Christopher is an experienced business and aerospace professional with over a decade of involvement in the space launch industry. He began his career as an RF Engineer for Boeing Sea Launch, where he supported multiple launch campaigns from the ship-based equatorial launch site. After business school he completed a business development internship in the SpaceX Washington D.C. office before joining Bain & Company as a consultant in Atlanta. Post-Bain he was VP of Business Development for Arkyd Astronautics (Planetary Resources), before taking his current role with Expedia in Bellevue, Washington.
Christopher has a demonstrated passion for teaching, mentoring and tutoring. He coaches startups through Space Angels Network and the Northwest Entrepreneur Network (NWEN). Christopher is fluent in Russian, and has traveled extensively for business and pleasure, including a 2-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Donetsk, Ukraine (’97-’99).
Christopher earned an MBA from the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia as a Jefferson Fellow, an MS in Astronautics from the University of Southern California, and a BS in Electrical Engineering from Brigham Young University as a member of the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society.
You are a Principal at Space Angels Network, an angel investing community for aerospace and aviation startups. Can you tell us more about SAN and your role there?
Space Angels Network is the leading source of capital for aerospace and aviation startups. We are an exclusive community of investors who are building the next generation of the aerospace industry, one company at a time. Our team includes leading aerospace technology and investment professionals, and our members have been behind many of the top startups in the commercial space industry.
My role at SAN is to be the bridge between brilliant entrepreneur technologists and visionary angel investors – two groups who rarely speak the same language. I chose my career path deliberately to allow native communication with both sides.
How many investors are currently part of the SAN community?
We currently have over two dozen (and growing) angel investors from around the world. We’re actively building our community of space-passionate investors and cutting-edge startups.
What are some of the personal qualities you look for when evaluating an “astropreneur” and their startup?
Personally, I get excited when I find the rare “commercially minded” astropreneur. Someone who realizes it’s not enough to have a brilliant technology idea, crack engineering team, or even a few backers with deep pockets. They realize that most of all, they need paying customers.
I also like to find an astropreneur that is willing to make mistakes. The mantra “failure is not an option” has been beaten into us after decades of dwindling budgets. The result is a risk-adverse posture which can stifle creativity and increase costs at a time when we should be taking risks and innovating.
With NASA losing a substantial amount of its funding, do you anticipate seeing more companies like SpaceX taking over in the space exploration and research field? Is SAN currently participating in any startups poised to achieve SpaceX success?
The role of NASA is to conduct space exploration and research where no commercial markets exist. As NASA is able to build the infrastructure that will allow commercial companies to follow in their footsteps, we’ll see more activity in the industry and NASA can continue to push the boundaries of the possible.
We have several companies we’re excited about. Time will tell how many companies we have in the network today bound for “SpaceX success.” The key will be finding ways to drive revenue early, potentially before they launch anything to space.
You’ve had more than ten years of experience in the aerospace industry including positions such as RF Engineer for Boeing Sea Launch, a completed internship at the Washington D.C. office of SpaceX, and VP of Business Development at Arkyd Astronautics. In the decade you’ve spent in the field, how much of a shift have you seen in aerospace funding from the government to the private sector?
Unfortunately, things have not shifted as much as I would have hoped! With a few exceptions, the government is still the only source of revenue for space companies. I’m looking forward to the day when the space industry is more accessible to commercial activity. Private investors are beginning to open the door, but revenues have to be demonstrated for the momentum to build.
The government can play a key role in enabling the commercial space industry by setting and funding clear and consistent space policy, and reforming the regulatory environment which hampers our international competitiveness.
You have also worked as a consultant for Bain & Company, a consulting firm. How has your work there, combined with your aerospace background, prepared you for your role at Space Angels Network?
Bain really taught me how to structure my business thinking, and to have a laser focus on driving value. I was able to learn lessons from many different industries (railroads, telecom, retail, etc.) in a very short amount of time. Having seen solid business principles successfully applied in different contexts makes it easier to add value to the startups I work with at Space Angels Network.
You spent two years in the Ukraine serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Tell us a little about that experience and any affect it’s had on your approach to business.
Serving a mission in Ukraine in the late 90’s was an incredible experience. It was a time of dramatic transformation: for Ukraine, from a Soviet republic to an aspiring European nation, and for me, from a self-centered individual to a more self-aware global citizen.
I also caught the “space bug” while in Ukraine, so I’ll always be grateful for my missionary service!
You became fluent in Russian during your time in the Ukraine. Was it a difficult language to master and is it something that has proved useful in your various positions in the aerospace industry?
Learning Russian has been incredibly useful, but not in the way you might think. The real value was teaching me the power of having a vision of the future.
When I was struggling to learn the language, it was the knowledge that I would be fluent by the time I went home that allowed me to make the critical breakthrough. Within 4 months of arriving I was comfortable communicating on my own.
Ironically, despite the fact I was surrounded by Russian and Ukrainian rocket scientists while working at Sea Launch, I wasn’t allowed to speak to them in Russian because all of our communications were monitored by the State Department, and needed to pass through a translator.
You hold several degrees including an MBA from the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia, an MS in Astronautics from USC and a BS in Electrical Engineering from BYU. Do you plan on pursuing any further degrees in the future and if so, in which fields?
I think my wife Lauren has dibs on the next advanced degree. She’s supported me through 2 master’s degrees and now it’s her turn!
I admire Thomas Jefferson’s lifelong pursuit of knowledge of all types. While I have no plans to pursue any further formal degrees, I’m quite excited about advancements in online education which make it possible to study nearly any subject online. My interests vary widely.
Are there any ideas or concepts currently under development in the aerospace industry that you’re excited about?
I’ve been inspired by Robert Bigelow’s vision for private inflatable space stations for quite some time. Before you laugh, most people don’t know that he’s already got two inflatable prototypes orbiting the Earth today, with a contract to deliver an inflatable module to the International Space Station in 2015.
It’s exciting to consider the potential good that can come to mankind from affordable access to space-based research and manufacturing facilities. We can only imagine what developments nation states and commercial companies will find while conducting microgravity research in materials science, pharmaceuticals, biological science and other areas.
With your many professional obligations and responsibilities and with a wife and children at home, how do you maintain a work/family balance?
Most of the credit for this goes to my wife. She takes on more than her fair share of the duties of raising our family, which gives me the ability to be flexible as responsibilities at home, work, and church ebb and flow. She knows however, that if she ever says the word, I’ll drop everything else and be there for the family.
You’ve traveled a great deal with your past positions. Is there any one place that has been your favorite?
I absolutely love the beauty and majesty of being at sea. Witnessing a rocket launch from a ship on the equator in the middle of the Pacific is an incredibly moving experience.
What is one dream you hope to achieve in the next ten years?
Since 1998 it has been my dream to run a multi-national space company. At the current pace of progress, I am confident the conditions will be right for such a company at some point in the next decade. I hope it’s sooner rather than later.
If you could have one super power, what would it be and why?
My super power would be the ability to not require sleep. There are so many things I’d like to do and learn, a 50% increase in my productive hours would be fantastic!
Finally, if you were conducting this interview, what is a question you would have asked yourself?
If you’re passionate about space, why are you working at Expedia?
The answer to this question is complicated, but here are the main reasons:
- The commercial space industry hasn’t realized its potential as fast as we would have hoped, and the infrastructure tipping point is still a few years away.
- I made a choice to support my family and build capital while conditions in the space industry improve.
- Space Angels Network allows me to pursue my passion for space while working full-time on other projects.