In the latest episode of the Defence Connect Podcast, Dr Jason Held, chief executive of Saber Astronautics, joins host Phil Tarrant to discuss the defence industry, space and how it has developed throughout the years. Dr Held talks about the future prospects of a domestic space agency in Australia as “space is the ultimate high ground."
With a PhD in aerospace and mechatronics, the former US Army Major and Army Space Support Team leader for Space Command reveals how his goal "was to solve all the things that annoyed” him, how he formed his company that he now describes as “a commercial R&D laboratory”, how he leverages technological advances and how he created a beer you can drink in space!
Enjoy the podcast,
The Defence Connect team
Listen to previous episodes of the Defence Connect podcast:
Episode 217: INSIGHT: Maximising local industry content and our advantages in the Indo-Pacific – Matt Keogh, shadow minister for defence industry
Episode 216: INSIGHT: Chief of Air Force on shaping the RAAF to meet an evolving strategic environment
Episode 215: INSIGHT: Capability development, interoperability and the US-Australia relationship – Mark Weinrich, US Marine Attaché, US embassy, Canberra
Episode 214: PODCAST: Maintaining agility through COVID-19 – Grant Sanderson, Electro Optic Systems
Episode 213: INSIGHT: Lessons on national security from a career in diplomacy – Dave Sharma MP
Episode 212: PODCAST: From micro-business to leading distributor - Graeme Bulte, Aquaterro
Episode 211: PODCAST: Supporting Australia’s veterans and service personnel - Jason Scanes, Forsaken Fighters
Episode 210: PODCAST: Bolstering domestic capabilities in the wake of coronavirus – Robert Nioa, NIOA
Episode 209: PODCAST: Providing an agile workforce to the defence industry – Drew Horsell, Horsell, and Jon Westerland, KBR
Episode 208: INSIGHT: COVID-19 implications on national sovereignty - the Hon. David Fawcett
Introducer: Welcome to the Defence Connect podcast, with your host Phil Tarrant.
Phil Tarrant: G'day everyone, Phil Tarrant here, host of the Defence Connect podcast. Thanks for joining us today. Pleasure to have you on board. If you are new to this podcast, welcome, thanks for joining us. Remember to check out all the other episodes that we have recorded. We like this podcast to be for all the defence industry, and I was just chatting with our next guest off air beforehand, and describing the depth of the listeners we have, all the way through from our services and key people within there into defence procurement, but importantly not forgetting the defence industry itself, the primes and SMEs that support the ADF to deliver what we need to deliver.
Today we're going to go into an area which I must admit is not my forte. I don't claim to be an expert on this as well, so I do apologise if I do use the wrong terminology, or the wrong concepts as part of this, but I have someone who I'm sure is going to help shape my evolution in terms of understanding the future of this particular area. To give me a hand discussing this I have Dr. Jason Held in the studio.
Jason is the CEO of a company called Sabre Astronautics, and I've been checking out Jason online before we caught up, and interesting background, but it's gonna be contextually give us a hand to talk about our topic today in terms of space.
Jason's got a PhD in aerospace and mechatronics from the University of Sydney, great school, which he received in 2008. Prior to that academically, BSC in Computer Science from his home country in the USA, in Virginia. Jason, before kicking off Sabre Astronautics, was in the US Army, a Major with the USSTRATCOM, formerly Space Command.
To give you some context about what we're going to chat about today, Jason was deployed internationally in support of military space missions, so interesting stuff. Outside of the realm of what I would normally claim to be able to confidently talk about, but Jason, educate me mate.
Jason Held: Sure.
Phil Tarrant: What are we going to talk about today? We gonna talk about defence, we're gonna talk about space, and how it's all coming together right now. It's a big topic.
Jason Held: Sure, we're gonna talk about it both, and defence and space, they've kind of gone hand to hand for a long time. "Space is the ultimate high ground", that's what we used to say back in the space command days, and just to put a bit of context around that, my role was an Army Space Support Team Leader, so I was a space expert for the US Army, not the Air Force, and when I tried to transfer into this I really kind of pissed off my chain of command in the artillery centre 'cause they were like "What? Yeah, Space Command, but we're the ground force."
