Many of the world’s most amazing experiments aren’t even carried out on earth. The International Space Station (ISS) is home to some striking research, including the creation of the universe’s coldest place; antigravity gardening and assessing natural disasters.
Microgravity is paving the way for major breakthroughs in human biology, too. From 3D cell culturing and protein crystallization, to stem cells and fluid physics, it’s likely that the next great prolonger of life will come not from a lab on our planet, but a module far above the heavens.
Standing on the shoulder of giants is SpacePharma, a Swiss-Israeli company building tiny laboratories on which to carry out experiments remotely outside our atmosphere. Its lab is the size of a milk carton. But its potential for medical advancement is huge.
The company was founded by Yossi Yamin, a former CTO of Israel’s Satellite Agency, in 2012. Yamin noticed a singularity point between space, nanotechnology, computing and mobile, all of which were shrinking in size fast. “The sky is not the limit,” Yamin concluded. Three years later, he founded SpacePharma out of his family garage with friends. But it soon became clear he was onto something major. That didn’t come without its problems.
“The early roadblock that surprised me was that investors are not standing behind commitments,” he says. It has taught him to be a conservative spender – and to raise cash when it’s there, rather than when it’s needed.
Today SpacePharma, officially headquartered in Silicon Valley, rents real estate on its labs for $230,000 to some of the world’s largest pharma multinationals. Last year it got a massive boost – figuratively and literally – when its DIDO nanosatellite launched with India’s ISRO rocket. It should have been airborne in 2015, but previous host SpaceX was crippled with delays that, eventually, broke the partnership.
DIDO saves on labor costs, and keeps technicians away from potentially harmful substances. Microgravity assists particularly in the analysis of gene expression, when DNA is turned into protein. Over sixty percent of genes aren’t “expressed appropriately on Earth,” Yamin says. Space is a game-changer.
Previous friendships weren’t strong enough to carry Yamin’s original clique – his “A-team”, he calls it” – to this point. A hostile takeover was another part of the equation. Yamin calls these a “failure”. But it’s difficult to see a failure when he has helmed such an innovative company from nothing to become a global leader.
Science in space is a $3 billion industry. And with co-founder Ido Priel, a compatriot and Technion master of engineering, Yamin has somebody with the technical expertise to ensure SpacePharma grabs as big a piece of that pie as possible.
A launch every other month has only exacerbated Yamin’s belief that all free time must be dedicated to the company. But at least, he adds, “every day is unique and challenging.” It’s difficult not to be, when your head is above the clouds almost every day.