For the Booth graduates driving new innovations in the fields of aerospace and aviation, the sky is no limit at all.
- October 10, 2019
At last count the aerospace industry was valued at an estimated $838 billion worldwide. As the SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, dominates headlines and as the S&P 500 aerospace and defense sector has gone up 23 percent this year (as of June), Booth alumni are copiloting aerospace’s anticipated ascent to an $8.7 trillion valuation by 2028. The industry is booming: because when it comes to reimagining the innovations that aviation and aerospace will bring to our world in the next few decades, the sky is limitless.
Consider construction, an industry valued at $808 billion in the United States alone that has no obvious intersect with aerospace—the purported plans for the colonization of the moon and Mars notwithstanding. Enter Suzanne El-Moursi, ’12 (XP-81), cofounder of Uplift Data Partners, a turnkey inspection service for construction, building information management, and real estate. Beginning with its 2015 inception, Uplift Data Partners has used drone technology to disrupt the construction industry and render old-school surveyor tools, such as tripods, theodolites, and levels, obsolete.
“When a drone flies in, in 30 minutes it’s collecting two million points.”
“[Surveyors] collect hundreds of XYZ points over a two-week period to create topography studies,” El-Moursi said. “Now, when a drone flies in, in 30 minutes it’s collecting two million points and it’s able to produce the same report within a week. So, right off, we’re disrupting the accuracy of the topography studies that are required as a first building block in assessing and laying foundation and understanding what you’re going to build.”
In addition, to attain aerial footage of potential building sites, construction companies historically have rented helicopters to reach heights of 10,000 feet, at upward of $30,000 per flight. With Uplift Data Partners’ drones, you can accomplish the same goal for nickels on the dollar, and you have the luxury of flying drones into hard-to-reach cracks and crevices that other aircraft aren’t able to access.
Aligning aerospace technology with construction paid dividends for Uplift Data Partners almost immediately. In just three years it increased its client base from one to 42. PrecisionHawk, a North Carolina–based leading provider of drone technology, took notice and acquired Uplift Data Partners last year, combining Uplift’s nationwide network of commercially trained drone pilots with PrecisionHawk’s Droners.io network of over 15,000 drone pilots, one of the largest networks of its kind.
Following the acquisition, El-Moursi stayed on at the urging of PrecisionHawk CEO Michael Chasen. At the time, Chasen told El-Moursi there was no deal unless she agreed to stay on because, as he said, “there’s very few to no business-minded aviation technologists that can understand when to stop thinking about the drone and think business.”
El-Moursi—now the general manager at PrecisionHawk—credited her tenure at Booth for teaching her how to communicate with her new PrecisionHawk partners, many of whom hail from vastly different backgrounds. “They’re ex-military or servicemen and women who had pilot responsibilities,” she said. For her part, El-Moursi—who spent time in user experience at HSBC and Capgemini before turning her attention to more strategy-focused roles at the likes of SapientNitro, Power2Switch, and Mira Fitness—was oblivious about the technology of drones and aerospace when she began in the industry. But the core skills she acquired at Booth were more than enough to bridge the communication gap and make her the ideal leader in this technology-heavy environment.
Annarella had an interest in space beginning at an early age. He majored in aerospace at France’s National Higher French Institute of Aeronautics and Space, the country’s first dedicated aerospace engineering school and, later, as a master’s student at the University of Texas, with a focus on manned space flights. After school he redirected his interests toward more IT-security-related endeavors, which took him from Europe to China and eventually to Singapore. Based in Singapore, he held senior technology and marketing positions at global digital security leader Gemalto (now part of Thales Group). But he wanted a change.
“When I was younger in my career, I didn’t worry that much about meaning,” Annarella said. “I was more focused on moving up the ranks and getting promoted.” After leaving Gemalto and while working as a venture partner at local private equity firm Soft Venture, he enrolled at Booth in 2012, hoping an executive MBA might open new perspectives.
It was also during the Executive MBA Program that a common friend approached Annarella and introduced fellow aerospace engineer, Christian Patouraux, who sounded him out about starting a new venture in commercial aerospace.
“There were a number of new generation communications satellites being launched,” Annarella remembered Patouraux telling him, “but they were mainly targeting the unconnected fringe of mature markets such as the United States and Europe. Nobody was really using yet the same technology to try to solve the issue of internet access in developing markets, especially in Asia Pacific.”