But the fact is that every armed forces component needs some relationship with the space domain, because we've always had kind of this relationship from the sense of data, and imagery and intelligence. A lot of that does come from space.
Phil Tarrant: Talk to me about your career path. How does an artillery officer end up doing what you do?
Jason Held: Not directly apparently. I was in Korea, I did a Bosnia tour, then I was in Germany. I did Korea as kind of a young guy. I was 20, 25 at the time, and I had always wanted to be in the space industry, and I wanted to be an astronaut and all these things, so when the US Army formed their space command, which was around then, I got wind of it and immediately asked for a transfer and my commander said "No" for exactly the reasons I mentioned actually. He said "What are you, an idiot? We're the ground force." He was very blunt as we tend to be.
So I resigned my commission. That's what I did. I was a young Captain, I resigned my commission, and I went back to the States, bought a used Plymouth Voyager, and travelled west, as you do. "Travel west, young man" they said. I ended up in Boulder, Colorado, which has a very large space community, and I built up my expertise. I started grad school actually at the University of Colorado out in Boulder doing space courses. I started getting jobs leveraging my computer science background, doing flight software for Hubble, and for the ISS, and really big programmes like this.
Then September 11th happens, and what happens is we all got mobilised. Everybody from a grandfather in the deep reserves to myself. I was in the National Guard. What are they going to do with you when they mobilise? Well, what are your skillsets today? Okay, we're going to put you in Space Command, down the road out at Colorado Springs. Which is exactly where I wanted to be in the first place, so it all kind of worked out.
Phil Tarrant: Sounds all right. So you've pretty much gotten to the field that you wanted to be in, and equipped with the skills which you worked on to probably add some value into Space Command. Let's talk about Space Command in the US Army. What does Space Command do for the US Army?
Jason Held: Oh man, it's massive.
Phil Tarrant: 'Cause people think space, they think-
Jason Held: I mean, the US side, right? 'Cause the US has got rather a large army, so you've got ... For example, they do handle some launch sites and a lot of R&D, but for Armed Forces Command, Joint Command and things like this, my role as a Army Space Support Team Leader was always a liaison between all of the planning services at Central Command, for example out in the Middle East, and all of this space products and forces. 'Cause the Air Force has satellites, but you also have commercial satellites, and so what are you doing? You're taking satellite imagery that the command needs, that will help make decisions, you're tracking your GPS accuracies. You want to make sure that if they're going to fire GPS guided munitions and various forms that are related, that they are informed as to when things are accurate, and when they're not, based on environmental conditions, which means we have to monitor space weather, which sounds kind of airy-fairy right?
I used to give these briefings. I'd go around the horn and say "Okay Marine Corps, what did you do?", "Oh we killed 30 insurgents today." Then "Air Force, Army. What did you do?", then they'd say "Okay. Space guy." Then the whole room would lose all military composure and they'd all go (singing), and I'd say "Okay, well there's nothing happening." Or if you have a solar flare, then it has an effect on weapon systems, and it has an effect on the accuracy at your fight. There are a lot of examples where soldiers got lost 'cause they're looking at GPS, and they went down the wrong direction, down a path and ended up where they weren't supposed to be, and that has consequences.
So intelligence has a big part of it, satellite communications, SATCOM is also a big part of it, and there are other aspects like space control, and situational awareness. If an adversary launches a satellite, or uses a satellite for their own armed forces, it was our job to understand that, and understand the effect of that on the battlefield. That's the kind of value-add we gave to the war-fighter at a very basic level.
Phil Tarrant: You talk about you were exploring your own career within the space sector outside of the Army, and being called back into the Army-
Jason Held: That's right.
Phil Tarrant: ... as of a necessity. When you think back to September 11th, and where we are today, how's the technology evolved in that period of time? It must have been rapid, rapid changes?
Jason Held: In some ways yes, and some ways no. What was really interesting is that was around the same time that GPS tracking was being integrated down to the soldier level. We had GPS for a while, but ...
