Monday, December 08, 2014

Engineering Expertise, Marketing Knowledge & Business Acumen Each Needed for "Beaver" Crowd Funding

          by Brian Orlotti

An Ontario company has launched an ambitious crowd funding campaign for a Canadian mission to Mars in late 2018. However, much like another recent Canadian effort in this area, a lack of business acumen and marketing knowledge seems to have derailed plans generated by acknowledged engineering experts.

Since beginning its November 4th, 2014 Indiegogo campaign for the "Northern Light Mission to Mars," North York, Ontario based Thoth Technology has managed to raise only a little more than $9,000 CDN of its listed $1,1Mln CDN goal. The campaign, scheduled to close out on January 3rd, 2015, is focused on funding the delivery of a lander and a 6 kg micro-rover called "Beaver," to the distant Martian surface.

The plan is for the Northern Light's lander and rover to carry a variety of instruments for studying Mars' atmosphere, surface and subsurface geology. The lander is expected to feature an infrared spectrometer for examining the Martian atmosphere for bio-marker gases like methane (a possible indicator of life) as well as classifying rocks and minerals and includes a robotic arm and grinding tool to assist with these tasks.

The Beaver micro-rover is also projected to carry an infrared camera able to study Mars' surface features and analyse surface boulders. Designed to operate almost fully autonomously during its projected 90-day mission, Beaver is expected to rely on its sensors to provide information on hazards and obstacles, then use an algorithm to select its next destination.

Thoth was founded in 2001 by Dr. Brendan Quine, a professor of space engineering & planetary physics at York University, and Dr. Caroline Roberts, a technical writing instructor at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering, to commercialize the Argus family of infrared spectrometers developed at York University. Thoth's product lineup also includes the Argus-derived Aurora infrared camera as well as the IBIS flight computer.

These are useful and well designed camera's with flight heritage, something most other Canadian companies cannot claim. In 2008, an Argus spectrometer was even launched into space on the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) CanX-2 nano-satellite to monitor greenhouse gasses in Earth's upper atmosphere.

Thoth is also a provider of space services. It offers thermal vacuum and vibration testing services (utilizing York University facilities and equipment), spectral analysis simulation and space tracking/communications services via the Algonquin Radio Observatory (a re-purposed 1960's Northern Ontario facility purchased by Thoth in 2008).

Given its scientific and engineering expertise, plus its existing flight heritage, the project's lack of traction appears to be the result of the same mistake made by another Canadian space crowd funding campaign held earlier this year.

Two useful tools from Thoth Technology. On the left is an Argus IR spectrometer. On the right is an Aurora line-scan camera. Both items are available commercially. Photo's c/o Thoth Technology.

As first discussed in the September 7th, 2014 post "Open Space Orbital Post Mortem: Lessons Learned & Moving Forward," product/project teams need to spend time building up a following on social (and other forms of) media prior to launching a crowd funding campaign.

The most successful crowd funding campaigns, such as the ISEE-3 Reboot Project (which raised $160,000 USD to re-establish a ground connection with the retired International Sun/Earth Explorer 3 spacecraft), the Pebble smartwatch (which raised over $10.3Mln USD as part of a kickstarter campaign initially intended to raise only $100,000 USD), and the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset (which raised almost $3.5Mln USD during a kickstarter campaign originally intended to raise only $250,000 USD) each held aggressive social media campaigns prior to their start. The brand awareness and goodwill gained via social media fueled these projects' success.

Such groundwork is not only being done by start-ups, but also, increasingly, by large firms.

In a recent example, Shomi, a Canadian streaming video on demand (SVOD) service (part of Rogers Inc.), launched in November to great success. For three months prior to launch, the company made extensive use of social media (primarily Facebook and Twitter) to promote brand awareness and elicit public feedback. (Note: the author is employed by Shomi and his comments do not reflect the views of Shomi or Rogers Inc).

Thoth's lack of in-house marketing expertise may hamper its current crowd funding campaign, but certainly shouldn't preclude future efforts. However, in order to succeed, space crowd funding efforts need to include a broader skill-set; sales and marketing alongside science and engineering.

Brian Orlotti.
Embracing a broader pool of talent will broaden space crowd funding's success.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Brian,
    Thanks for your article highlighting our mission to Mars. Marketing new ideas to a public overwhelmed with media content is always going to be challenging. We think our media people are doing a great job building the buzz--total visits to more than doubled in the last week. We are incredibly grateful to the many supporters who have donated more than $9K to our campaign so far. We are boldly going into this new space sector learning a new landscape as we advance. One of our challenges is geography. Canadian visitors have contributed 90% of contributions so far but comprise less than 40% of traffic. Rome was not built in a day. Neither are missions to Mars! Keep up the good work at the commercial space blog.
    Regards, Ben


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