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Young New Zealanders recognised for innovative thinking on an international stage

By July 3, 2018March 20th, 2019No Comments

Two teams of bright young Kiwis have just presented their space start-up ideas at the ActInSpace international finals in Toulouse, France.

The teams competed in ActInSpace NZ, a 24 hour challenge event, or hackathon, on 25-26 May in Christchurch where they were asked to re-imagine uses for space technology and find new applications for space data. The NZ event was one of 71 events run simultaneously around the globe, across five continents and in 35 countries.

This was the first year that New Zealand participated in the global ActInSpace event, and was the only country to send two teams to the international finals event in Toulouse, France.

Te Mārama, from left to right, Jonah Belk, Mahima Seth, Ben Tairea, Zeus Engineer and Maddy King.

The first place team, Te Mārama, was made up of five students and professionals from Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. The team members, including Mahima Seth, Ben Tairea, Maddy King, Zeus Engineer and Jonah Belk, met on the day of the event and proceeded to develop a start-up business idea that found a solution to reduce dangers and high cost of mechanical repairs on the International Space Station.

Their idea, which uses robotics and virtual reality (VR) to remotely repair mechanical faults in the extreme environment, impressed the NZ judges won them first place at the Christchurch event.

In the weeks following the NZ event, the team further developed their idea with support from local and international researchers, engineers and technicians at organisations like NASA, the German Space Agency (DLR) and New Zealand’s Centre for Space Science Technology (CSST). The team was coached by Jon Sandbrook of WNT Ventures, Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom and Eric Dahlstrom of SpaceBase and Pallas Cotter of POP, a strategic consulting company.

“We were thrilled to see such a diverse group of young entrepreneurs working together on an innovative solution that could play an important role in the future of space exploration,” said Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom. “Te Mārama is a great example of Kiwi ingenuity at play and serves as an excellent example for future space entrepreneurs from New Zealand.”

Te Mārama travelled to France last week and competed in the semi-finals against teams from Australia, Taiwan, Guatemala, Brazil and Turkey. Unfortunately the NZ team narrowly missed out on making it to the finals, coming in a close second to the eventual ActInSpace grand prize winners from Australia. The semi-final judges commented on Te Mārama’s pitch, noting their success in delivering a clear and well-thought through technical solution to a complex problem.

“We are very proud of Te Mārama,” said CSST CEO Steve Cotter, who attended the semi-finals and sat on the judging panel for the international finals. “I was impressed by how cohesive the team had become in such a short time, how their skillsets complemented one another and the calibre of their business model. They came up with a truly innovative idea to the difficult challenge of improving safety and economy for mechanical repairs in the extreme environment of space.”

“What’s really exciting is their idea can also be applied to the challenging environments on Earth, which present additional opportunities for them,” Mr Cotter added.

Te Mārama’s idea gained interest from various business incubators and space agencies, which led to many meetings following the finals where they discussed progressing their idea with key organisations in the international space industry. These meetings were organised by the French Embassy in New Zealand.

Te Mārama pitching their start up idea at the ActInSpace international semi-finals.

“Space represents an emerging and complex market where we have the opportunity to do things differently, and solve problems rather than just extend Earth’s into the galaxy,” said Jonah Belk, a member of Te Mārama. “We feel extremely grateful to have been able to immerse ourselves in this industry, make connections and learn more about the gaps that exist in the sector. It feels like this is just the beginning.”

Upon their return to New Zealand, CSST and coaches will continue to support Te Mārama, helping connect them to relevant collaborators and partners, as required.

The second team that travelled to France for the finals was a group of five high school students from Dunstan High School in Alexandra, Otago. The students, whose team name was “Underage”, pitched their idea of combining global positioning technology with street art and social media at the New Zealand event, earning them a close second place to Te Mārama.

Ordinarily only the first place teams from around the world were invited to the finals in France, however, executives from Airbus, one of the global event’s sponsors, were so impressed with Team Underage’s idea and the spirit with which they presented it, they offered the students a chance to pitch their idea at the finals. The New Zealand Space Agency, CSST and Airbus all worked together to get them to Toulouse.

Team Underage with Airbus representatives, Valentin Merino and Martin Pentier.

Team Underage were asked to present their pitch at the start of the ActInSpace finals, officially kicking off the event, and reminding the audience of event participants, organisers and sponsors of the true essence of ActInSpace.

“These students embody all of the values of ActInSpace – and the reason Airbus chose to get involved as a primary sponsor,” said Valentin Merino, Head of Australasia for Airbus. “We are here to encourage and stretch the minds of young people, inject energy and enthusiasm into the industry, and create opportunity for new ways of thinking and acting across the international space sector.”

Jean-Michel Darroy, VP of Services Growth at Airbus Defence and Space, presented the high school students with a special award following their pitch, and acknowledged their achievement. “Their pitch was really impressive,” said Mr Darroy. “As it is said in a famous French theatre play (“ Le Cid “– Corneille) – value doesn’t wait for the number of years!”

Coming from a small down on the South Island, the opportunity to travel to France and the heart of the European space industry was a life-changing experience.

“This trip opened our eyes to just how many possibilities there are in the technology industry,” said Jake O’Malley, one of the members of Team Underage. “It was an amazing opportunity to meet clever people from all around the world.”

Andre Schaap and Jake O’Malley pitch Team Underage’s start up idea at the finals event in Toulouse.

Ruby Shaw from Team Underage said, “this event has changed the way I think about space technology. It has given me a lot to think about in terms of my future, and career possibilities.”

“The New Zealand Space Agency couldn’t be prouder of what Team Underage have achieved, and we feel privileged to have been able to offer them this opportunity,” said Dr Peter Crabtree, General Manager Science, Innovation and International at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and leader of the New Zealand Space Agency who funded the students’ trip.

“We also extend our congratulations to Te Mārama who truly did New Zealand proud on the international stage with a bold and complex pitch that represents the kind of thinking we need to ensure New Zealand’s space industry thrives. We look forward to seeing more from these young entrepreneurs in the future.”

Dr Crabtree continued, “we support events like ActInSpace because we want to build a domestic space industry ecosystem with the capability of developing disruptive, innovative technologies and new, exciting opportunities for economic growth. How we foster our young talent in space sciences and space engineering will play an important role in developing that ecosystem.”

The Dunstan High School students spent the days following the finals meeting with space industry organisations in Toulouse before returning to Alexandra. They will continue to be supported by CSST, New Zealand Space Agency and their team coaches if they wish to pursue their start-up idea, and have already started talking about getting another team together to represent Dunstan High School at ActInSpace 2020.