I remember when I was leaving, 'cause my last duty station as an artilleryman was actually in Korea, and that's when the hand-held GPS units came out. You're watching the soldiers going from looking at a map, to looking at this box in their hand, and they saw a human response. How do they respond to that? But during September 11th it was "Oh okay, let's put these trackers automated on the vehicles" and now they have some sort of a cloud service that everybody could see what's going on.
Right now you've got GPS tracking for pizza delivery these days, you know what I mean? It's fairly benign, but at the time it was super cutting-edge stuff. So in some ways we've come a long ways. In some ways we have not changed that much at all. The act of controlling spacecraft has not really changed in the last 40 years, right? So the people out at the Air Force who are controlling the large numbers of satellites, increasing numbers of satellites that are flying around, they're still doing things the same way that they've always done.
All I'm saying is that some places have advanced quite quickly and some places haven't. I think operationally, and looking in the future for defence, we're looking at how do you integrate larger datasets? How do you integrate the space control portion? How do you handle the fact that adversarial forces have capabilities today that we haven't had before?
And this goes outside the context of military, but this is a civilian disruption that immediately affects defence, and specifically here in Australia, I think it's quite important.
Back when I was in Space Command, the size of a spacecraft was about the size of a small car, up to a Greyhound bus. They cost anywhere from a half a billion to two and a half billion dollars. Today there are classes of spacecraft called cube-sats and micro-sats, that is about the size of your telephone, all the way up to the size of a backpack, or maybe your little drinks fridge that you've got at home. That's kind of a better example. That's hitting enough of the capability and imagery that it can see naval forces on the ground without much difficulty. They could see some ground units on there, so you could do real ISR with it. The cost difference is going from two and a half billion dollars down to, say, three hundred thousand dollars, which if you think about it, is about half the cost of a Boost Juice franchise.
So entrepreneurial space has grown up very quickly, which is opportunities for adversarial forces as well to enter the game in ways we haven't expected, and it's also an opportunity I think for Australia to enter the game and build capability in Australia that's local and domestic, so we could catch up to other major powers, and get some of that capability, and grow it locally and make it really respond in the way we want it to respond, kind of on the road.
Phil Tarrant: The picture that you're painting for me is competitive disparity between Western powers, advanced powers, advanced manufactures, who have been developing space technology, spacecraft, which to your message, hasn't really changed that much in 40 years, through to putting technology in the hands of people who can obtain similar advantages at a lot less cost, so they're catching up very quickly, the adversaries to our current operational forces. So what are we doing, what's Australia doing, and what's the West doing in order to stay ahead of the curve and keep that gap far enough apart so we can maintain advantage? Or is it just going to become an even playing field?
Jason Held: I don't know about even playing field, because a lot of these changes are within the last 10 years, and certain elements of these states have not changed, 'cause if you're used to dealing with two and a half billion dollar satellites, and someone comes up to you with something that's the size of a backpack, you're just going to laugh at them. "What are you going to do with that little thing?"
But I think they've come around. There's a whole segment of the market that's just said "You know what? We're proving this capability." Now the military is saying "Okay, rapid response. That's something we haven't really had before with satellites, so let's leverage that." So you're seeing kind of a second space race, that is very closely coupled with military acquisition, and it really is a military and civil race as well, because you're able to produce data that's democratised.
So you've got to think about it. It's a disruption, which means governments have very limited ability to control a disruption. It's going to happen with or without us, so a lot of the, I guess, crosstalk that I'm hearing in space circles are not "How do we stop it?", "How do we leverage it? How do we deal with it? How do we deal with adversaries who have some capabilities like this?" Some of the major powers are talking aggressively, looking at the space control aspect ... This has legal connotations, I think, outside this discussion, but you know, how do we aggressively stop some of these small satellites?
Then there's a civil piece which is quite interesting and completely unresolved, which is if you go from launching 75 large spacecraft a year, which we do today, to launching anywhere from one to five thousand satellites a year, which is what we're talking about in 10, 15, 20 years, there's this whole space control piece, this space traffic control, that has the same tie-in connotation as we have with air traffic control. So you're going to have stuff that the military has to control, and stuff that civilian has to control, and then we have to mitigate that between them.
