XinaBox produces a range of 80+ modular “xChips”, which includes cores/CPUs, sensors, power, communication, output, and storage. The xChips can be clipped together using a connectivity standard without wires, soldering or breadboards: no hardware knowledge is required to build digital instruments with XinaBox. XinaBox products are also used in secondary schools and colleges in countries across the world, including the US, UK and South Africa. The company’s primary focus on the African continent is space and STEM education.
Higher institutions such as Stanford University, Princeton, Georgia Tech, Caltech, CalPoly, University of Maine, Penn State, and multiple NASA Space Grant Consortia are using XinaBox CubeSat kits for their systems engineering program because of its 4IR nature, and the links it creates between traditional space hardware and the skills required by the growing space sector in the not-too-distant future.
As part of 2020 in Review series, Space in Africa met with Judi Sandrock, a co-founder at XinaBox to discuss the company’s activities in 2020 and the plans for 2021.
This has been a challenging year, especially for private companies, did XinaBox anticipate a situation like this, and were you able to cushion the effect?
When I was growing up, I had two much older brothers. One of them, Steve Sandrock was in the film industry and what used to happen was that when I was a teenager I often used to assist on the weekend and during holidays as his assistant and basically as his little runner. What Steve used to imprint on me and everybody was to have a plan B as well as a plan C. Plan B actually needs to be a completely different idea and a completely different script. So when you talk about plan B, it’s actually an entire plan B with alternate strategy and tactic and operation because you never know what’s actually going to hit you.
We started the business as developing electronics for space and STEM education but we have moved to space STEM education so that the technology and the hardware we develop can actually be flown in space. We have built a satellite that made it to the International Space Station. We started from the grassroots level all through to being in the orbit and we’re still able to deliver.
It was dependent on going to schools and delivering programs to schools. We knew we could never scale the business across the continent by just going to schools. So what we did was we developed a whole host of online workshops that we could deliver remotely. So when the lockdown happened, we were fully prepared to deliver via zoom, Microsoft teams, Google hangout and many other platforms. This put us in a very unique situation.
When we decided to form a space stem, we decided to develop different tactics for different environments for whatever may happen. We have also looked at what happens if space and STEM education market place doesn’t take off the way we expect it to. We have to look for an entirely different market. We are also looking at the internet of things(IoT) market place. What we have done is we have created an entire parallel business with the industrial IoT that is not necessarily space-related at all. We have made sure that if one industry doesn’t pick up, we have other industries where we are participating. And we are participating as leaders and not as followers. We came in very early and we have a lot of sway in the market for space and STEM education as well as the IoT as we are in with all the large providers. To answer your questions, we have done well. And the whole thing is that we make sure that we have contingencies, strategies and tactics in place because we don’t know what’s going to happen.
You had a lot of projects in 2019 and just one project in 2020. Was it due to the pandemic or was it an organisational decision made before the pandemic?
No, it wasn’t a conscious decision. We had a press release about our appointment as a Microsoft education partner. This happened due to our experience of many years.
What we have in our current plan that we have put in place is that we are going to be moving the business to the USA. Simply because we cannot grow Xinabox without being in the USA. Over 85% of the products that we sell are to customers in the USA. The structures of their economy make this viable. We’re not getting the funding or traction that we would like here, we have also looked into Europe and the UK for other investments but it’s just not happening because the mindset is not necessarily geared towards long term growth. When we are dealing with something like education, and when dealing with business-like Xinabox, one needs to project to 10-15 years. We have a situation with one of our angel investors, he wanted to have a great huge return in 3 years and he now wants to exit because he is not seeing that return. No one is going to get a return in 2 years, the return would be in 10 years.
We’re in the process of moving the business to the USA. We have identified a number of sources of funding and part of the move, is that next year, we are going to have a real sizable budget for PR, marketing and creating awareness. That is in the investment plan and all our investors know that is what we’ll be doing and a lot of money will be spent on marketing and PR because it had to be done. You either do it properly or you don’t do it at all. One doesn’t mess around with these things. Therefore, we reduced our projects to focus on our new projections.
You had partnerships with Intelsat and SANSA this year towards the development of stem education. How did Xinabox get into this project and what is the long term projection for this project that you have with Intelsat and SANSA
This is a new project with Intelsat. Our relationship with SANSA goes back to 2017. We signed a mutual agreement of cooperation that SANSA would support our space STEM program and we would in turn engage SANSA whenever we have a space STEM program within South Africa. SANSA has been unbelievably busy, they had some restructuring and redevelopment of the strategy and so on. So they haven’t been able to assist or participate much with the Intelsat project. We still have to deliver to Intelsat, as not delivering on what we promised was not an option. So, unfortunately, we haven’t been able to wait for SANSA to come on board, we are just going ahead anyway. It’s not like we are excluding SANSA, whenever they are ready, they are 100% welcome, we have reserved some places on the bus for them, it’s just that the bus had to leave because we need to deliver to Intelsat. So this is the program that we are running with Intelsat. We are running it across the African continent and we are running a number of other projects elsewhere in the world. We have delivered a number of projects as well this year all over the world. Even with what’s going on in the world, we are still delivering because we are geared up to deliver virtually.
In January Xinabox launched the XK92 into orbit. Were there other launches that you planned for 2020 and if there were, what went wrong with them?
We don’t have any other launches planned for 2020. We had the XK92 launched to the International Space Station which was really successful. The plan was that it was launched onboard the Northrop Grumman’s to the ISS. Then it was returned from the ISS. All the environmental data that was recorded with the ISS over a month as planned was saved and we have then been able to analyse them. We have shared it with students all across the globe so they can assist in the analysis. Like what the conditions are on the Space Station for the astronaut. We didn’t have any other launch planned. Our next launch is slated for the first quarter of next year.
How would you describe your relationship with the government and the African Space Regulatory environment, particularly in South Africa?
We have a really great relationship and I think it’s because our expectations are managed. I think that when relationships go sour, it’s because the reality hasn’t met the expectations of one or more of the parties involved.
We never ever expect to get any money from SANSA or for them to fund any of our programs or buy anything from us. Therefore, because we don’t expect that from them, we don’t get disappointed when that doesn’t happen. We know that with SANSA, they’ve got the mandate and the need to deliver on the expectations of the South African populace. So they have the mandate and the responsibility. We also have a mandate from our stakeholders and we have a responsibility to our stakeholders whether that be staff, beneficiary or whatever it may be. We know that we need to deliver to them. We are therefore not upset with SANSA that they haven’t been able to contribute yet, not at all because we have managed our expectations.
We have been approached by a number of Space Agencies across Africa and from the African Union in terms of what we can do to assist skill development in different countries. And we need to establish what the expectations are gonna be from our side to build these relationships. Right now, we have some extremely healthy relationships because we know that the government agencies are there to develop and set policies and it’s up to the private sectors to deliver. So I think we work well together.
What is the future of XinaBox in the African Space Industry?
The future is that once we get our investments next year, we can expect dramatic growth in the first quarter of next year at XinaBox. Which means that we are going to have economies of scale of a completely different order than what we have right now which will bring our implementation cost down. And we are doing that deliberately so that we can make sure that we engage everybody in the world and just develop a wealthy, strong economy. We actually see that our relationship and business across the continent is really growing dramatically once we have been able to achieve that growth that we’ll get from our next investment early next year.