04 | 11 | 2020

A talk with Luca Rossettini — CEO of D-Orbit

D-Orbit is a B-Corp operating in the New Space industry offering solutions to cover the overall space mission life cycle: mission initial analysis, engineering design, production, integration, testing, and dismantling the end-of-life satellites. The company, originally located in Fino Mornasco near Como, was born as an innovative start-up in 2011 and, nowadays it counts more than 80 employees.  

Last August D-Orbit received a 15 million Euros loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and currently is one of the main service providers worldwide for companies operating in the New Space, as well as in traditional space. 

D-Orbit operates in a constantly growing global market that is worth 350 billion dollars and will reach close to 500 billion dollars in 2030. 

We had the pleasure to ask some questions to the founder and CEO Luca Rossettini in order to better understand his personal path, how his company was born and what are D-Orbit future perspectives and for the entire New Space sector.  

Thanks to his pragmatism, he has managed to realize the impossible dream of entering a sector with considerable entry barriers where private companies were not allowed to. 

Luca Rossettini — CEO D-Orbit
Luca Rossettini — CEO D-Orbit

STEP: As early as 1978, Donald J. Kessler, who was working at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, had hypothesized the scenario that Space debris surrounding Earth, would have increased to such an extent due to the progressive increase in space activities to prevent future generations from undertaking space activities as in the past.  

This scenario, also called ‘Kessler syndrome’, lays the foundation for D-Orbit. 

According to ESA, the 5,450 rockets launched since 1957 – the year of the first Sputnik – have spread around our planet 128 million objects smaller than a centimeter, 900 thousand debris up to 10 centimeters and 34.000 larger debris for a total mass of 8,400 tons.  

D-Orbit, like many companies operating in the circular economy, has transformed the space junk problem into a business opportunity. 

What are the similarities of D-Orbit with those start-ups operating in the Green Economy sector? 

Luca: D-Orbit works to enable the entire space sector to operate in a profitable and lasting way. Applying the approach of “a comprehensive sustainability” makes it possible to ensure a bright future for the space industry. D-Orbit is the first space company to have obtained the B-Corp certification and is the first Benefit corporation of the aerospace sector in Italy and Europe.  

We work to ensure that our products and services would help our customers to conduct their business more effectively and efficiently, and also would constitute the new space infrastructure that will enable the sustainable development of the entire sector. We have a consolidated path of internal improvement, working side by side with our collaborators, and we also work with local institutions and schools to bring the Earth closer to deep space! 

STEP: D-Orbit today operates in the so-called New Space. A new sector that differs from the “old space” because it is characterized by the introduction of private companies, such as D-Orbit, operating independently from governments and in the field of design and exploitation of aerospace resources.

What are your tips for a start-up that would like to operate in a traditional market where few big players work? 

Luca: It was fundamental for us to develop a strategic plan starting from the vision where each step is a market opportunity and not a technology. The first step was to find a niche, initially considered too small for the big players, but large enough to develop the first products. Products that need to be modular and scalable, to be ready to go out of the niche as soon as the next step in the strategic journey becomes possible. 

STEP: In 2012 D-Orbit was awarded as the winner for the “Centro Nord del Talento delle Idee”, a contest promoted by Unicredit known as the Unicredit StartLab. On that occasion, in a video interview, you mentioned your experience in Silicon Valley, which began in 2009 thanks to the Fulbright fellowship, as a key factor for your personal path and for D-Orbit. 

At the time they asked you “what do you expect from the people dealing with innovation?” Your answer was: support to growth, venture capital and industrial networks to guide new entrepreneurs., in other words, funds and what is known as mentorship.  

Are there more incentives to innovate and to innovators in Italy compared to when you started? What is still missing? 

