strong enough relationships so that productive work is possible in very limited periods of time. So far the focus in these programs has been on entrepreneurship and learning how to learn, but Copernicus has confirmed our thesis that it also works in a research setting.
Aliaksei Rubanau, Economics Lead at Copernicus, says:
“I see the community of Exosphere as something socially very similar to how extraterrestrial bases will be made. A relatively small number of 20 to 50 people, who don’t know each other before the process, are put in a challenging situation. Big achievements in little time. Given these circumstances, people need to raise their communication skills very fast, exponentially even. These conditions are very similar to the ones you will find in every extraterrestrial base. It’s a very special social life.”
The mechanism by which we are able to achieve this dramatic increase in communication skills is building genuine Community. It is an essential part in all our programs and was introduced to public discourse by the late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, who had this to say about it:
“Community [is] a group of individuals who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitment to “rejoice together, mourn together,” and to “delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own.”
Like an enzyme in the world of biology, community-building acts as a catalyst in forming deep and meaningful relationships between individuals in a very short time frame, thus allowing groups that have gone through this process to do away with the usual niceties you observe at conferences or in professional and academic settings. Instead they start to focus on asking better questions and helping each other overcome personal biases, inabilities, and quirks inhibiting a truly free exchange of ideas.
Freed from the usual constraints that these rules of interaction we inherit from our cultures put on us, time becomes the most valuable resource — “when else will I find this kind of environment again?”, you realize.
An atmosphere of cooperation and shared struggle inspires and moves people to speak and do the difficult thing, persisting through the inevitable confusion when you deviate from the script and see more internal and external variables that they themselves have the power to change. It is in this environment that genuinely new ideas blossom. It is (for now and until something better comes along) our answer to the problem of increased specialization.
What are our next steps?
Since I got back to Chile in mid August I’ve been busy wrapping up the program and building a new site, contacting media outlets and building relationships with fellow space enthusiasts. At Exosphere we’ve been thinking about new formats for all our programs and will soon announce our plans for the coming year, including those for the Copernicus Labs. There are some exciting things happening in our community and science will be a major building block in our strategy to offer alternatives in primary, secondary, university and adult education in the coming years.
Learn more about Exosphere
On a personal note
Being around what you might call “big players” has been an interesting experience for me. Just a year ago I couldn’t have imagined ever to meet people like Chris Welch (Director of Master Studies at the International Space University), Tibor Pacher (Founder of Puli Space, an entrant in the Google Lunar XPRIZE), or Michael Laine (Founder of Liftport Group and “the space elevator guy”), much less work with them. I see it as a sign that our foray into science hold value and feel encouraged to experiment with new formats and fields.
One salient point has lingered in my mind from my conversations with those who have been “in the science game” for a long time: the importance of public outreach. Crafting compelling stories that can capture the imagination of the average guy are essential to generating more funding for scientific research not only from governmental bodies but the public itself.
In recent years the advent of Open Science and Citizen Science has done exactly that by involving members of the public in scientific research in half serious, half playful ways. Even NASA has recognized this trend and decided to sponsor initiatives like SpaceGAMBIT in an effort to benefit from the creativity of a larger community outside academia and corporate research & development.
Up to very recently the interactions between these large organizations and the public have been mostly one-way, limited to public displays of success stories. What we are starting to see more of now are people and organizations that attempt to bridge that gap, offering processes, personnel and tools to connect those who have with resources with the wider creative community. There is even a special term for this…
My own definition of the term science diplomacy is as follows:
Science Diplomacy is the activity of reaching out to the general public and making science “sexy” to the average citizen by using novel ways of communication.
A person engaged in science diplomacy is called a Science Diplomat. His mission is to raise the standard of scientific literacy among the general population and build the mechanisms for an increasing number of people to get involved in scientific activity. A Science Diplomat may, but need not necessarily be formally trained in any field of science, or the scientific method.
This work of educating the public about complex subjects is hard work and often requires a huge commitment of time and money. Staying on top of the newest developments in a given discipline to a degree sufficient for communicating about it has not become easier in our rapidly evolving times.
Todays challenge isn’t getting access to the right information — it’s sorting through the torrent of noise to find the sandcorn of signal.
It is for this reason that we need people who dedicate the equivalent of a full time job to this, and as a consequence we need to build environments where this is easily possible and even encouraged. It should be profitable for individuals to become experts in problems and sell their expertise to those in need of it. At Exosphere we hope to provide a platform that facilitates this process and invite those looking to make a living off of this to enter into conversations with us about how best to achieve this.