Phil Tarrant: So how messy is it at the moment upstairs? Is it stuff flying all over the joint, bumping into each other?
Jason Held: No. I mean, you get a lot of academics who are very concerned because of space junk, and when a satellite dies, it's essentially a brick up in the sky. We are seeing a jump in that. It hasn't really hit any critical mass yet, but it is making operational effects. As a former artilleryman, I'm tempted to say "big sky, little bullet", but you can't really because this is billions of dollars in infrastructure. You do have a few human lives up there that are impacted. The ISS does have to move around, and as a civilian entity you care about that civil space.
But as a military space, there are a lot of questions around if you hit a piece of debris and your satellite dies, does that look any different than if somebody decides to aggressively act on you? In some cases that might, in some cases that won't, and how do you wargame that? It's a wide open world.
Phil Tarrant: Very difficult. It is.
You talk about the democratisation in many ways of space, so it's available to everyone. $300,000 in this community is not a lot of money, right? So the barrier to entry to get the advantages of having space capabilities, and how that plays out in the defence sense, who is the "bad guys" in inverted commas, how are these things being protected? How hard it is to get your hands on a bit of kit like this? Three hundred grand or whatever it is, to deploy that in the field and actually get you an advantage? Is that easy to find this stuff?
Jason Held: If you've got bucks, you got Buck Rogers.
Phil Tarrant: Yeah.
Jason Held: That's how you say it.
For Australians I think it's quite easy and that's why we've got more startups per capita in this country now than just about anywhere else in the world at the moment. I think we've got 40 new companies just in the last year. It's pretty amazing.
Phil Tarrant: Yeah.
Jason Held: So on one hand it's a good thing. Most of the components ... I mean, your standard smartphone will last several months in space, okay? There's a group out of NASA Ames that proved that. They did some slight modifications to their cellphones, to hack some of the software, and launched it up there. So it's not just that it's easy to acquire. If you try and reduce the supply, it's easy to reproduce. The bottleneck for most people is the actual launch, 'cause there you do have to get approvals, and you have to get sign off by national authority. Even for an Australian building a satellite on their own, getting it flown into space, they've got to get sign off right now from national leadership.
Phil Tarrant: Talk to me a little bit about the space community, if I can call it that, here in Australia. Australians have always been known for being innovators, trying to drive forward and path new frontiers. How big is the space community here, and what's the dynamics? What's the culture like of it?
Jason Held: Jeez, oh man, that's a great question.
It's a culture that's changing under our feet, and I think that's a sign of the market and the disruption. I've had Sabre pushing it in the direction I have for a few years now. A lot of these new entrants are ... you know, 40 new companies, about a third of them have their funding already anywhere from seed to series A, which means you could do something with that. The government has woken up kind of on the back of that, saying "We have opportunities here. We also have risks. We need to mitigate both of those at the same time."
The community is a bit fractured, in that because there's not a lot of ... historically we don't have a space agency, so there is no central body to kind of say "Here's the vision and direction for Australian space." So I guess culturally it's a bit of a wild west. You've got the Adelaide crowd that kind of stick together, the New South Wales crowd kind of sticks together. Canberra's kind of in the middle, they go back and forth.
It's just a sign of the times. Historically, Australia's been a country without a whole lot of funding to the general public to be involved, so it's been very specific, very bespoke to international relationships, in particular with the United States, and now they're starting to broaden out. We're starting to see the pieces in motion, and it's not clear yet where they're all going to land.
Phil Tarrant: The type of people who are attracted into the space sector, the space community, guys like yourself-
Jason Held: Bunch of geeks… We're all a bunch of geeks.
Phil Tarrant: So you're all academics, you're all sort of coming out of universities?
