Phil Ridley: From the RAAF to outer space

Quasar is an Australian firm that focuses on offering a global leader in ground station services to satellite operators and users. The deep-tech team is developing a sovereign space communications solution using our proprietary Phased Array technology, created at CSIRO, to serve commercial and public sector requirements for years to come.

Quasar will be able to handle hundreds of simultaneous satellite communications channels and various missions with a single antenna and provide secure satellite data to a wide range of end computing platforms dependent on customer needs.

We sat down with Quasar’s Chief Executive Officer, Phil Ridley, to talk about the connection between R&D and startups, Australia’s space tech industry, and how he stays on top of a rapidly changing field.

Tell us about Quasar's history so far. When did the company begin, and how has it developed?

By startup standards, Quasar was probably a long time forming. The whole brainchild behind Quasar came from one person, Dr. Ilana Feain, Commercialisation Specialist (Space & Astronomy) at CSIRO. Dr. Feain realised that a commercial enterprise could equally apply some of the fantastic technology we’re using for radio astronomy to the satellite industry.

CSIRO commercialisation specialist Dr Ilana Feain and Quasar CEO Mr Phil Ridley. Credit: CSIRO

When CSIRO looked at the technology that had been developed over all these years and looked at where the market was going for satellites, they recognised that they had something that could do what no one else could do.

Those discussions happened for a couple of years, and in December last year, things started to come together when the funding for Quasar was secured. They approached me, and we talked for a couple of months, and basically, the company was formed in March this year. We got all the deals done in April when I came on board and then moved from there. Quasar has been about three years in the making, but in the execution phase, we’re still in our first six months.

What was your career path, and how did it lead you to join Quasar?

As a young man, I joined the Air Force. And I was there for about 12 years and, fortunately, it was one of the most extensive periods of peace in history, so I never had to go to war. We had excellent training, and I had the opportunity to complete my degrees with the Air Force. I was very fortunate to be exposed to so many different areas of tech and engineering, everything from fighter aircraft to satellites to ground systems to radios to computing to communications; it’s an exciting environment. When I left that world, I'd worked on a whole range of things that a lot of people wouldn't have seen for a person who was only 30. I joined (ISP) Big Pond in the very early days, and I used all the skills I had developed in the RAAF to start rolling out ISP tech in Australia.

Going from the military to private industry - it's different, it's a different environment, but some of the skills you learn are transferable.

I was very fortunate in that I landed on my feet. I started at Big Pond when we had 50,000 customers, and I left when we had a few million, and the industry was changing so fast, I was able to grow my skills and build on the foundation I’d learned in the RAAF.

I joined Quasar to bring the technology to market. That means managing the team, managing the company, managing our mission, and managing all our partners. We have a certain amount of funding, we've got a goal, we've got some wonderful people, and what we have to do next is align all of those. Most of my day would involve meeting the people running the company with me - my tech lead and my product lead - and making sure that all the stakeholders are informed about what we're doing. Our partners are the customers we're talking to and some of the people helping us get this thing done, including the Government. So really, I spend 90% of my day on the phone, on my emails.

One thing I'll say for all science founders, it's tough to pull yourself away from the tools when you're that sort of person. You've got to learn to trust the people that you hire and work with. A lot of it becomes less about personally working on the science. Some of the essential things are pretty simple things; making sure we stay on mission, making sure that people are informed, making sure that we spend the budget correctly, and getting our outcomes.

Without being “on the tools,” how do you stay in touch with the tech itself in a fast-moving technological world?

I'm a voracious reader, so I tend to read every night. I'm always on the hunt for information. I'm always in a book or on a computer reading. We get involved in the cutting edge in many ways; there are industry conferences, online blogs, and industry events that focus on space, and in Australia, we have a great ecosystem. I do set time aside to connect to the cutting edge. On Wednesdays, I write off my whole afternoon to research and talk to people, and every night I try and read at least one or two pieces of material in the industry.

We have CSIRO on board, so we stay very close to them. We're also co-located with CSIRO’s aerospace and astronomy, so we can walk from a desk to talk to some of the chief engineers behind the tech itself. One of the critical factors for our success is staying close to both the research and the coalface.

It sounds a bit silly in these days of COVID where nobody leaves the house but co-location that can bring entrepreneurship and R&D together physically is incredibly powerful. I can't describe how important it is to get up, walk around the corner and go and work with one of the guys that actually invented WiFi. Not many people can do that.

The old startup adage, “move fast and break things”, has dangerous implications in the world of deep tech; how do you balance iteration and experimentation with risk mitigation?

Extreme complexity forces you to have methods, but it also forces you to be creative about how you work.

When I worked on aircraft at the RAAF, I learned to set things up so that when you change something, you always make sure you can reverse that change precisely and quickly. It’s essential; the responsibility is too great to do otherwise. It’s an approach we carry through at Quasar.

We cannot break something just to test something; our rule is First, Do No Harm. It doesn't mean that we can't do risky and interesting things. In fact, we often do, but when we come close to the coalface, it's real. Outside the test environment, that’s when we have to apply a bit of rigor about what we build and what we develop, and how we make changes; you can’t be too concerned about keeping the status quo, and you can’t be too focused on embracing disruption.

