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STARS Club Creates Bridges to the Space Industry

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

Originally published in Tepper News

When the iPhone was introduced in 2006, it created novel business models through mobile applications and location-based services. The space industry is seeing a similar burst of opportunities never before possible, said Jeanette Quinlan of the Starburst Accelerator, at an event hosted by the Tepper School of Business earlier this month. More and higher quality data is available from new satellites that are cheaper and more efficient to produce and easier to launch into orbit.

STARS Club Launched to Explore Space Industry

Quinlan was invited to speak by (STARS) — a new Tepper MBA club that launched in April 2017. The organization was created by second-year MBA students Mike Provenzano and Anna Lawrence in order to introduce the Tepper School and other Carnegie Mellon University students to career opportunities in the growing space industry.

Coming into the Tepper MBA program, both Provenzano and Lawrence had been interested in applying to SpaceX, an Elon Musk company developing efficient space transportation technology. They felt that there might be other students interested in the space industry, and spoke to club leaders at the Tepper School about how to get a club started. “We got into some trouble along the way,” Provenzano, outgoing president of STARS, said of their early communication efforts.

“We sent out some unauthorized emails to the entire class,” said Lawrence, who served as the organization’s executive vice president. “Ultimately, we weren’t sure how many students would be interested in opportunities like this — so we asked,” said Provenzano. In spite of some missteps, they received 55 positive responses from the MBA Class of 2017 on a poll to gauge interest in a space-focused club.

The students modeled their club after a similar organization at MIT’s Sloan School of Business — Astropreneurship & Space Industry Club — planning speakers and seminars with companies and individuals that MIT’s group had attracted. At the STARS kickoff event last spring, more than 30 students came to hear about opportunities for MBA students with companies in the space industry.

Space Innovation Challenge

Over the summer between their first and second years, Lawrence and Provenzano received emails from prospective students asking about the club. “It was exciting to see that momentum,” Provenzano said.

One of their first projects of the 2017-2018 academic year was a Space Innovation Challenge that took place in September. “We knew from the start that we wanted this to be a cross-campus event,” Lawrence said, “because Tepper students, when they come to Carnegie Mellon, know about the school’s rich history in engineering, robotics, design, human-computer interaction, and all sorts of disciplines that exist outside the business world, but with whom the business world needs to cooperate.” STARS invited 80 graduate students — half from the MBA program and half from across Carnegie Mellon — to pitch innovative solutions to space-themed problems.

The event attracted participation from Boeing’s HorizonX venture fund, Planetary Resources, LightSpeed Innovations and Bessemer Venture Partners. Lawrence reported that they are seeing even greater interest for the event next year, particularly from corporate sponsors who value the innovation and new ideas that stem from the competition.

Space Industry Connections Forged in Seattle

In October, STARS took 12 students on a career trek to Seattle for visits to Planetary Resources, Blue Origin — “a really cool rocket manufacturer,” Provenzano said — and Kymeta Solutions, a satellite communications company. “I think Anna and I did a really good job getting our name out there and building a reputation for ourselves, which then also built a reputation for CMU,” Provenzano said. “CMU already has an amazing reputation, but now companies know there are space-interested students at CMU. It’s increasing awareness.”

Over the winter break, STARS headed to California for a career trek, where they were joined for some company visits by members of the Graduate Entrepreneurship Club (GEC) — also on their own career trek to the West Coast. “It was a great way to see that there was overlapping interest, and we want to consider more joint club treks in the future,” Provenzano said. The students began their trek in San Francisco, with visits to Bessemer Venture Partners, a satellite imaging company called Planet, and Made in Space, a company developing 3D printing solutions for work based in space, such as on the International Space Station.

Later, STARS separated from GEC to visit a rocket manufacturer in the Mojave Desert called Masten Space Systems, and then continued on to Los Angeles. They visited Boeing’s satellite system facility where they saw satellites as large as school buses. One of their standout visits was to Relativity Space, a company manufacturing rockets via 3D printing. “They had to custom build their 3D printer – called Stargate – because there wasn’t anything big enough,” Lawrence said.

She also said that students were impressed by Virgin Orbit, a commercial space company focused on low-cost launches for small satellites. “We got to walk through the whole floor and see the process of building the rocket from scratch, all the way to when it would be wheeled out the door,” she said.

“In the trek visits, the thing we kept hearing over and over was, ‘Wow. It is so cool to see a group of students from Carnegie Mellon that are interested in this industry,’” Lawrence said. “We had gone to companies without a prior strong school recruiting relationship, and we found out they had job opportunities, which were sent directly to us so that we could advertise them to CMU students.”

Connection Leads to Career Opportunity

These professional connections turned out to be fortuitous for Provenzano. STARS invited John Thornton, E ’07, CEO of CMU spinout Astrobotic, to speak on campus. “They had an opportunity that was available that they had presented to the class, and it was one that I was very interested in” Provenzano said. After he graduates, he will enter a role as president of an Astrobotic subsidiary called CubeRover that is developing small, efficient rovers to explore the surfaces of the Moon and Mars for commercial and educational applications.

“That in itself is a really cool STARS success story,” Lawrence said. “It was an opportunity that, had STARS not existed, we might not have found out about.”

As Provenzano and Lawrence lead the transition to next year’s board, they are expanding the organization’s focus to attract students from across the campus. “It will align with Tepper’s goals of being a cross-functional school,” Provenzano said. He reported that they have already heard from prospective students interested in joining STARS when they arrive on campus this fall. “We think that they’re poised to do some really cool things.”

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