Peter Beck – CEO and technical director of Rocket Lab, a private company that researches, develops and manufactures complete rocket systems out of Auckland, New Zealand – holds a unique position in the aerospace business. For starters, the company, founded by Mr Beck in 2006, is the industry in New Zealand.
“We are a small, innovative company at the bottom of the world where there is no history of space activities,” he says. “We are completely isolated from many of the historical and physiological boundaries most companies enjoy, so there are no rules on how it can be done.”
Consequently, New Zealand is the perfect place to set up a rocket launch. It offers clear air space and a favourable regulatory environment. In fact, last year Rocket Lab became the first private company in the southern hemisphere to send a rocket into space. It also created a range off New Zealand’s coast that organisations can use to launch rockets in as little as 48 hours.
Rocket Lab was initially formed to create rockets capable of launching small payloads and along the way developed hybrid rocket fuels, a new propulsion system and technologies that have captured the interest of the US government and aerospace companies. As a result, the company does most of its business in the US, a market Mr Beck refers to as the "world leader" in this sector. “We have looked at other markets, but the US is our main focus,” he says.
Although Rocket Lab is small (it employs only six people), the company is already considering expanding in the US. “We desperately need to expand,” says Mr Beck.
The biggest problem Rocket Lab is having is finding the right people for the projects. “We must do an offshore search,” he says. “New Zealanders have the skills, but not the experience.”
The company needs an operation in the US near its customers. While Rocket Lab has excellent relationships with its US customers, the US government’s International Traffic in Arms Regulations create issues. Sometimes those can be as simple as ordering a Dell laptop. “These rules add much complexity and cost for both parties,” says Mr Beck.
But its New Zealand location also offers advantages. Rocket Lab is not constrained by the heritage and knowledge base that exist in mature markets. “One client made the observation that if they give a problem to a few universities around the US, each will come back with the same solution using the same pieces of available hardware to solve the problem,” he says. “But when the same client comes to Rocket Lab, we usually come back with something completely different using the latest technologies.”
The need to be innovative has resulted in Rocket Lab hunkering down to develop its own IT knowledge. “In New Zealand, you have to be a one-stop shop. There are no contractors down the road who can help,” says Mr Beck.
Video conferencing bridges the distance with its US clients. “We come to the US a number of times a year, but find video conferencing works very well,” he adds.
Consequently, Rocket Lab can compete with major contractors. “Our advantage is our cost and the speed at which we can react,” says Mr Beck. That is because the need for low-cost, rapid solutions and commercial sites is dramatically driving change in the industry. It is a shift Mr Beck has observed since he started his business five years ago.