Together, they initially raised a quarter-million dollars and, in 2013, launched Kacific Broadband Satellites Group, where Annarella has served as COO since day one. He credits Booth for the impact it had on their fundraising ability. “My background as an engineer and as a longtime executive in a large company didn’t give me the financial skills and acumen you need to raise capital for this type of infrastructure project,” he said. “The Executive MBA fixed that and gave me confidence. The financial skills I acquired were crucial: we carried on to raise over $200 million negotiating with a very diverse set of financial institutions and family offices.”
“I’m finally involved in a project where you can measure the impact that you’re having every day.”
The primary goal of Kacific is to launch its own high-speed broadband satellite, Kacific1, later this year and dominate in its category the Pacific and Southeast telecoms market for remote and rural areas. The company now has 25 full-time employees. It runs a “minimum viable product” network on legacy satellites, enabling 700 broadband sites located in previously unconnected or poorly connected areas in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, and Kiribati, among others. Last year Poets & Quants named Kacific third on its list of top startups created by MBA alumni.
Right now, Kacific is seeing a strong market traction in putting internet in schools in underdeveloped regions, as well as in rural medical clinics and dispensaries to help improve health care in developing countries. “In Timor-Leste, a country in the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago, we equipped 70 rural clinics with internet connections,” Annarella said. “Our connected medical clinics in Asia Pacific have already saved many lives, partly because of the speed in which remote clinics can seek specialist advice and arrange emergency transport.”
“I’m finally involved in a project where you can measure the impact that you’re having every day,” he said. “That’s what gets you up in the morning.”
Once up, working 70-hour weeks isn’t uncommon for Annarella, and that workload could intensify later this year when Kacific launches its first satellite into orbit. Purchased from Boeing, Kacific1 will launch into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket before year end. This new spacecraft will extend the company business to regional economic powerhouses such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
“It will be probably be the largest satellite ever launched to the geostationary orbit, 35,786 kilometers away from the surface of the Earth” Annarella said. “So if you’re in the middle of the mountains of Papua New Guinea or on a remote island of the Pacific, by the end of the year, you can get the type of broadband speed than you would see in the suburbs of Chicago or LA.” Once Kacific1 is fully operational, Annarella expects there will be 30,000–40,000 connected sites, most being community Wi-Fi locations or enterprise hotspots, each able to reach multiple users. “It will touch millions,” he said.
Across the world, The Aerospace Corporation, based in El Segundo, California, supports the US Government as it does business with SpaceX and other aerospace giants. At the nonprofit, federally funded research and development center, CFO Ellen Beatty, ’90, is responsible for the financial strategies and operations of all finance and finance-adjacent functions, including contracts, the supply-chain organization, and insurance, as well as typical accounting, corporate planning, and treasury duties.
The Aerospace Corporation was formed only a year before president John F. Kennedy’s famous speech to Congress about space exploration. “We are a unique organization in the sense that we were created by and are sponsored by the government,” Beatty said. In rare cases, the US federal government, when it’s not able to attract and attain the right skill sets and technical expertise internally, will reach out to the private sector to fill the void. About 99 percent of the work Aerospace does is for the government.
“What sets us apart is that we work across the entire space enterprise.”
Dedication to the field is a key characteristic of those immersed in the aerospace industry. In El-Moursi’s world she affectionately calls those who eat, sleep, and breathe unmanned aerial vehicles “drone nerds.” Beatty said the industry is made up of people with an unwavering “intellectual curiosity” and “problem-solving mentality.” Hani Kuzbari, ’12 (EXP-17)—managing director of global aircraft leasing company Novus Aviation Capital—said it’s passion, pure and simple.
“You need to love it, otherwise it’s very difficult,” he said. “Once you’re in aviation, it’s very difficult to leave. And if you don’t like aviation, you won’t last long in this industry.”
Kuzbari has been with Novus for 17 of the company’s 25 years. The privately held company handles commercial aircraft leasing, financing, and trading for airline customers around the world. In layman’s terms, Novus buys planes from the likes of Airbus or Boeing and leases them to airlines that don’t want to shell out millions of dollars in purchasing the aircrafts.
“The sheer magnitude of passenger demand is remarkable.”