What’s the current status of the Australian space industry? Are we a competitive force in the global ecosystem?

One thing about the Australian space industry is that we’ve been a little bit behind for a while. We’ve been involved in space for decades, through our work with NASA, etc, but we weren't leading, we were always a team player. But that’s changing fast, and it's moving fast; the ecosystem is high growth. The Australian government, at both the federal and state levels, has been supportive of this. There actually is quite a growing space sector. We have a space industry association, we have a Space Agency now, and the ADF is involved in the vertical.

We're perfectly situated for success in space. We've got a stable government, we're in the right part of the world, and we're a technology nation.

If I could change anything - if I could wave a magic wand? I wish we had more engineers - or even just enough engineers. We're desperately short of skilled people, and that shows. I've consistently lambasted the fact that we need more engineers, and we need more diversity, We need to improve our pipeline at home, but we also need to bring people in from overseas. We're not the only country short of people who want to work in space, and we need to stay competitive. I think as an industry, we should be working to grow the STEM pipeline ourselves; we can’t expect the government to do everything. I take every opportunity I get, every chance to go to a school and talk about STEM and the industry. We need to get out there and show up.

Can you talk about the relationship between entrepreneurship and scientific R&D in building innovative companies?

Technology is moving fast; sometimes industry leads technology, and sometimes technology transforms industries. For example, mobile phones have been around for years, and until Steve Jobs invented the iPhone, they weren’t the pocket computers that have changed our lives today.

One example is near edge computing in space where they are doing some of the stuff in data centers and satellites, including space as part of this. The interesting technologies are

hydrogen, ion drives, quantum computing, new optical communications - there is a huge slew of very, very new, powerful technologies. At the moment, we're still working out what those business cases are. Companies like SpaceX are putting up large clusters of satellites in the sky, in strong moves from private industry that we've never seen before, and new developments will come from an activity like that before we know it.

Often these use cases pop out that no one thought of and suddenly they become huge. One example is Wi-Fi, invented by the people who are working in our team right now building a ground station. Originally, it wasn't intended for broadband. It was invented because somebody didn't want to walk between two buildings. Now we can't imagine a life without WiFi, and it has become a huge part of our world.

I see the potential for lots and lots of cases where space technology and Quasar’s technology specifically will help humankind, things like environment management, disaster management, even things like COVID. If we had a better space network up there for the right reasons and the right purposes, the possibilities are endless. I just see needs-focused business cases for technology all coming in together. It'll be interesting to see what comes out in five years’ time.

These days, things like Space Surveillance, space reconnaissance, and information warfare are incredibly important. We've got technology no one else in the world has that can not only talk to satellites; it can keep space safe. That has become part of our product, and it's been a significant change to the way we've architected the solution.

You mentioned SpaceX; obviously, their work has been huge in this space, garnering headlines and attention. Do you think a shift from a public space race to a private space race is a good thing?

I see pros and cons. I'll say pros because private industry can make things happen faster, private companies move faster than government agencies, and they always will. Cons, because private companies don't have the same openness sometimes. As long as the industry can stay friendly with the government and the government has those discussions and facilitates the work we can leverage the execution and operational power of private companies, but at the same time make sure that human beings are the ones who are going to benefit, and that our decisions and our work won’t be about just profit. That's super important. Technology is wonderful, but technology is not an answer in and of itself. It’s about what we do with it, separately and together.

The technology that we have, that is my job is to commercialise in Australia, there's no way we could have developed that as a private company, it's just too complicated and there’s too much experience needed. CSIRO was the perfect environment for that technology to be created.

But while CSIRO is a brilliant organisation and they do incredible things it's not their job to commercialise their R&D. If it was, they might not focus on things that are not obviously able to be commercialised.

It's a symbiotic relationship, so we're very fortunate there. We know we're going to succeed because we have a technology that is unmatched. It couldn't have been developed without CSIRO and no one else in the world has been able to do what we’re doing. Deploying

multi-satellites on one ground station will be a first, and it's only been possible because we've had this incredible R&D power backing us, and CSIRO never would have brought that to market without Quasar.

We have to make a commercial return, of course. The VC firm we're working with, which has been Main Sequence, is experienced in the area of bringing innovative technologies to the market. We've got some great support, and it gives us the ability to take calculated risks, which is what we need to win. It provides us with the power to focus on the right things. You shouldn't be distracted when you're a startup, and you always have to keep the end goal in mind.


More about the company

Quasar Satellite Technology

Quasar is an Australian company focused on providing a world-leading ground station service for satellite operators and users. Based on our proprietary Phased Array technology developed at CSIRO, we are building a sovereign space communications solution designed to serve commercial and public sector needs for decades to come.

Quasar’s ground station technology will support up to hundreds of simultaneous satellite communications channels and different missions on a single antenna, and provide secure satellite data to a broad range of end computing environments, depending on customer needs.

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