Reach For The Moon — Space Exploration & The Entrepreneurial Mindset

By Sally Coldrick and Rachel Hentsch

Stefan Siarov — Belgian National Trainee at the European Space Agency (ESA) European Astronaut Centre, Cologne, Germany

Growing up with an entrepreneurial father made choosing the path less travelled an easy decision for Stefan Siarov. Very few of us end up with that path leading to outer space. We talk about thinking global — in Stefan’s case, it’s a case of ‘think universal’.

Space X landing first Falcon 9 rocket of 2017 — image from Tech Insider

When SpaceX flawlessly landed its first Falcon 9 rocket of the year on 15 Jan 2017, we asked Stefan what he thought about it. He described it as “playing darts from space 101.”

In this installment of our portrait series, Stefan opens up about what makes him tick and launch out of bed in the morning (pun intended); how everything he does starts with a piece of blank paper; and shares how his first entrepreneurial venture involved trading Pokémon cards when he was only 6 years old.

What is your ‘getting started in Entrepreneurship’ story?

I have a wide array of interests and have always found it hard to pick one topic and go for it. Growing up we are always forced to make choices early on when it comes to studies and that never worked out well for me. It felt as if I am giving up immediately on 90% of my other interests just by picking something.

My father is an entrepreneur, so I have grown up with the idea that it is normal to think you can be self-sufficient. I never really questioned it, but I started to become more aware of the fact that not everybody sees this as the conventional way of thinking.

Any system which needs to be optimised, any challenge to be tackled or problem that needs to be solved, I try getting the most out of it and just hacking the system. That has been my signature throughout primary school, high school and university. Coming up with creative solutions — hacking — has been like a hobby, almost like a daily challenge.

During the last year of my previous Master’s degree I realised that this is valuable. User innovation was something I was doing on a continuous basis (coming up with some small solutions for myself) without knowing it could be monetised. Working together with people and presenting ideas to inspire are things that I was unaware of I liked, until I truly tried them out.

Realising that a big group of people can be helped with relatively little effort with respect to the results, I started looking at the world from a more entrepreneurial point of view. A place where real people are working on real challenges, and where I can be part of them.

Stefan at the Space Business Innovation Day at the Space Business Incubation Centre (SBIC) in Noordwijk, Netherlands

Was there a tipping point or catalyst for you becoming interested in Entrepreneurship?

I like not only seeing the bigger picture, but also painting and creating it. Taking initiative is a necessity for me, especially if I see that others are not doing it. This is why, purely out of curiosity and without preparing, I signed up for a startup weekend a few years ago “just to see what happens”.

Final day at SpaceApps challenge: an international hackathon that occurs over 48 hours in cities around the world, (SBIC, Noordwijk, Netherlands)

While watching how others were pitching I decided to pitch on the spot, and next thing you know I had formed a team and after 48h of hard work we even won several awards. This is when I realised that all the ideas I had on Wunderlist could grow into something bigger than just some text in virtual space.

That was merely the start. After that, when enrolled at my current MSc at Delft University of Technology (I am still finishing that, Space Engineering) I became involved with the local tech incubator YES!Delft where I joined a variety of entrepreneurial challenges. At the same time I heard I was admitted to MIT’s Global Entrepreneurship Bootcamp, where I feel my true entrepreneurial enlightenment happened. Here is where I learned how to truly listen to my customer, test assumptions and think about what value you are offering to your audience.

How does your current activity at the European Space Agency tie in with your personal entrepreneurial projects or aspirations past, present and future?

Stefan is working on parts of the “lunar base” visionary project — European Astronaut Centre, Cologne, Germany

I have always loved technology. However, I do prefer it when it can be applied in certain ways. Looking for creative solutions, using technology as a tool, impacting a big audience or tackling a serious challenge. My job at the European Space Agency is being part of Spaceship EAC with a young and agile team behind it.

I am working on parts of the “lunar base” visionary project. I am currently assessing how we can use 3D printing technologies to create a sustainable manufacturing strategy in space. Therefore I am assessing material degradation over multiple life cycles, together with seeing how storing these raw materials in clever ways can contribute to solving the biggest problem in human space flight: radiation shielding. Or rather the lack thereof. It is complex to assess the long term effect of radiation exposure.

Can you share your greatest ‘commiseration’? e.g. a failed business, project, business or team partnership gone wrong?

While learning about entrepreneurship I have worked on a variety of projects with a lot of different kinds of people. One of the biggest mistakes I have made is underestimating the importance of a well balanced, diverse team (different backgrounds), good chemistry and proper communication. In one particular project I was involved in, I also realised that on top of the aforementioned important qualities in a team I was also on the edge of collapsing due to a serious lack of time, sleep and general quality of life.

What was the most epic fail and key learning from this?

I realised that prioritising and timing things in our lives is incredibly important, together with communicating effectively. Surrounding yourself with “your type of people” really helps a lot in this process. True commitment (time and focus) to any entrepreneurial project I would start working on has become a priority and I am ensuring I finish what I start before jumping on to something else which is equally exciting or interesting!

