| Small satellite propulsion for an agile space |
Jean-Luc Maria, Nicolas Heitz, David Henri, Paul Lascombes, co-founders, Exotrail
Behind the human
Can you introduce yourself in a few words? What has been your background?
I’m David Henri, I’m 26 years old. I first joined the Ecole Polytechnique after taking a preparatory class. I had the opportunity to carry out three internships in military aircraft maintenance, the second in a startup developing reusable launchers for small satellites, and the third in venture capital. I then went on to complete my training at Cambridge with a Master’s degree in Industrial Systems Management. In parallel with my studies, I followed the Exotrail project, until its creation at the end of my studies.
What made you want to start a business? What was your path to entrepreneurship? Did you grow up in a family of entrepreneurs?
I have always had the need to create new things, to launch new projects, to solve complex problems. Entrepreneurship came as a natural choice for me. Moreover, circumstances were quickly favourable to creation with the identification of a need in the market, the gathering up of a team and financing. So everything was in place to get started.There are no entrepreneurs in my family.
What does entrepreneurship mean to you (in one word/ one sentence) ?
For me, entrepreneurship means getting a taste for solving complex problems as a team.
In your opinion, what does it take to be a good entrepreneur ?
I’d say patience first, not wanting to move too fast. I would also say have energy, not only because entrepreneurship consumes a lot of it, but also because you have to infuse your team with energy and you have to make each person on the team feel individually vital to a project that is both ambitious and collective. I would also say the ability to mentally juggle different subjects in a matter of seconds to go from a financing file to a technical problem... because it’s something that is part of the entrepreneur’s daily life.
Can you tell us about the meeting with your partner(s)?
We’re four partners. I first met Paul, who is a classmate from Polytechnique. As part of an academic project, he had worked with a researcher who had developed an engine for small satellites. This researcher put us in touch with Jean-Luc, our Technical Director, who was the director of a space systems test platform with whom we had a good professional complementarity and a great understanding. A little later, Nicolas joined us with his expertise in business creation and management to support us, particularly on administrative and financial aspects.
Do you have a role model when it comes to entrepreneurship? A mentor? Someone who inspires you in your approach whether he/she is an entrepreneur or not? And why?
I do have a mentor: Fabio Ferrari, CEO of Symbio, a start-up company that offers range extenders for electric cars. I met him during an internship, we got to know each other and stayed in touch. We had discussed the Exotrail project, and he gave me a lot of good operational, managerial and personal advice, especially when I had to make difficult decisions. He ended up investing in Exotrail.
Behind the startup
Can you introduce us to your startup? How did you get the idea? What problem does it address?
Exotrail was created to bring agility to the space sector and to meet needs in terms of propulsion and improved launch strategy for small satellites. In particular, it is this propulsion that allows the optimisation of satellites’ orbit. This researcher was retiring and wanted to hand over his small satellite engine to a team that could develop his technology. We had the market, the need, the team, the technology, but also the funding. An opportunity that doesn’t come around twice, so we seized it to create Exotrail.
What were the major stages you went through in the development of your startup? What were the difficulties you had to overcome?
First there was the team building phase. Then there was optimising the prototype to really make it work. We then had to transform this prototype engine into an integrated system with all the fluidic and electronic components. We also developed space mission design and optimization tools. The €3 million fundraising in early 2018 was another important step. Finally, there was a recruitment stage, as we quickly grew from 5 to 20 people.In terms of difficulty, there is risk management, because we are obliged to start marketing during product development. Recruiting quite specific skills for senior profiles is also a rather difficult aspect. Finally, another difficulty lies in competition, because competition doesn’t wait, so we had to save as much time as possible when it came to the project development phase.
Can you tell us about your experience at the Polytechnique Entrepreneurship and Innovation Center? How did the center benefit your startup?
When we were ‘incubated’ at X, we were able to work on both the commercial and software aspects, but also to prepare our fundraising. This really helped us breathe life into our project. We met some of our business angels through the incubator staff. We were also able to do some prototyping in the prototyping space. It’s a really nice place to create a project and a team.
How is belonging to the X startup community important for your startup?
Very important, because it allows us to exchange with people who share the same problems as us. This community is also very useful for networking, expanding our address book, and meeting new investors.
Any advice for an entrepreneur who would like to get started?
Just don’t hesitate and take the plunge. I think that if you have a good idea but don’t go for it, you’ll regret it later on. So you might as well give it a try! And I think you have to go all the way, giving yourself the means to succeed. It starts by devoting yourself to your project full-time.