After #T-TeC 2022, SPAICE's artificial intelligence flies into Space

20 November 2023

Bringing artificial intelligence into Space and revolutionising the entire industry from the ground up: this is the goal of SPAICE Technology, the international start-up that last year ranked second at #T-TeC, the open innovation contest organised by Telespazio and Leonardo.

An achievement that requires a good dose of ambition, considerable talent, and a long-term vision of future market evolutions.

We spoke about this with Matteo Cuccorese, an aerospace engineer specialising in artificial intelligence and machine learning at Imperial College London, and one of the founders of the start-up springing from the enthusiasm of a group of students from different universities around the world.

In the lead-up to the end of the first phase of #T-TeC 2023, scheduled for the 10th of December – the final date for project submissions – Matteo spoke to us about SPAICE and the future of In-Orbit Services, and gave some advice to those preparing to take part in the contest.

Matteo, in 2022 the SPAICE project came second at #T-TeC. In addition to a cash prize, you also won the opportunity to access a pre-incubation programme at the Politecnico di Torino’s I3P. What has been happening in the last few months?

After #T-TeC, we dedicated ourselves to evolving our initial concept into a startup. We invested several months in detailed industry analysis to ensure our product aligned with market needs. This involved engaging with key corporations to understand their processes and requirements, evaluating the propositions, and positioning of leading startups and scaleups, and participating in conferences to broaden our sector knowledge and enhance our visibility. This journey led us to pivot towards establishing ourselves as a platform company and incorporating Spaice Technology in May 2023 in the UK. Since then, we've seen significant interest from Italian, European, and US companies.

We're actively developing Proof of Concepts (PoCs) with In-Orbit Servicing providers and manufacturer firms. Our team has grown from three to six, attracting top talent from institutions like Imperial College London, ETH, and Oxford University, along with three technical advisors steering our product research. Co-founder Nicholas and I have transitioned to full-time roles to focus on Spaice. Our incubation at I3P and recent induction into the ESA Bic Accelerator in Turin have been pivotal, enhancing our connections within the ESA's network of corporates, startups, and investors. We're currently initiating our investment round, with commitments already in place. These funds will expand our technical team, speeding up the development and testing of our offerings. This includes our inaugural in-orbit demonstration (IOD), marking a significant milestone in our journey.

What support did you receive from I3P?

I3P has played a pivotal role in shaping our company to meet upcoming startup milestones. Our focus has been on developing and refining our pitch deck, ensuring it clearly and compellingly conveys our story. I3P's guidance has been instrumental in developing our technical roadmap, cost estimation, and sales projections, alongside exploring various business and revenue models. These elements have been meticulously integrated into our structured financial plan. Additionally, I3P's support in understanding key aspects of startup management, creating robust investor and partner documentation, and connecting us with a network of investors, legal advisors, accountants, and IP specialists has been very valuable. 

Why did you and your team decide to take part in Telespazio’s contest?

I completed my thesis on Deep Learning for satellites at Imperial College, inspired by a proposal from Thales Alenia Space. At the culmination of my master’s program, i joined forces with Nicholas and Guillem, united by a shared ambition to revolutionize the space industry with cutting-edge AI technologies. We saw the #T-TeC competition as an ideal platform to test our ideas and to gain deeper insights into the industry's needs. Our conviction to start a space-tech company was strong, and the multiple awards from various incubation programs presented an excellent opportunity for us. We were eager to utilize the expertise of the skilled jury to refine or enhance our project. By joining a network of field experts, we not only boosted our credibility but also laid the groundwork for a long-term partnership with Telespazio and Leonardo.

Did you expect your project to receive so much attention? In your opinion, what are the project’s strengths?

In building our team, we focused on assembling top-tier technical talent and securing the guidance of leading professors as advisors. Our innovation strategically tackled the current barriers to deploying AI models in space, aligning consistently with the core products and market segments of Leonardo and Telespazio. It was vital to not only prove our product's market fit and economic feasibility but also to highlight its relevance in both space and terrestrial sectors, addressing critical areas for Telespazio and Leonardo. Furthermore, demonstrating our technology's readiness and a deep understanding of the market and the competitive landscape was essential for our success.

You have founded a start-up called SPAICE Technology; what are its goals?

We are filling the missing layer between AI and space by building software tools based on our native AI algorithms and integrating them into our proprietary robotic kit to enable fully autonomous, target- and mission-agnostic in-orbit servicing at scale. Our focus is on enabling satellites not only to collect but also autonomously process data and perform new orbiting services.

We've already garnered attention in the space sector, securing endorsements and collaborations with major industry players like Leonardo and Astroscale, and exploring partnerships with innovative startups for joint missions and hardware development. Our strategy for scaling up and achieving global reach involves diversifying our services across the in-orbit servicing spectrum and focusing on growing our client base and geographic footprint. We're dedicated to attracting top talent and integrating cutting-edge technologies, ensuring our growth and maintaining our competitive advantage.

In your opinion, what are the characteristics of a good space project?

Given the complexity of the space industry, which spans commercial, military, and institutional segments and is dominated by a few major players, it's essential to create products that address widespread needs. This doesn’t strictly apply to downstream applications, where there are opportunities to bring value to terrestrial companies. I believe that developing technology with both upstream and downstream applications is immensely valuable. In a sector where innovation takes time, diversifying into early revenue-generating terrestrial applications can be a critical factor in a startup's success. Additionally, the evolving landscape of space sustainability and new regulations will significantly influence future industry applications. A forward-thinking space startup should aim to contribute positively to the development of a safe and environmentally responsible New Space Economy.

Do you have any advice for those applying for the new #T-TeC, ending on the 10th of December?

I suggest being ambitious and visionary yet realistic when developing a product. It's crucial to aim for a product that will be market-ready within 3-5 years, taking into account not just technological challenges, but also the readiness of the industry and market. Assembling a highly skilled team with specialized expertise is essential. Aligning with Telespazio and Leonardo's innovation goals within the Challenge topics is also key. A strong focus on the commercial, business, and financial facets is vital to back a groundbreaking technology.

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