Johann du Toit, CEO Of Simera Group Talks About Building One Of Africa’s Fastest Growing NewSpace Companies

Johann du Toit. Image Source: Peartree Photography.

The African Space ecosystem is expanding with its innovative NewSpace companies taking the lead. These corporates within a short time have become forces of commendable influence in the global space market through their innovative and timed services and products. Simera Group is one of such companies.

As a group that has evolved over the years, Simera Group possesses and mobilises centuries of collective experience among its team members, skilled in the aerospace, precision optical, automotive, medical and consumer domains.

Space In Africa caught up with the CEO of the group, Johann Du Toit, and chatted on issues bordering the evolution of the group, its subsidiary company, Simera Sense, and the African space industry.

Du Toit has a BEng and an MScEng in Mechanical Engineering from Stellenbosch University, specializing in Structural Design and Simulation. He is the Co-Founder of Simera Group and is responsible for company growth.

Previously, he was Technical Director: CTS Trailers, where he was responsible for the setup and management of technical systems for the manufacturing of commercial transport vehicles. Prior to this, from 2001 to 2007, Du Toit was an engineer at SunSpace and Information Systems, a spinoff company from Stellenbosch University. He joined SunSpace as a structural design engineer, then specialized in structural vibration testing and went on to become a group leader of the space optics team. Originally in 1997, Du Toit founded his own structural analyses start-up (Fem-Aided Designs) where he consulted in the field of structural design and simulation ranging from transport, marine, space and medical fields until 2000. He also lectured design for final year mechanical engineering students at Stellenbosch University on a part-time basis from 1999 to 2000.

SumbandilaSat by Stellenbosch University

Can you tell a little about your background? What is the story so far? 

I grew up close to Cape Town, South Africa. I was fortunate to have great role models in my life, with my parents laying the first foundations of dedication to my work and respect for people. My dad originally trained as a diesel mechanic, but he worked himself up and kept studying part-time to end up as the technical manager of a large transport company.  He instilled in me a passion for all stuff mechanical and I think playing between disassembled truck engines and semi-trailers kind of guided me to be an engineer. Originally, I guess as a lot of boys, I wanted to design and built fighter planes and decided to study mechanical engineering.

What university?

Stellenbosch and it kind of hit me quite soon in my studies that the options to build fighter planes is quite limited, so I altered course a bit, but I still kept true to my soon identified passion which is to design structures and specifically to create finite element models, now called digital twins, of structures. I met another role model and exceptional lecturer in my third year and since then engineering became a passionate career choice and I fully enjoyed it. For me, engineering is more like the arts, where mathematics and knowledge is your paint and the world your canvas. I decided to do my Masters, and there was an opportunity in the transport industry to optimize the design of a refrigerated semitrailer using analytical and finite element analyses techniques.  This was my foundation.

However, I was fortunate in the university environment to be exposed to numerous real-world design and simulation consultation projects. In this period, I started my own company and as an example, my first commercial work was the modelling of a human tooth, and specifically focusing on the structural interface between the implant and jawbone by optimizing the carbon fibre implant composite layups to match the bone bending stiffness. In this period, I also started to do work for SunSpace. It was demanding, but exciting times. The unique challenges posed by the design and simulation for the space environment intrigued me, and eventually, I joined SunSpace as a fulltime employee. I enjoyed this fortunate opportunity and learnt a lot. After about 3 years at SunSpace, I focused on space optical system development, and this became my passionate focus, where a deep understanding of optics and mechanics was required to design ultra-stable structures. I left Sunspace in 2008 and worked at a friend’s company for a year before I started a company with my master’s degree mentor. That was how Simera was borne.

What was the focus?

