•  The Neurospace team with HiveR, Brain City Berlin

    “We want to take science and industry to the moon”

A Berliner in space? The time will come in September 2025. This is when the Orion space capsule on NASA’s Artemis 2 mission will fly from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida towards the moon. The first manned lunar mission since Apollo 17 in 1972 will orbit the Earth’s satellite without landing and test the capsule under real conditions. Also on board: the satellite “Tacheles”, which is designed and co-developed by the Berlin start-up Neurospace. Founded in 2019, the company, which is supported and funded by Berlin Partner and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), stands like no other for the booming “New Space” industry in Brain City Berlin: Innovative private companies from areas such as space technology, earth observation or satellite technology that want to democratise and revolutionise space travel with their visionary ideas. Engineer Irene Selvanathan is the founder and CEO of Neurospace – and one of the few successful women in the space industry.

Ms. Selvanathan, space travel is “spacey” and expensive: What is the approach of Neurospace?

We are pursuing the so-called New Space approach, which essentially offers a fast, more cost-effective alternative to the conventional approach. For example, commercially available components are used. But we also use many classical approaches, since the moon presents a particular challenge due to its high radiation intensity, low gravity and other particularities, and reliability is a must here. Neurospace builds robotic systems for space travel: small rovers for the moon that are modular, flexible and, above all, cost-effective. They are to work in swarms and support science and industry, for example in the exploration of the moon and the construction of a lunar base. We take part in space missions to qualify our systems. A special opportunity arose in 2023. The German Aerospace Centre (DLR) contacted us on behalf of NASA: We had 24 hours to develop a concept for a satellite that was to go on the Artemis mission. An opportunity that we seized immediately. In 2025, we will test our electronics on the NASA Artemis 2 mission in a satellite called “TACHELES”.

How did the business idea from Neurospace come about? 

Originally, we wanted to develop communications modules for the moon that could be mounted on satellites, rovers or landing modules, for example. We realised that the existing carrier systems are very closed, especially the rovers. However, open systems and standards are extremely important, as they offer users the opportunity to implement their own ideas for applications more quickly. One important example is the CubeSats satellites, which are only ten centimetres in size. As a simple standardisation, they enable payloads such as research instruments to be quickly adapted. The CubeSats have become real experimental platforms that are also used commercially. We wanted to implement exactly the same idea for the rovers. We quickly decided to build our own rovers.

What is so special about the HiveR rover?

HiveR comes from “hive”, the English word for beehive. The rover works in a swarm. A larger rover, the HiveR-Queen, has more energy and takes over communication and coordination. It coordinates several rovers that have different characteristics. These include HiveR drones, which are equipped with very good optical systems for cartography, for exploration, with spectrometers for measurements and LiDAR sensors. Then there are the HiveR workers. These are equipped with robotic arms, for example, to carry out work, take samples or support other rovers. HiveR is a platform with which we ultimately want to take over the entire chain from work to transport. We have focused primarily on search-and-rescue missions. HiveR are faster than existing rovers and are currently being trained for autonomous driving.

Who do you want to address with the HiveR?

Mining companies, construction companies, energy suppliers, communications companies, aerospace companies, scientists and enthusiasts. In short: Anyone who wants to explore the moon. We already have our first customers from science and research, including some institutes. Companies from the mining, connectivity and mobility sectors are now also interested.

You yourself studied at the TU Berlin. To what extent do you benefit from your scientific education today?

At that time, I actually had no idea what I wanted to do or become. Even though I did not dare to do it at first, I studied electrical engineering. This allowed me to go into any industry, but I always wanted to go into space. By chance, I ended up working with space start-ups and got to know their dynamics. After a few years, I decided to go down this path myself. My degree programme helped me a lot: As an electrical engineer, I was universally deployable. I had also taken courses in business and quality management, which made the rethink a little easier.

How is your team made up?

Our team consists of many engineers, including some from the Technische Universität Berlin, such as aerospace engineers, mechanics and computer scientists. But we also have unusual combinations that bring together biology and neural networks, for example, or business and marketing.

Are scientific institutions such as the TU Berlin currently involved in the development work of Neurospace?

We have been very well supported by the TU Berlin right from the start. Right at the forefront: the Institute of Space Technology, headed by Prof. Dr. Enrico Stoll, and the Institute of Machine Tools and Factory Management with Prof. Dr.-Ing. Julian Polte. This is mainly due to our unusual and diverse subject area. Our technology requires many disciplines, including electrical engineering, mechanics, materials science and programming – from embedded software engineering to UI/UX development to neural networks and AI.

What qualities should founders have in order to launch a start-up from a scientific background successfully? 

It is important to assess both the product and its market correctly. What we do is called “Deep Tech”. We work on both hardware and software. This requires a longer development time. Until you generate money, you have to rely on patient investors. But this patience can pay off. We are already selling products that can also be used on Earth. And some of our customers are considering going further with us – to the moon.

What have been the biggest challenges during and after the founding of Neurospace?

At the beginning, the coronavirus pandemic cost me my founding team, and the next challenge was financing. Investors find our topic difficult because it is very complex. Few investors are prepared to delve a little deeper into the subject. That is a shame, because we have made rapid progress within three years and are already recording sales. This is rather unusual for a deep-tech start-up.

Why is Berlin a good location for a start-up like Neurospace?

I have grown up here since 1985 and have seen how quickly the city has changed. Berlin is simply a great location with so many possibilities. We have more than 80 space start-ups here, which is really great. We know each other and support each other. There are also many different districts in Berlin, meaning there is a suitable place for everyone. The city is also very international. This is very important because the economy is becoming more and more international, as are the teams. Communicating in English is hardly a problem anymore in Berlin. This facilitates access to companies worldwide. And with the increasing number of companies setting up here, the opportunities for start-ups like ours to network quickly are also increasing.

What is your vision for Neurospace – and where do you want the company to be in five years’ time?

We want to give industry the opportunity to settle on the moon and advance the colonisation of the moon. This will also help humanity because new technologies and new areas of research will emerge. Exploring the moon can also provide valuable knowledge about our origins and possible future events. Our rovers are intended to be used in a variety of ways, including on Earth. There is still so much to explore. With the moon, we finally have a reference body for comparative measurements. At the same time, we learn to survive in a harsh environment. We want to take scientists and industry to the moon. Specifically, this means: In five years, we would like to see a small swarm of our rovers on the moon. And we want to be leaders in Europe in what we do. (vdo)

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