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Reaching for the stars - an interview with Oxford Space Systems founder Mike Lawton

Launched in January 2014, Oxford Space Systems (OSS) hit the ground running and doesn’t appear to have stopped. Since getting the backing of Innovate UK, it has secured funding worth £1.5million, attracted investors from the UK and the US and is now preparing to see its first products launched into space later this year. The two micro satellites will deploy the company’s Astrotube boom systems to help to measure the Earth’s magnetic field.

OSS, which develops components for micro satellites, is based at the Harwell Space Cluster in Oxfordshire. Founder and CEO Mike Lawton said: “Our portfolio of technologies currently spans three principal areas: deployable panels/hinge systems; large deployable antennas; and the AstroTube range of linear boom systems. Our aim is to lower costs by reducing the complexity, mass and lead times for these products.”

The company was set up by Lawton, a graduate in electronics and software from Plymouth University, who since 1998 has an impressive track record in setting up businesses and developing new technologies.

Is he happy when described as a ‘serial entrepreneur’?

“If you mean can I spot opportunities, solve technical problems and exploit them commercially then, yes, I’m a ‘serial’ entrepreneur. In truth, I like to think of myself as someone who gets slightly more right than I do wrong.”

Lawton has set up and sold several businesses –among them bio-fuel technology company Regenatec and another which saw him develop intelligent monitoring technology for use in the beverage industry.

He started his career, however, as a heavy electrical engineer apprentice at the naval dockyard in Plymouth but, as government priorities changed and investment dropped, he took a year out and went to university as a mature student.

“That year out taught me a lot,” he believes, “especially the softer life skills that are so important when it comes to running a successful business. You need to be able to interact with people and talk to investors if you want to set up and run a business – these types of skills tend to be overlooked in our industry.”

Space had always interested Lawton – ‘I grew up with Dr Who and Star Wars’ – and joined Space Innovations on graduation, where he worked on designing power systems for spacecraft, including getting solar power and battery technology to work effectively together.

“That company survived for three years before it failed, but it taught me a valuable lesson – in this business, great technology doesn’t necessarily translate into commercial success.”

After the company’s failure, Lawton joined Bookham Technology, where he worked on silicon photonics.

“I headed a team that was tasked with silicon temperature management; crucial if the technology is to work efficiently. Bookham was a ‘tech darling’ at the time and grew spectacularly, only to crash and burn when the dot com boom of the late 1990s imploded. Key partners collapsed (Nortel) and the company’s key telecoms market vapourised.

“Before the crash, I had been able to attract a very talented team of scientists to work with me; afterwards, I was able to take a small team with me and set up an electronics consultancy.”

According to Lawton, he soon realised that financial and commercial success would only come from developing and owning his own IP and it was that realisation that saw the setting up Regenatec and a business developing and supplying intelligent flow meters to the beverage industry, with customers including multinationals like Heineken and Diageo.

Both businesses became established and received financial backing, but then the financial crisis of 2008 hit.

“Our chief investor was over-exposed and the money ran out,” Lawton recalled. “Prospective customers went into ‘survival’ mode and investment in new technology stopped dead. While I was forced into selling both businesses, the bio-fuel technology is now owned and operated as a charitable concern and is being deployed in India. Meanwhile, I recently received a call from a leading beverage company about the intelligent monitoring technology we developed.”

Post the financial crisis, Lawton joined ABSL Space Products where he developed the company’s lithium battery technology and identified commercial opportunities using deployable structures.

“I was being paid to be an entrepreneur,” he laughs. “But after nine months, the company was the victim of what was, essentially, an IP grab from a much bigger US organisation. With the support of the UK management team there, I left and set up Oxford Space Systems at the end of 2013.”

Lawton approached Innovate UK, which was offering funding for pre-start ups. “You just needed an idea.”

“Our focus is on developing deployable structures for micro satellites that unfold after the satellite has been shot into orbit. These devices are small, take only a few weeks to build, cost about £30,000 and last for six months to a year at a low orbit.”

The idea of microsatellites first emerged in the 1990s, but has only really become reality as a result of the massive improvement in the capabilities of electronics, according to Lawton. “The amount of functionality now available is fantastic.”

A huge amount of money is being pumped into the UK space industry and the Government’s Space Innovation and Growth Strategy has certainly turbo charged development in the last five years.

The growth target of trebling turnover to £40billion is achievable, Lawton believes.

For Lawton and OSS, the focus is now on the launch of two satellites later this year.

“It is happening far faster than I thought, “Lawton concedes. “But we have been able to show a way to develop and validate space technology far more quickly than has traditionally been the case. OSS has moved from concept to flight in less than three years; that compares to an industry average of 10 years.”

Flying for the first time, there is a lot of pressure on the company and on Lawton. But both appear up to the challenge.

Mike Lawton

With a degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from the University of Plymouth, Mike Lawton’s first job was as a power systems engineer with Space Innovations. He then embarked on an entrepreneurial career, founding Futuretec Technologies, Regenatec and Smartcellar.

After joining Enersys-ABSL as product and business development manager in 2011, he founded Oxford Space Systems in 2013.

As CEO of OSS, he seeks to spot opportunities for the team to improve on what’s gone before and to come up with completely new concepts – he believes there’s no such thing as a daft idea and points to history being littered with ‘experts’ stating the technology we take for granted was impossible!

Lawton is also keen on inspiring the next generation to take up engineering as a career.


Author
Neil Tyler

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