Taking roots in the tech and space industry is a misunderstanding of the kind of spaces available to women, not just in Africa, but all around the world, and their ability to handle leadership positions with the high-level of finesse that befits such. For decades this misconception has held swear in certain areas of the industry until recently: women are not just taking up spaces in the industry, but are on the frontline in leading the glorious revolution of the industry most prided sector, NewSpace. Ana-Mia Louw is one of such women.
As the General Manager of one the continent’s NewSpace corporates, Simera Sense, which is committed to developing optics products with the mission to increase the details that can be sensed with smaller satellites; she is leading the company in the NewSpace’s match to bolster the stance of Africa in the commercialisation of space products.
In an interview with Space in Africa, Ana-Mia Louw discusses her journey in the industry, Simera Sense, her experiences and women participation in space.
Ana-Mia was one of the African Space Industry top 10 Under 30; Class 2019. Learn more about the top young professionals in the industry here.
How did the journey into this industry begin for you?
I studied Mechatronics Engineering at the University of Stellenbosch, which I pursued due to my passion and love for Mathematics. During my third year of studies, I completed my vacation training at a company in Pretoria called Cassidian, who built optics for military applications. During the four weeks there, I met an optical designer, who introduced me to the field of optics and optical design, which is specifically lenses and camera designs.
After that vacation, I decided to pursue a career in optics and did a couple of extra courses at the university during my final year. I was contacted by the CEO of Simera in Cape Town, who learned of my interest in optics. I was interviewed and offered the job of an optical analyst and technical designer. I grew from there.
Simera initially worked on a lot of bespoke telescope projects— telescopes for satellites— and other optical projects in the medical and mining industries. But the company was mostly focused on space optics. By the end of 2017, we concluded one of our major projects in space optics and had the idea to commercialise space optics. With the NewSpace revolution and all the progress made with smaller and cheaper satellites, it was apparent that the space industry was moving towards commercialisation. So, to commercialise our space optics product, we created a spinoff company (Simera Sense) in February 2018, to enable external investment into the company to fund the development of space optics product. We also designed the business model and sourced the funding.
That’s pretty much my journey, and today, I am the general manager of Simera Sense, with 12 Engineers working for me. Our primary focus on space optics products.
As a woman in space, what can you describe as your greatest challenge, especially in your position?
I think the challenge any woman can face, and myself included, is that there is a general opinion in any technical field that the woman is the administrator and marketer, not a tech-savvy individual. However, this doesn’t mean that our male counterparts make these assumptions consciously; it is the product of history and years with little to no female involvement in the industry.
I have an example. As a young leader in the industry, I went to visit a manufacturer and took a male student, who was vacation training at Simera, with me. The manufacturer only addressed the student. He just assumed that being a man; the student was the leader. In such cases, you shouldn’t get angry; the best thing to do is to show, in a subtle way, how tech-savvy you are, and change the way women are seen in the technology industry.
Interesting! Back to Simera Sense, what are the plans for 2020, with regards to ongoing and future projects?
Simera Sense started with the xScape100, a series of payloads for 3-U satellites; then, in 2019, we started the development of our next generation of products, the xScape200 payload, which is a 12-U optical payload. We are planning to complete this development before the end of this year and get it through testing. We are currently building a proto-flight model, scheduled for launch in October. There are also a couple of other developments.
Going forward, we are looking at starting the design for an even larger system, the xScape400, which will have a far higher resolution. The xScape400 will be for microsatellites, not for nanosatellites, and we are looking at getting the project to the PDR (Preliminary Design Review) phase this year.
The company is offering other cheaper camera options especially for clients who want to build pilot models and do some testing with an optical payload. There are also other developments in the pipeline.
Looking at investment, what was it like for Simera Sense in the past year?
When we started in 2018, we raised seed capital that allowed us to fund our initial development. Our angel investor also saw the potential in the larger payload product and supplied the funding to expedite our xScape200 development in 2019.
For the next financial year, we are looking at series A investment.
What are the plans for expansion as it regards to company size? Also, is Simera Sense looking to expand to other countries in Africa?
In the future, our expansion plan will be to increase our production capacity. For that, we would hire more employees working in the Lab for the production of optics and electronics.
In the previous financial year, we doubled the size of our engineering workforce to about 15 engineers. As our sales increase and our production ramps up, there will be an increase in the number of technical staff in our team, to carry out the physical process.
At this stage, there are no immediate plans to expand into the rest of Africa.
Are you involved in any project concerned with increasing women’s participation in the industry?
At this stage, in our team of 12, we are two women that are working in the technical team of our company. We have spoken to the South African National Agency about possible internship programs and if they could help us source female interns to work in our labs. The idea would be to have, at least, 50 per cent of the interns coming to work in our Lab to be female.
What is your overview of the African woman’s participation in the space industry?
I think there is a lot of interest from women in South Africa and Africa in the space industry, but there are just a couple of them actively working in the industry. I once took a very telling video which shows a disparity in this industry. However, I do believe it is changing. There are a couple of women in this industry who are doing some fantastic work. I was part of the emerging space leaders (ESL) grant programme during the IAC last year, and the only two participants from South Africa were both women—myself and Mpho from SANSA. It is good to see. I think participation is growing; the best thing to do is to create awareness in schools.
I participated in a talk during the national Women’s Month (it takes place in August every year in South Africa). I spoke to girls from many schools in the Western Cape. I talked to them about the space industry, what I do, the road I took to get into the industry and the best way to move forward. I hoped to show them that they can participate in the space industry, that it is not only a man’s world.
Ogechi Onuoha is a Cambridge Certified ESOL editor with a background in reporting, international relations, creative writing and adept in industry research and analysis. She is passionate about curating and evaluating the benefits/relevance of space to grassroots development and women’s participation in the space sector.