What resources help(ed) you the most during your career?

Mentorship: talking to people with more experience, a different approach to things or coming from a different background. Honest conversations with professionals, experts and friends have been a major help during my whole career.

LinkedIn: at a certain stage in my professional life when I had decided I would embark on the exciting journey to join the space industry, I had become an expert in finding people with the information I needed. This resulted in valuable conversations and connections that helped me shape myself and choose a direction. Even now, I believe people underestimate the value LinkedIn could bring into their lives.

Library/work environment: a good place to work helps a lot. Surrounding yourself with people amongst which you can focus and excel at what you want is a good start to do so. Getting inspired during your breaks, and working that off during the hours to come afterwards.

Love and affection: the positive energy from friends, loved ones, family should not be underestimated. This has always been central in my life and I feel I am lucky to say that it has always been around me. Even though I have made many sacrifices in order to achieve certain things in life, I have always tried to balance out my time in such a way that spending quality time with actual people is my number one priority.

“Everything starts on a white sheet of paper”

Blank paper: everything starts on a white sheet of paper for me. This is the phase in which I feel most powerful, during any project or challenge. This is the part in which true creativity can come up and you can still control the full process of what is going to happen afterwards. Thinking conceptually by combining logical reasoning with a very empathic and intuitive way of thinking, is probably one of the things that has helped me most, even when tackling highly technical subjects.

Technologies you cannot live without?

eReader, the Internet

What is your wildest aspiration or dream?

Reinventing extreme sports — in space. Partnering with extreme sports sponsors and companies and the aerospace industry to push boundaries. As if space were not extreme enough in itself!…

My goal is to inspire. To make people outgrow their own dreams or wildest aspirations. To empower others. To affect a big chunk of people in a positive way, possibly using technology. Reinvesting this “big fun money” in social and existential challenges.

Due to bone and muscle degradation during space flight, it is incredibly important to do sports in space just to keep ourselves in shape. As an example, astronauts have at least 2h of sports per day on the International Space Station. So developing extreme sports in space would be about making it more fun in the future, together with raising awareness around what some of the basic challenges are in space.

How do you keep your mind and body in shape?

Keeping my mind in shape is most easily achieved for me by having a good and deep conversation with people I care about, on topics close to my heart. Aside from this I started making time again to read as I love reading — currently I am on a “biography” wave, reading about interesting people’s lives. It is literally like standing in front of a window, peeking into these people’s lives. We can learn so much by standing right there, putting ourselves in their shoes and empathising. In short, learning about different perspectives and challenging myself on a daily basis is what keeps my mind in shape.

Keeping my body in shape happens by going to work out at least 3 times per week. I would like to improve this number even before I finish this MSc. Aside from this I like to have an active lifestyle where I use my longboard and bicycle as often as I can.

I love boardsports as they keep both our mind and body in shape…

Stefan finds that board sports keep both his mind and body in shape

What is your take on why the world needs more entrepreneurs?

I believe big changes can happen with even the smallest initiatives. And it always starts with a need or problem. A perfect metaphor for this is storytelling. A hero embarks on a journey and faces a challenge. This challenge is to be overcome by working together, coming up with a clever solution, and with hard work, creativity, persistence and courage, the result is a climax. Either a good one, or a bad one, but it is there. There is a continuous flow of momentum which is kept up to speed as the hero has achieved certain parts of his goals, and failed in others. In any case: it is about the process.

Yes the world needs more entrepreneurs: more people should learn how to throw themselves in that adventure because although focusing on the goal is important, the true results lie in learning from the process and getting better at it and repeating — rather than the actual goal which was envisioned, which is a tool to gain focus and get people on the same wavelength.

Unity can be achieved by tackling the same goal and sharing the same passion. This is a mentality that goes beyond origins, language and political beliefs.

Earliest memory of being entrepreneurial ? Please describe.

Growing up in Belgium, collecting Pokémon cards was extremely popular when I was about 6 years old. My parents got me a pack of 11 cards and from there on I started trading with other kids. Just by knowing the value of your cards very well and just with trading, within a couple of weeks I had collected a massive amount of cards. I did not even like Pokémon that much, but I liked the challenge of trading and “upgrading” my deck.

Image from Stefan’s childhood family album

What does being curious mean to you?

Trying. Prototyping. Testing. Being playful in life. Experiment and ask questions. Challenge the status quo. Challenge anyone who seems to be too confident or too comfortable with his own findings or opinion: find out what even their challenges are, because they are always there. With curiosity comes a certain responsibility which I am currently exploring: inspiring others is something we need to do in order to advance and innovate faster and better. Cross-fertilising each other is of utter importance: having a different background, experience and ideology helps in being creative and progressive as long as these differences are streamlined by having open-minded and communicative people to work with.

Some #outerSPACEcuriosity fun facts about Space Travel — check out how astronauts…?

Did you dream of going to space as a child?

Take our free curiosity challenge and rediscover how curious you were as a child, at the very least you will gain new entrepreneurial thinking, a tool that will last you a lifetime. Jump over to www.infinityfoundry.com/courses