Jason Held: No. Well there's a strong component of that-
Phil Tarrant: Oh there's guys launching rockets in their backyards…
Jason Held: Yeah. Well, look, if you talk to most of us, most of us grew up like ... I know I was in the army and all that, but my mother was an ex-hippie who made me watch Star Trek, smoking pot out of a little marble peace pipe, kilo bag of M&Ms by her head, right? Probably more detail than you want to know, but-
Phil Tarrant: Paints a picture, I see it.
Jason Held: Yeah, yeah, it paints a picture of how I grew up, and I rebelled and joined the army, right?
Phil Tarrant: Great.
Jason Held: But a lot of the people really love the field. You've got engineers who love to build, and space is one of those fields that it's just a tough environment, and that makes it fun for people who are builders. You've got a very interesting crowd of foreigners who come in, kind of like myself, and settle in Australia, and who've got space backgrounds. We've brought some of those skillsets here and formed relationships with others. You've got a bit of a melting pot in that sense.
Then you've got people who've been around for a while. Australians who've got heritage in this country, who've been in the Australian space scene for about 40 years. Some of them have quite a bit of exceptional IP, exceptional technologies, that if you were to leverage them the right way, would really leapfrog Australia past some of these other, what you would normally consider to be major powers.
Phil Tarrant: What do you think about our unis here? You're obviously going to say they're great because you did your PhD in Sydney, but ...
We've got some smart people coming through our schools. How's our unis sort of rate in terms of manufacturing this talent for tomorrows space leaders? Are we doing a good job?
Jason Held: It's mixed. I would say a better way to say it is we do a very good job in niche areas. I think our sat-com is world class. I came here for robotics which has a kind of segue, it's cross-lined to space, so there's a lot of overlap because at the time, the lab I went to was one of the top three in the world. But you'll have pockets of really world-class stuff, especially at the PhD level. I quite like this stuff coming out of ANU and ADFA, and Queensland was going pretty strong for a while. I'm looking at UNSW Sydney, which has got some real world-class small satellite avionics. I think with the right push they could really enter the scene in South-East Asia.
I'm seeing a change in the way universities respond to their tech. It used to be universities try and hold everything together, and now they're getting systems is place to build new entrepreneurs, and so students are graduating and founding their own businesses, their own Sabres, so to speak, and that's really cool.
What we need to do better. We need better integration between space physics, software engineering, and space engineering. Right now those three fields are separate, and they're not talking to each other. I think that's one of the things that I hope some of these universities that might be listening in today choose to look at.
Phil Tarrant: So it's their job to facilitate that, the universities.
Jason Held: Yeah, it's their uni, it's not mine. I mean, I come and I tell them what I think they should do, but I mean, at the end of the day I’m not a Dean.
Phil Tarrant: Are they receptive to you telling them what they think you should do? Are they consciously aware of this? Or do you think they don't have the skills to be able to actually cultivate that collaboration?
Jason Held: Look, it's not really my position. I'm not a Dean level, right? I'm good friends with, again, the Sydney crowd. We know each other quite well. UNSW Sydney and Sydney Uni, and Sydney Uni's got two parts ... Well, three parts at Sydney Uni. Space physics, the space engineering, and then the roboticists. Even they don't really work together very much. I cannot break through the politics. They have to do that, and I think every university has that. But I am seeing a very positive change in the last five years, where they're starting to say "Hey look, we're not actually competing with you." 'Cause they compete over ARC linkages, right, and that's a system you can't break.
But now there are different avenues. Defence Innovation Hub. What a great idea. Now they could band together, and produce a space product, and it's useful for defence, and you could bring a company in and then start selling it and ... I don't know. I could see some change that could happen. You put the systems in place, and that'll herd the cats, I think, to where it needs to be.
Phil Tarrant: Do you think most people are agnostic when they look at opportunities within space and space industry, space community, whether it's a civilian application or a defence application? Or do you think people sort of like to go down a particular path? Do you need to develop space technology as one of them in mind? Or it's both the same, kind of running parallel?
Jason Held: I think most people are going to have their own self interest at mind, and experience as well. A defence person is going to sit there and look towards what's the benefit to the war-fighter, because that's their job. An academic is going to look towards, a little bit more abstractly, what do we need as a species. Kind of big picture, like this. So I don't see any change there, unless we get a space agency or something like that, that kind of adds a bit of vision at a national level.