Simera started as product development support company, initially around structural design and simulation projects as well as bespoke optical system development. We supported multiple clients covering multiple domains ranging from space to the trucking industry. We supported South African and international clients, focusing on building long term relations and having as wide as possible footprint. Important milestones were to make an active decision in 2015 to align ourselves with Industry 4.0 and for this purpose eventually, setup Simera Innovate in Switzerland. In 2018 we expanded our operations in Saudi Arabia, setting up Simera Innovate Saudi Arabia. In 2018 we also decided to focus our internal efforts on developing class-leading Space Imagers, and this was done in Simera Sense. We also rebranded our South African activities under Simera Africa as part of our BEE restructuring activities.  All of these expansions were done with different investment and opportunity partners.

Can tell us more about Simera’s size?

In the group, we have about 60 team members of which about 75 per cent is permanent employees, and about 25 per cent is contracted, domain specialists. About 70 per cent of the team is technical, and for the technical staff, more than half have a master’s degree or higher. We have a combination of mechanical, electronic, mechatronics, industrial and civil engineers supported by data science, physics, administration, human resources and financial experts.  The team is predominantly South African.

Do you have engineers from other African countries?

No, not yet. 

Johann doing Optical AIT

How do you recruit your staff?

Predominantly by word of mouth and via active relationships with universities.

Does your company have other branches?

Yes. In addition to our main office in Somerset West, we have engineers and team members in Potchefstroom, Amsterdam, Zug, Moscow and Riyadh.

Tell us more about Simera Sense?

Simera Sense is our youngest business unit but growing the fastest. Our other entities generally focus on consultation or bespoke product development and as such have an external focus.  In Simera we have about 25 engineers that have worked in the space industry with collective engineering experience of, last check, about 300 years. This was gained working on multiple and diverse space projects.  From this experience and exposure we reviewed the global NewSpace market and set our target to develop class-leading space imagers for the multiple visionary NewSpace Earth Observation missions. We design and build turnkey high-quality space imagers for the global market.

So, the clients for your space projects are from Africa?

Currently, not. it’s mostly European-focused.

Where did you get seed investment for the company for a start? Bootstrapped?

Simera itself started in a bootstrapped fashion, growing organically project by project, creating capability, and building on that – layer by layer. The focus was and still is, to invest in your own know-how and preparing for opportunities. If you start your own company, you should not expect to be rich – expect to do hard but rewarding work  – constantly, that’s the bottom line. 

With Simera Sense, the approach was different, and the company was also initially funded by an angel investor. The specialized equipment needed to develop advanced optical and robust high-speed sensor systems are expensive, and the meticulous build and test demands of following ECSS product development processes required a significant upfront investment. 

What is the future for Simera Sense and Simera Group? Do you see an exit for any of the business in the future?

When I created Simera, I created it not for myself, I created it for a legacy, we engineers love to create stuff for purpose, so I didn’t create it with  an exit strategy in mind, however, we’ve created different business units, the Swiss one is a different company, the Saudi’s got a different focus. It might be that I may exit some, but space is close to my heart, it’s like a passion and something I love, it will be very difficult to let go, but I must be realistic, it’s business, and there’s always an option to consider willing buyer and willing seller scenarios.

Simera is a brand, I’m very proud of it. Incidentally, it is exactly as old as my daughter and building a company is much the same as raising a child – it demands love and attention and it is constantly changing and growing.

Do you see Simera Group filing for IPO in future?

Not Group, Sense may be an option, but we need to grow first. 

What is the total value estimation of the entire group? 

There’s no valuation I can put on Simera now, or rather, I’m not doing that calculation right now. 

What is your view on the African space policy and African space program?

My view of the African space programme is that there’s not enough cooperation. Numerous entities buy from overseas, instead of solving it here cooperatively. It will take a longer time solving it yourself, but then it’s better than running to the rest of the world. The rest of the world may offer turnkey in-and-out training programs but I’m not sure that is adding value. If a person is passionate and committed and learns by doing, it will add value. If you keep buying satellites -it does not make sense.  But I guess I am oversimplifying it, I’m an engineer, I want to build satellites. I think Africa must solve Africa’s needs, we have to stand on our own feet, we have the resources, and with enough commitment, we can achieve things. It is not easy, but we can. That said, for me, global barriers are disappearing, the important thing is to develop products, sell them, earning income for your company, country and add value. That should be the focus.