Trained engineer, James Yenbamroong cut his teeth at defense giant Northrop Grumman before launching his own satellite company in Thailand. Mu Space is burning through capital to get its vision off the ground.
Jhe largest private satellite research and assembly center in Southeast Asia sits on a busy road parallel to Bangkok’s six-lane Don Muang Toll Highway, nestled between a tractor dealership and land vague. It’s early December 2021, and inside Factory 1, a 2,202 square meter ultramod hanger, James Yenbamroong, founder and CEO of Thai aerospace manufacturing company mu Space, dressed in jeans, rides on stage to talk about robotics, remote space machines and power systems to the press and potential investors.
Projected onto a screen behind him is the undeniable star of the show, artist renderings of the mu-B200 (picture above)—Thailand’s first in-house designed commercial satellite which the five-year-old company hopes to build and launch into orbit by early 2023. It’s a tall order, if not a little improbable, for the 38-year-old at the soft-spoken, who has raised millions of dollars from bank investors that his company will do just that.
Its success could open an order pipeline for the customizable 200kg satellite for low Earth orbit payloads (like Earth observation, disaster preparedness and weather monitoring) which has a build time of 12 months and a price of 4 million dollars, or about half of its competitors, specifies the firm. At a minimum, mu Space’s ability to manufacture parts on-site has the potential to bridge the gap with Western suppliers and create a space technology supply chain in Southeast Asia.
A few months later, at the headquarters of mu Space, flanked by model rockets and astronauts, Yenbamroong boasts of his outsider advantage. “Companies are looking for alternatives to reliance on China, especially now,” he says, noting the current geopolitical tensions between space powers America, China and Russia.
Additionally, pandemic-fueled supply chain disruptions have limited shipments from China, including batteries and sophisticated hardware demanded by the aerospace industry. “It definitely gives us an advantage to be here in Asia,” he says. “Additionally, everyone in this industry is looking for a reliable supplier who will protect their intellectual property.”
Within a few years, Yenbamroong expects the privately funded company to send up to 10 custom-designed satellites into space per year.
Mu Space took its first steps in 2018 when it placed a modest 8kg payload into space atop New Shepard, a new rocket from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. The payload, with experiences from local universities, was the spaceflight company’s first Thai customer. A second Blue Origin launch followed, followed by a third in late 2019. A year later, mu Space expanded to a payload of computers and electronics to test how its data systems work in space. as it set up its space technology production facilities. . It is currently selling space on the mu-B200, with the launch date dependent on those commitments.
Projecting a satellite image onto a computer screen and sending a real one into space are not the same thing. With investments in infrastructure, technology and manufacturing capacity, mu Space burns capital. Yenbamroong expects to generate between $10 million and $20 million in revenue this year, through contracts for the design and testing of telecommunications equipment as well as satellite monitoring services, while expenditures are estimated at more than 30 million. of dollars. “We probably won’t make a profit for five to ten years,” he says.
By then, if all goes according to plan, mu Space will have scaled up its first generation of satellites. “This is just the beginning,” says Yenbamroong, who is also the startup’s chief technology officer. Within a few years, Yenbamroong expects the privately funded company to send up to 10 custom-designed satellites into space per year, and beyond that, to mass-produce hundreds of satellites as well as its parts. and its power systems every year from one of its factories in Bangkok. (there are currently three). Like other larger players in the private space industry, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, it shares a higher goal of space tourism and lunar colonies.
AAmong his earliest childhood memories is attending air shows with his father, Vilas Yenbamroong, a Thai general who took his only son to military displays. “I always wanted to be a pilot,” says James, who grew up with drawings of planes and rockets on his bedroom walls.
He received his secondary education in New Zealand, then moved to the United States to study at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering and then a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Pilot training plans gave way to engineering work working on unmanned vehicle systems at defense giant Northrop Grumman in California.