But even then, I think it's important to have breadth of innovation. Giving a vision is one thing, but you don't want to constrain the general public into "You have to do avionics", or "You have to do ... "
Of course, I do a lot of space operations software, so I talk within that, but at the same time, I have to broaden myself out too, and say "Okay, there are people out there in Australia that are doing rockets that want to be the next SpaceX. Let's let them do that. Let's help them do that." That's how I feel.
Phil Tarrant: What's the prospects for a domestic space agency here in Aussie?
Jason Held: I don't know man, we'll see. Ask me again in March. 'Cause the governments talking about it, they're looking for the opportunities, and they'll make their decision. My opinion is that it's going to help out the commercial sector for sure. I think it'll be very helpful for defence as well, in terms of coordinating civil and defence, a lot of those issues that are going to crop up, and you can't really stop some of this disruption anyways. So yeah, I don't know. I'm not a gambler. I'm a risk taker, not a gambler.
Phil Tarrant: But I think you've painted the benefits for Australia to have a centralised, unifying force to help cultivate this sector, this community of ... and we need to be in that game.
Jason Held: Cultivate's a great word man. Cultivate I think is the word.
Phil Tarrant: Yeah.
So talk to me about Sabre. What do you guys do?
Jason Held: Sabre ... I describe ourselves as a commercial R&D laboratory. We're a business that's making spaceflight operation software.
Phil Tarrant: Okay.
Jason Held: So you think about mission control, and Tom Hanks going "Houston, we have a problem." Then you get 20 people in the room trying to solve that problem. We're doing all that with gaming graphics software and machine learning together in one package. So think about space command in a box, that you could just kind of use yourself.
So we're taking the research behind that and trying to find applications to different groups that can actually use that in the space industry.
Phil Tarrant: How did you end up doing it? You've obviously got a passion for this type of stuff, but when did you go "Here is a product I can conceptualise, and evolve and create, and sell it to someone"? How did you do that?
Jason Held: My goal was to solve all the things that annoyed me when I was at Space Command. An operator out at ARSTRAT was all these things kind of piss you off, it's really inefficient, then you look around and you're looking ... Why are you doing operations this way, when you've got all this new tech that can be applied? That's what got me in the direction, and I think a lot of the brainpower behind ... I'd wanted to do this type of a software for a while, the PIGI. We call it Predictive Ground-station Project, affectionately we're calling it PIGI. I've wanted to do this for quite some time. Then when I graduated we took a lot of the algorithms that I developed under my PhD and just applied it.
Phil Tarrant: As a layman I think about space, and I think you've got some of the smartest guys around, and girls, doing this stuff, but I actually could call it a comfort when I hear someone who's so involved in something like this to go "Yeah no, it could be done so much better." Just the picture you paint of you know, inefficiencies, and it's nice to know that happens everywhere. For a solution to truly get advantages here, it's good to know that even though the smartest, most brightest people who are sending stuff up into space can do a lot better than what they can do.
Jason Held: Yeah.
Phil Tarrant: Interesting, interesting. So the business itself, how long's it been running now?
Jason Held: We founded right after I graduated, and like a lot of entrepreneurs, like a lot of academic, you're smart, you think you know everything. I was an adult. I'd experienced a few things in the military, and knew some leadership, and I thought "Okay, I could surely do this. It's going to be easy." Of course it wasn't, because the environment was tough, and I had a lot to learn. I still have a lot to learn about running a business. Every day's a new lesson on that front
I spent the first couple of years doing some projects. I figured that making space command in a box is going to be hard. From a research standpoint, from a product development standpoint, it's going to take a few years to put something like this together, and did some development with this, but I started a couple of smaller projects which are really easy to get off the ground, would give us a bit of a brand, and let people get to know us. Did that for a couple of years, a couple of fun projects.
We made a beer you could drink in space, which I think-
Phil Tarrant: Did it work?
Jason Held: Yeah, yeah, it worked great. Tastes good. We actually got to the point where we flew around in the vomit comet and gave it a go.
