Taking other people’s money is a slippery slope

On the second day of the International Space Station Research & Development Conference 2020 I sit in on a panel related to the new space economy. It is called Investing in Space: Trends, Opportunities, and Risks. After it finishes I’m convinced I need to start buying stocks. But apart from learning a lot about investment strategies and the different ‘generations’ of space enterprises (first it was all about space infrastructure and satellites and GPS, now its increasingly about ‘geo-spacial intelligence’ and ‘space-based data’), I also learn something that strikes a personal cord:

We’re into the final half hour of Q&A when the Chair asks one of the panel discussants, Shahin (who is partner in a company that invests in tech and medicine start-ups), what he thinks the role of government should be in supporting the space economy. He wishes, he says, that government would resort itself to being a costumer rather than someone who points out a direction of development and funds particular technological developments. “Sometimes I see government-dollars distracting companies from what could be a good business to something that is not a good business because government-dollars are available and access to those is a key form of capital.” Shahin’s advise to the companies he invests in is to either get government to buy their products or fund them to build stuff they are already planning to build. “But if they are dangling money in front of us to do something that would be a distraction from our core business, would absorb a lot of head count, and potentially reduce our burn”… well, that’s something Shahin would hesitate taking.

Fellow panelist Chad (who is managing partner in a company that invests in the space economy) supports Shahin’s view: “Money can be great, money is great, especially for companies that need cash to build and grow, but if it’s a distraction, that is not doing you any favors, it’s taking you off course. If it fits within your product road-map and it doesn’t pull you away from that, it can make sense. But you’ve got to be aware, it’s a slippery slope.

In my head this translates into a general warning about chasing after external funding. I experience an identification 1:1 with said hypothetical start-up tech company who has let themselves be lead astray chasing ‘government dollar’. What I hear them tell me is that there is a period in time where you cannot afford to be too choosy because you need to establish yourself and find your legs. But that there comes a period next where you cannot afford not to be choosy because if you aren’t it will take you away from you ‘core business’‘. But that’s an interpretation coming from someone who has seriously ‘reduced her burn’ running after too many opportunities (i.e. capital) and totally forgotten or perhaps didn’t even know that one needs a ‘product road-map’ to guide you (product being me? my writing?). …

It’s not that it is new or profound. It is just that this time around I got it. Kristina Rooth (the woman who bought the island just for women, SuperShe) said it to the Latvian tech students, remember? “If you still get money from your parents or from your husband or a boyfriend or whomever that is not independence. Because let’s not kid ourselves. When someone else pays your bills you have some things you need to do.” That reminds me I think it is time I checked up on what happened to SuperShe.

Image: Aarhus University (Me considerably younger and full of ‘burn’ upon receiving a prize).

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