In line with Space in Africa’s 2020 in Review series, we had a chat with Ms Ana-Mia Louw, the General Manager of Simera Sense on what the company has been up to in 2020 and what to look forward to in 2021.
In an earlier interview with SiA, you revealed that in 2019, you started the development of the next generation of products, the xScape200 payload, whose development you were planning to complete before the end of this year and get it through testing. What is the progress with this? Were you able to build and launch the proto-flight model in October as scheduled? I realize that the Sen – Simera Partnership is pegged on the xScape 200 payload whose delivery was expected to begin by the end of 2020
The xScape 200 development was a proto-flight campaign, so we started with the structural test model which is now complete. We have also completed the proto-flight model which will be ready for delivery to the client by February. We had some delays on the structural test model completion, caused by the pandemic, and this further affected the completion of the proto-flight model. Given these constraints, we tried to be transparent with our customers and they were okay with the delays.
You recently announced plans to expand to Europe. This came after a number of partnerships in the UK, with Sen and Innovations BV in the Netherlands. Why did you settle for Belgium other than its neutral position?
There were a number of factors that came to play. To name a few, the Flanders Trade & Investments had approached us with a lot of incentives to choose Belgium as the centre of operations and the base for our European office.
The other reason is its location. Flanders is close to the European Space Agency headquarters, and it is close to the Netherlands where one of our big partners is. We also have some history working with Belgium and the people of Belgium.
One interesting factor that popped up was also that, in Flanders, which is the region in Belgium that we have our office, they speak Flemish, which is a dialect that’s very close to Afrikaans, and Afrikaans is a language that most of the employees in our Company speak. This means there will be a lesser impact on the language barrier because if one is reading a text in Flemish, they can easily interpret the context of that text.
There were other choices such as Spain and Germany, but we also factored in the budget received from ESA, and Belgium receives quite a good budget from the Agency.
A somewhat political question, so Flanders Trade & Investments is a government agency, and Flanders is also a gateway to major cities across Europe. You are looking to gain technical and entrepreneurial support which will be enabled by all these components. What benefits are you bringing to Belgium?
We are looking to establish a capability there that they do not currently have. It is not a direct transfer of technology, but we will be developing more capabilities by collaborating in research and development.
Looking at your product range and your current market reach, I can tell the growth has been very organic; from xScape 50 which is targeting the South African market, the xScape 100 which has had immense international success with purchases across North America and Europe, the xSpace200, which is selling in the UK. If you don’t mind, how much external capital have you raised to scale the optical payload products?
We started with the xScape100. In 2018 we received funding from a South African angel investor, who provided about Rand 20 Million (USD I.5 Million) in financing for us to start the development of xScape 100. The Simera Group also invested Rand 10 Million (USD 0.75 Million) into set up facilities. This allowed us to complete the development of xScape100 and take off on the development of xScape200.
This year, we applied for funding at DTIC, Department of Trade, Industry, and Competition, of South Africa through the AISI program, where we received funding for the development of the xScape50. It is a shared-capital agreement where we put in as much as they put in.
What stage of funding are you at?
For our next funding, we are looking to raise Series A capital, soon, and likely in Europe.
Which particular product inspired the European expansion plans?
The European expansion was inspired by both the xSpace100 and xSpace200. We got a lot of interest, especially in our spectral cameras. So for each one of our product ranges, we offered different variations. We offered a TriScape, which is a normal coloured camera, and then we have the multi-spectral variation for the xScape100 and xScape200 and xScape50. And for the xScape100, and xScape50, we have a hyper-spectral variation. Having these, we realized there were a lot of scientific opportunities in Europe for spectral cameras and opportunities to work with European companies.
What is the status of xScape50?
We are resuming manufacturing for the qualification now, so it has not been launched yet, we are still in the qualification phase.
Who is your target market with the xScape50?
The xScape50 will mostly be used by universities and academia. It will be a lower-cost item, and it will be a small product mainly used in the 1U CubeSat, able to be launched in a 2-U or 3-U satellite. It is a small and light payload. It may be used for partnered missions, or early low earth observation missions.
Based on this, would you say that the xScape50 is targeted at African institutions?
It is definitely more applicable to the African market, more than our other products. We are also proud that the development is partly funded by the DTIC, which is part of state funding.
Were you able to raise any funds for the expansion to Europe?
We raised some funding for the initial setup in Europe. This was enabled by our angel investor’s company based in Malta.
Simera is operating a virtual office from Leuven, as of Q4 of 2020, and you will open a physical office half a year from now, you are taking on a relatively cautious approach to this. Why is this?
We are actually operating from our Director in Belgium offices. We are not being cautious per se. We are still working on the logistics for the opening of the offices. We will definitely be opening offices and setting up a lab as well. The Belgium company is a Startup and will only physically start operations in January. So as the business grows, we will formalize our office space.
What partnerships did you form this year?
We are in constant communication with satellite bus suppliers to supply them with proposals for missions with their clients. Among a few are Nano avionics and Open cosmos. We are also collaborating with Open Cosmos on the Phi-Sat 2 project.
What technical and strategic partnerships are you looking to create in 2021?
We will definitely be looking for partnerships in Europe and in Belgium specifically, especially with our offices opening there now. We are looking at partnerships with Xenix and IMEC who are based in Belgium. We are also looking to increase our supply network in Europe as we are currently purchasing our optics from Switzerland but we are looking to partner with other components suppliers in Europe. Lastly, we are also looking at test facilities for our test campaigns in Europe.
What new products can the market expect from Simera Sense?
In the coming year, we are planning to complete the development phase for XScape 50, we are also planning the expansion of production capabilities here in South Africa. We foresee increased demand for our products, so we are gearing up to ensure we have the capacity to develop and deliver.
What can you tell me about the development of xSpace500?
The xScape 500 is kind of a future dream that we want to work on. It is very much still at the concept stage. We have some concepts and have done some work on it; designs that we have proposed to some clients when they have requested it, but it is a ‘future dream’. It is not something we are planning to completely develop unless there is a secured client.
You have been vocal on onboarding women into the industry, and more specifically, Simera. Have you managed to recruit more into Simera, particularly in 2020?
We have actually only hired two people this year, one was a woman, but the plan going forward we are talking to universities for internship programs. We are definitely making an effort to diversify employment in our company.
As we conclude, is there anything else you would like to add?
This year has been challenging in all fronts, so we are looking forward to next year and the new exciting work on our horizon. We believe 2021 is going to be a year with exciting growth.