Phil Tarrant: Next time you need to do some testing, I'm happy to come along and…
Jason Held: Yeah, yeah, we get that a lot. We get that a lot.
I made a little tether deployer for small satellites. A little hardware project to bring a satellite back down to Earth at the end of its mission. Little things like that didn't make us a lot of money, so from a science perspective it was the right thing to do, but from a business perspective it just kind of distracted us a bit.
So a few years ago we really buckled down and just started focusing on transitioning from the research and the science behind mission operations, like a modern operations centre, into starting to make the product and build the team that'll build it, and that's kind of where we're at today.
We actually just released our first casual licence for it back in December, so very recent we actually started. Now we're starting to say "How do we sell this?" and pushing it out to people that could actually use it.
Phil Tarrant: So you have a commoditized product that you can sell to multiple people now?
Jason Held: That's right.
Phil Tarrant: Who are you selling it to?
Jason Held: Universities of course have picked it up, both in the States and here. Because it's a big product, a lot of people use it in different ways. We did get a Defence Innovation Hub contract recently, that says "Hey, you can diagnose the health of satellites. Maybe you can diagnose the health of communication signals as well." It's not a hard pivot to do that, you just take the software and use it in a different application.
The States side has other applications, like Space Command. They're quite interested and saying "Okay, you got obviously a product which is good for the civil sector. There are military applications that can help us as well." So that's how we're working.
Interestingly, our initial plan was saying "Okay, we're just going to sell software, and eventually we'll control the satellites here." 'Cause that's the real hard bit, actually controlling it. We've started to get customers in this small satellite ... you know, some of these new small satellites that we're talking about, have come to us and said "Can you use your software to model our constellations", which would be like a hundred satellites at a time. It's like ninja level modelling, and the software can do it. So we've helped some of the companies in Australia raise funding to the tune of about $5 million each.
So it's very broad. That's the problem we have at the moment. My advisory board yells at me "We need more focus. Let's just do one thing only." That's the big challenge right now. Trying to herd the cats all into this one space command in a box actually means quite a bit.
Phil Tarrant: Yeah. Your experience with the Innovation Hub? Good one?
Jason Held: Excellent. Excellent. Good people. I don't envy the amount of work they have to do, because they're a brand new programme, very well funded, in a sector which previously has not had the ... Without them, I would not physically have been able to sell to Australian defence.
Phil Tarrant: So that opened up the doors into defence.
Jason Held: Massive. Immediately.
Phil Tarrant: Okay.
Jason Held: Immediately opened it up.
Phil Tarrant: So it's pretty much, you've passed a certain set of benchmarks to open a door into defence, and ...
Jason Held: It was more like, previously you had to know a guy who knew a guy, and even then ... 'Cause I knew a few guys who knew a few guys, right? When you been around, and especially the space community. Everybody knows you. You go to the conferences, they all see you. You have a beer together, and they're like "Wow, this is good tech. Maybe we could make this something that really helps us."
But every time they would try, we had a lot of problems in Australia with bilateral agreements with other countries that would restrict the IP channels. There was no physical mechanism. We had people say "I want to use your product." I would say "Great. Here's the cost. Send me your purchase order." "I don't know how to do that" would be their response. But here we go, Defence Innovation Hub broke through that in a matter of weeks.
Phil Tarrant: So Defence now is a paying customer of yours?
Jason Held: Yes. Proud to say that.
Phil Tarrant: Okay. That's good. It's good to hear.
Jason Held: Yes. Very proud to say that.
Phil Tarrant: You see that being a long term thing as well?
Jason Held: Absolutely. We see Australia as being a long term thing because a lot of the growth of space in Australia is going to happen in South-East Asia. So these small satellite things? This is going to be massive. We're talking an industry growing from scratch up to two billion over the course of five to ten years, and a lot of that growth is South-East Asia, and Australia is perfectly positioned to be a part of that. I've made this my home, so I want to contribute to my society, and supporting Australian defence is really important.