Luca: Much has been achieved also in Italy, starting from the acceleration of new ideas, supporting their growth, up to their internationalization. Today in Italy and in Europe there is good coverage for seed investments. Unfortunately, venture capital financing is still inadequate to support the growth phase of a company, with the risk of seeing our companies going somewhere else (the USA and Asia) exactly when they start to generate significant benefits in terms of employment and turnover. The space sector is still very young, but however recently the first venture capital fund dedicated to space has been launched. That is a great start! 

It will be crucial to work both at a corporate level incentivizing M&A transactions and attracting new international investors in our country., It is important to ensure that the valuations of our companies are in line with international valuations (otherwise the lower valuation will give access to lower capital for the future growth, making companies to succumb compared to better structured and financed competitors).  

STEP: Access to capital is one of the burning issues related to the innovation ecosystem. Access to capital changes depending on the context, European start-ups have on average fewer funds compared to American start-ups. According to StartupItalia even if in the USA, launching a startup costs 2.3 times more, on average, the investment for the seed goes from $ 1.1 million to $ 5M. The Italian situation is very different, the investment for seed goes from € 350k up to a pre-money of € 925k.  

According to this data, how does the approach and roadmap change for a start-up working and growing in Europe? 

Luca: The keyword is resilience: you have to split the strategic journey into markets, develop a modular product that allows you to enter each market immediately, and build products and services step by step to always stay aligned with the market. It is a must to constantly talk with customers, the largest source of input for innovation. 

STEP: You are a serial entrepreneur, as written in your Linkedin bio. Even though everyone knows you for being D-Orbit CEO, you have founded other start-ups such as IRTA, which provides advanced slow-motion vision and monitoring techniques and The Natural Step Italia. The latest one is an international NGO that helps companies and communities to pursue their goals within a strategic sustainability framework. As you remember, thanks to this experience you got the idea ​​to apply the strategic sustainability approach to the space sector.  

How did the idea of ​​bringing The Natural Step to Italy come about? What is meant by strategic sustainability? 

Luca: The idea came from Eric Ezechieli, my professor during the master course in Leadership towards Strategic Sustainability. The goal is to make it clear how a path towards sustainability is not a cost but a benefit for companies and for the whole society. Thanks to what I learned from working for TNS, I was able to embed these principles into D-Orbit’s DNA. 

STEP: Elon Musk showed a very special video: during the presentation at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide. According to Elon, this 48-meter rocket called the BFR, or “Big Fucking Rocket”, would be able to carry hundreds of passengers from one city to another, anywhere on the globe in less than an hour. For example, if we were supposed to catch a flight at 6:30 am from NY we could be in Shanghai at 7:09 am, ready for a great business breakfast. The idea behind BFR is that, by traveling on the edge or beyond the earth’s atmosphere, it is possible to significantly reduce the duration of the flight but also the cost of fuel.  

What could this mean in terms of environmental impact? Would it make air travel more sustainable? We know that this sector produces around 2% of the world’s CO2 emissions. 

Luca: It is always dangerous to focus our actions on a single aspect. Safeguarding the environment is primarily a necessity for ourselves – both for individuals and companies: we cannot live or operate in a destroyed or dysfunctional environment. It is essential to have a continuous improvement path that brings clear benefits. Follow the simple decision algorithm: 1. Go in the right direction; 2. Is it an open platform? Can I build any other action on this decision later? 3. Is it beneficial in the short term? “It allows a company to ensure a future capable of competitive features and advantages over those who do not follow this path”. We are comfortable with the B-Corp certification scheme, which allows us to decide what to do today to maximize the return, and what to do tomorrow with a clear vision towards continuous improvements and progress measurements. 

STEP: What is the environmental impact of propulsion systems used in the space world?  

Luca: Undoubtedly, propulsion systems today are not zero impact. Many propellants are even toxic to people and require qualified people to be handled. But the so-called “green” propellants are coming, like the ones we use. However, let us not be fooled by the name: they have less impact compared to hydrazine, however, there is still a long way to zero impact. The important thing is to start the journey, knowing what to do today, planning well for tomorrow, and making sure others understand the economic and social benefit of going in this direction. 

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