Frankfurt, Germany (TMT)- The Managing Director of AP-Swiss José Achache has a big, and realistic goal: to use space technology almost everywhere. He spoke with Idriss Benarafa on the sidelines of the prestigious startup competition for emerging markets Seedstars, during its final event in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In the interview, José gave some insights on the prospect of space technology, the current economic situation, how young Moroccans, and by extension all youth in the world, can manage to get the genie of their startups out of the bottle in these difficult times where finding jobs is becoming more and more challenging. José also threw a spotlight on a hackathon event he is planning to organize in Morocco in the near future, among others.
We would like to show the Moroccan government that the future is in startups development, incubators, accelerators, and I believe that space is a very good opportunity and business as it opens to mining, precision farming, water management, renewable energy management, etc.
Idriss Benarafa: AP-Swiss ESA’s (ARTES) program transforms space research and development activities into operational, profitable and self-sustaining products and services. Can you tell us more about your work?
José Achache: In AP-Swiss, we are basically interested in space and we want to see startups interested in space as well. We want to see them take advantage of the available space technology. We explain to startups that they could use, for example, satellites. It is not an expensive domain where only big capitals, heavy industries can operate. For example, you can build small satellites. You can also build applications for existing satellites. Satellites are there, most of the information is freely available. Just pick it, use it, and you’ll have it.
Now with the internet revolution, a revolution of software, jobs are destroyed faster than they are actually being created by the new economy. Today, it is well known that Facebook does not generate jobs to the scale General Motors does.
Surprisingly, a lot of my efforts are about convincing people of that. There is this tendency to believe that space is expensive and that it is not for startups. Sometimes, people don’t even realize that they use GPS in their applications. Sometimes they do, but it usually stops there. This said, to lift the fog on the misconceptions, we are explaining educating, and raising awareness about the fact that you could do much more with space. In AP-Swiss, with the support of the European space agency and the Swiss space office, we fund the development of commercial applications. All these words are important. We fund, it means we do not invest, we provide grounds. We don’t fund everything because we want companies to be committed. If you are funding everything, you are basically milking your cow and it does not produce any competitive business, ergo no competitive people.
In short, you could do a lot of things with space. For example you could monitor climate change with satellites, and, as you can see, it is a global environmental issue not a commercial one. In Morocco, the Royal Center of Special Telecommunication (known under its French acronym CRTS) is using space part of their project on disaster management. That’s another example of the usage of space for noncommercial purposes.
There is this tendency to believe that space is expensive and that it is not for startups. Sometimes, people don’t even realize that they use GPS in their applications.
Idriss Benarafa: What type of startups do you fund? Are there any criteria apart from the use of space technology per-se?
José Achache: We are interested in real businesses, activities that will generate real revenues and will be self-sustained. If we find those conditions, we fund. It should use space and be commercially viable. It does not have to be entirely reliant on space. For example, we saw an example this morning [part of Seedstarworld’s startup pitches] of a company called Modular, a south African startup that provides a container which offers all needed equipment for a business to start in the middle of a small village with no infrastructure. Everything is in the container, but this business needs communication. It needs to be connected, for payment, for advertisement, for everything. On one hand, you have this, and, on the other hand, you could have an antenna and a couple of satellites to get internet access. This shows that space within Modular is only a small part of the business. Nevertheless, it adds tremendous value. That is what we are interested in and that is what we fund.
Idriss Benarafa: We heard that you are planning to organize a space hackathon in Morocco. Could you tell us more about it?
José Achache: Initially, we wanted to organize a space hackathon in Africa and the MENA regions. With Seedstars, we had a regional event in Casablanca one month ago, an event where all winners from Africa and MENA came together. I came there with my usual speech explaining that space is available for startups. Everybody was wondering “Really! How is that?” There was a lot of reaction and we decided that we’ll come back and organize a hackathon. Initially, we discussed with a group of young people from Casablanca about the prospect to organize it there. Yet, few seconds after, the group from Marrakesh raised their hands saying “why don’t you organize it in Marrakesh? We have the entire infrastructure. We have a good ecosystem, etc.” Three days later, when I came back home, I opened my email and read a message from a lady from Rabat, asking me “why don’t we do it in Rabat?” stressing that “we have in Rabat the CRTS, we have a big crowd, the needed infrastructure and so on.”
For a country like Morocco, I see a tremendous future in space. That’s the message I would like to bring to Morocco for our upcoming hackathon.
It seems that there is a very active and dynamic community in Morocco. The question now is when and where are we going to organize this hackathon. This said, the idea is there, the plan is there, but we still need to take a decision on where exactly and when the event will be held.
Governments have seen that the future is in job creation. They know that. It is their responsibility to help job creation. It is their role to create incubators, accelerators, programs to facilitate startups development, knowledge acquirement, and progress.
Idriss Benarafa: A lot of young people find it hard to find jobs in Morocco these days. Some believe that it’s the government’s duty to provide jobs. Do you share this philosophy?
José Achache: That time where governments provided jobs to people is over. That was in the 20th century during those glorious years where growth was there, where development was there, where industrialization was needed everywhere. That created jobs and big companies started to grow. Now with the internet revolution, a revolution of software, jobs are destroyed faster than they are actually being created by the new economy. Today, it is well known that Facebook does not generate jobs to the scale General Motors does. This is going for ever. Even Tesla builds cars with much less people than what General Motors does. The 21st century job market is very different. With this pressure on jobs at the bottom of the economic scale, few jobs available means the salaries are going down. This creates a deflation situation and Banks will drop interest rates. Who benefits from the situation? The answer is people with capital. The trend right now is that there will be less and less jobs, but more and more capital. This capital has to be invested and that’s the beauty of the system. That’s a vicious circle. Startups will be there at the bottom. Companies don’t want to hire them because they don’t want to take risks. Today, rather than investing money on innovation and having their own innovation centers, they are buying innovation, buying it from startups. They are using this huge accumulating capital to buy startups with good innovation. Today you have to come up with a good idea, create your startup, and then you’ll get a job. You should spread this message among the young generation in Morocco, “No escape, they will have to build their own companies, and create their own jobs.” After that, there are two exits, either the company grows and develops, with good technology that will interest the big companies, and they’ll be taking over, meaning the spinning of this technology, or they can keep their startups and grow further.
Idriss Benarafa: Is a relevant domain experience important when creating a startup? We see a lot of computer scientists creating startups, most of the time with no relevant domain experience? What do you think?
José Achache: It is not that much the domain experience. It is also not that much the technology. The technology is important as you have to master what you are doing. The most important thing is the people. You have to be motivated, to prepare, to work hard and learn. Governments have seen that the future is in job creation. They know that. It is their responsibility to help job creation. It is their role to create incubators, accelerators, programs to facilitate startups development, knowledge acquirement, and progress. I was reading this morning that the French President Holland himself was distributing the “French Tech Startup Prize” or something like that. France wants to attract startups from all over the world. This really shows you how desperate the French government is to accelerate startups. In this view, When organizing our prospective hackathon in Morocco, we would like to show the Moroccan government that the future is in startups development, incubators, accelerators, and I believe that space is a very good opportunity and business as it opens to mining, precision farming, water management, renewable energy management, etc. Phosphate mining and renewable energies in Morocco can be developed faster and in more efficient ways if we use space to monitor plants, with sensor communication and all of that. For a country like Morocco, I see a tremendous future in space. That’s the message I would like to bring to Morocco for our upcoming hackathon.