Phil Tarrant: Would you say that one of the largest challenges you've had has been converting science into dollars? Because I imagine, academics, as bright people, you like the stuff that you do, but actually to turn that into a buck and have a business ... Is that a real challenge for people from your type of background?
Jason Held: I think so. It's easy for me to say I'm having an easy time of it now, but if you asked me this question in 2009, I would have been pulling my hair out. 2012 was a really rough year for that. Part of it is I learned how to do it. I learned the difference between writing a proposal for a defence customer versus an academic thing. I think part of it also is Australia has become more open to entrepreneurialism than they have before, so the environment's more favourable. It doesn't matter how good you are at talking to customers if there's no mechanism, you know?
I think that anyone can learn it. I am not the brightest beer in the six-pack. I talk to a lot of academics who are used to going for ARC linkage and things like that, and that pigeonholes them into a certain sphere, and the moment you start thinking of the customer, the consumer, which in this case is the war-fighter, and in other cases could be somebody trying to watch Foxtel ... It's the same proposal, it's a different market analysis, and it's not as hard a transition if you just have someone who says "Okay, here's a few easy steps you need to take." I don't think it's going to be hard from an economic standpoint for Australia to bring those two together.
Phil Tarrant: For you guys to grow, do you need additional rounds of funding? Can you finance growth through sales now? Or are you always on the hunt for new capital to keep evolving as a company?
Jason Held: We're always on the hunt, and this is one of the things that adds a bit of growth stress to us. We've got a lot of labour that comes to us, a lot of people want to work with us, so we don't have any problems there. Sabre has not had ... we're not the type of company that has gone out for the traditional investment. We dip our toe in the water, but usually we go for customers. But what we want to avoid is the risk of being ... A purely defence contractor has this challenge where you're very much at the whim of political winds. So we could get this customer, and we got this defence customer, and it's good for X number of years, and X number of dollars over the course of time, and you get a change and then you're dry.
I've seen companies both here and in the US that can suffer, so that's a risk. So we open the door always to new customers, and I think as our company culture we like being on the cutting edge of the innovation. The science part of Sabre is never going to go away. We're always going to bring that back in, and always look at the things we do and try and be on that cutting edge.
We're going to have a lot of defence work, we're going to focus on that for sure. We're going to keep the door open for civil space, and there are a lot of technical areas where those will tie together.
Phil Tarrant: Great. Well, Jason, I've really enjoyed the chat.
Jason Held: Thank you.
Phil Tarrant: I feel like I get it a lot more now-
Jason Held: Good.
Phil Tarrant: ... and I do appreciate those insights. It's an exciting part. It's a good story, and I'm sure we'll keep in contact and you let us know how you get on. It's good to hear that you've cracked that defence code, right? You've got in, and good to see the Innovation Hub has been saying the right things, and it's obviously working in action now, but it's…
Jason Held: Honestly, I did not do too much. The proposals I ran to DIH, I was writing for other places. DIH I think cracks it for Australia. The decision to do it cracks it. The decision to have an open avenue for entrepreneurs is going to completely broaden out the innovation opportunity for this country. I'm not just saying that 'cause I happened to get one. It's easy to be positive about money that's coming in the door, but this is just-
Phil Tarrant: It wasn't that hard though, 'cause I know when they were establishing it they wanted it to be quite a simple process to make sure that it wasn't too restrictive so people didn't try and get in there. A lot of people probably now listening to this podcast, I'm sure they'll be happy that they're getting that feedback.
Jason Held: Yeah, yeah, good.
Phil Tarrant: That's cool, nice. How do people find out more about you guys, if they want to go and check you out?
Jason Held: www.saberastro.com
Phil Tarrant: Okay. Nice one
Jason Held: Awesome.
Phil Tarrant: Thanks again Jason. Thanks for joining us today on Defence Connect podcast. Remember to go to defenceconnect.com.au for the latest news and market intelligence around defence industry. We're on all the social stuff, search for us. Subscribe to newsletter, defenceconnect.com.au/subscribe, and that's it from me this episode of the Defence Connect podcast. I'll be back again next week. Until then, bye bye.