The house beckoned him, so in 2014 Yenbamroong returned to Thailand. He then went into business with his uncle Chatchai Yenbamroong to create the telecommunications and satellite operator Mobile LTE (now Thaisat Global). The family is well known in Thailand’s powerful telecommunications industry.
Chatchai, a former journalist and Fulbright scholar, helped steer former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra into telecommunications, although they later split and became competitors.
James led the company to become the second licensed satellite operator in the country, then saw the opportunity to launch mu Space in 2017 with five million baht ($150,000) of his own money, and another funding of 100 million baht from angel investor Prasop Jirawawwong, owner and CEO of Bangkok-based clothing manufacturer Nice Apparel. Other early investors included infrastructure giant B.Grimm Power and Singaporean venture capital firm Majuven. Mu Space quickly applied for and obtained a 15-year government license to operate and provide satellite services in Thailand.
A $25 million Series B round followed in 2019 and a year later a $2.7 million investment from state-owned telecommunications company TOT after the two companies teamed up to explore the technology satellites in low earth orbit. It plans to raise $34 million in new Series C funding, which is expected to close in the fourth quarter, which would boost mu Space’s valuation to $330 million.
NOTMany startups have emerged in a booming space field awash with venture capital, but so far little of that money has found its way to Southeast Asia, says Asia-Pacific President Gregg Daffner Satellite Communications Council and co-founder of satellite rental company GapSat. Overall, global funding to commercialize space doubled in 2021 to around $15 billion from the previous year, according to US analytics firm BryceTech.
Much of this money will go towards launching around 1,700 satellites per year on average until 2030, according to space intelligence firm Euroconsult. The majority are deployed by Western companies that have dominated space exploration for decades.
Still, entry costs have come down and a proliferation of new launch companies has helped democratize the field, Daffner says. Mu Space is the only visible player in Thailand, he adds, and has the edge among Southeast Asian space startups.
“It’s an exciting time for space, and to think you could potentially build satellites in Thailand,” Daffner says. “This is a big deal.” But he issues a warning about the ambitions to be launched. “An entrepreneur may be willing to take a big risk”, he adds, but “industry [will] not buy a satellite from a manufacturer with no legacy.
Asia has long had the space bug. India launched its first rocket in the 1960s and began sending satellites into space more than 40 years ago. China has become the third country to land astronauts on the Moon and has around 500 satellites in orbit. Japan was the first country to land on an asteroid and harvest materials from it. South Korea launched a small satellite in June atop its first local rocket.
Mu Space took its first steps in 2018 when it placed a modest 8kg payload into space atop New Shepard, a new rocket from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.
Southeast Asia remained mostly a spectator. Thailand is supporting a space consortium to develop a pilot satellite to probe the earth next year. Indonesia established the Lapan space agency nearly 60 years ago, recently reviving dormant ambitions with plans to build the region’s first launch site on Biak Island. Singapore is doing its best to carve out a role in intelligence, while funding universities to spur development and incubate space startups.
Ng Zhen Ning, co-founder and CEO of Nu-Space, a Singaporean startup that makes tiny satellites, received crucial year-long government support to launch its first nanosatellite on SpaceX in January. Yet operating in Southeast Asia remains difficult, he concedes. “Space is really hot right now,” he says. But “you really have to prove yourself to investors, show your track record.”
Along with rapid production growth, mu Space has increased its workforce to 160, and Yenbamroong aims to have 300 by the end of the year. “My goal is to work with people who have the same passion for space as I do,” he says. Local talent is not an issue, he says, with a pipeline of engineers who have studied abroad or worked in related industries. Yet plans are far from assured, especially in a global tightening environment. “We’re likely to see less investment,” says Therese Jones, senior policy director at the Satellite Industry Association, who expects the industry to consolidate over the next few years.
As the countdown continues for mu Space’s biggest test – putting its own satellite into orbit – Yenbamroong is eager to prove the doubters wrong. “Everyone will see that we are no longer that company fresh off the beaten track. We will show people that we are for real,” he said. “We are ready to take off.