‘Commercial opportunities are about to snowball in the space sector’

13 Apr 2021

Joanna Hart. Image: Harwell Space Cluster

Dr Joanna Hart of Harwell Space Cluster gives her advice for start-ups, from the importance of asking questions to why communication skills are critical for entrepreneurs.

Dr Joanna Hart is development manager at the Harwell Campus Space Cluster, a hub for the UK space sector based in Oxfordshire.

Hart previously worked at the Satellite Applications Catapult, tracking the economic impact that the network was having on UK space companies, and she also has nine years of experience in equity research at investment banks UBS and Credit Suisse. She holds an MA in physics and DPhil in particle physics from the University of Oxford.

‘If you can’t tell your grandparents what you do and why it is important in less than five minutes, you haven’t honed your pitch enough’

Describe your role and what you do.

My role is to help the Harwell Space Cluster to grow from its current 105 space organisations, employing over 1,100 people. This involves attracting new companies to Harwell Space Cluster and helping those that are already here to grow by raising the overall profile of the cluster, encouraging new collaborations and connecting companies with potential customers.

The Harwell Space Cluster is also part of the UK strategy to increase its share of the rapidly expanding world space market to 10pc by 2030.

In your opinion, which areas of science and technology hold the greatest scope for opportunities?

I am obviously biased, but the space sector has reached a tipping point in terms of ubiquity and capability – that means commercial opportunities are about to snowball.

There is so much potential for the increasing abundance of data about our planet to improve decision-making on everything from big global challenges like climate change to personal choices like the least polluted cycle route to work.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

There is something special about entrepreneurs – the way they give something their all, fail, try again, fail, try again several times before they hit on the right idea at the right time and find the right backers to make it work.

So yes, they are born, but they still need nurturing from early-stage funding to opportunities to share lessons learnt with other entrepreneurs. Innovation ecosystems like Harwell Campus provide that supportive environment to enable entrepreneurs to thrive.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

There is only one essential ingredient: communication skills. If you can’t communicate what your idea is to potential backers, future staff and to the market, you aren’t going to get anywhere.

I regularly host roundtables where Harwell Space Cluster companies have five minutes to pitch to potential customers and collaborators. At first, I was having to cut companies off for overrunning, now their messages are honed and slides are sharper due to watching their peers and upping their game. This is really rewarding to watch.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

Keep asking questions. What could you do better? How could you raise the profile of the company? How could you be more effective in everything you do to make sure you make the most of every minute?

The key is to ask the right questions at the right time to ensure you keep improving.

What resources and tools are an absolute must for your arsenal?

An amazing network. People naturally want to help, particularly if they think your business is going to be the ‘next big thing’. So think who could possibly help and ask.

To avoid wasting your time, make the ask specific and remember to thank them – you never know when you might need them again!

How do you assemble a good team?

Make sure the team isn’t lots of ‘mini-mes’ – else you are destined for disaster. You need complementary skills, different ways of thinking and, most of all, energy and enthusiasm in your top team.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

Clarity of purpose. If you can’t tell me – or your grandparents – what you do and why it is important in less than five minutes, you haven’t honed your pitch enough.

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

I think the biggest mistake founders make is to try and take over the world by trying to do too many things all at the same time. It dilutes their focus, steers them away from the original path and results in confusion.

That isn’t to say that you can’t pivot – if you see a bigger, better opportunity, go for it. Just don’t try and do multiple things for totally different reasons as you will lose your clarity of purpose.

What are your views on mentorship and the qualities one should look for in a mentor?

You could look for someone that has done something similar to what you want to do and thinks in the same way, so you can follow a similar pattern but avoid the pitfalls.

But I would look for someone who thinks totally differently, challenges you, asks the difficult questions – yes it will feel uncomfortable, but I bet it will make you a better entrepreneur.

What’s the number-one piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

Keep asking. Ask for help, advice, support, finance from as many people as you have time to handle. What is the worst that can happen? They say no and you move on to the next.

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