Astrix Astronautics’ Fia Jones on wooing Peter Beck to launch her startup

Fia Jones was 19 years old and studying physics at the University of Auckland in 2019 when she approached Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck at a party and told him she had an idea that would change the game for powering satellites. She’d be happy to tell him all about it … if he’d be willing to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

Cheeky, badass, naive — all words that come to mind when imagining this scenario, but it was Jones’ tenacity and confidence in the idea she and her co-founders (Max Daniels and William Hunter) came up with that enabled their startup, Astrix Astronautics, to take off.

The company, which develops power-efficient solar arrays for satellites, recently secured a spot on Rocket Lab’s Electron launch on May 2. Once in Earth’s orbit, Astrix’s cubesat, a teeny tiny satellite, unfurled into two inflatable solar arrays that measure around 10 square feet and can capture up to 200 watts of power.

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In other words, Astrix has figured out how to use inflation to deploy a very large surface area from a compact volume, which allows for ease of access to power in isolated spaces.

This was the first time Astrix was really able to prove its concept, one that had industry experts skeptical due to the unpredictable nature of inflatable things in space. Astrix is gearing up to close a $5 million seed round, which will hopefully enable the company to scale further toward its midterm goal of providing a low-cost power solution to newer satellite constellation companies that are trying to enter the market today.

“Power systems at the moment can cost more than what it costs to build the satellite itself,” Jones told TechCrunch. “Because we deploy such a large surface area, the biggest benefit for constellations is we’re able to switch to silicon cells rather than what everyone’s using, which is gallium arsenide cells, that are stupidly expensive. Like $2,000 to $3,000 per watt.”

“I didn’t happen to meet Peter Beck, and if I missed him at the ceremony, I would have continued to stalk him until I met him. I very intentionally went out to get his attention.” Fia Jones

We sat down with Jones to talk about how young founders can break into a legacy industry, the difference between pitching New Zealand and U.S. VCs, and how to deal with the limiting questions investors ask women versus the promotive questions they ask men.

The following interview, which has been edited for brevity and clarity, is part of an ongoing series that focuses on founders in the transportation sector.

Tell me about the time you approached Peter Beck with your startup idea.

At the University of Auckland, he was being awarded for being an adjunct professor. I was on holiday for a long weekend at the time, but one of my friends sent me Beck’s location, so I raced all the way there. The ceremony was over when I arrived, it was just a reception, so I snuck in and found him and was like, “I loved your speech.” And he was like, “Oh, I didn’t make a speech.” So then I was like, “Oh, sorry. So I love what you do, and I have this really cool business doing a new and innovative power system, but you have to sign an NDA. I promise it’s amazing.”

We were going to him not only for technical advice but also for some cash to help us get started. We didn’t realize at the time that it’s apparently a big no-no to ask investors to sign an NDA, especially when you approach them. But he did and was happy to take our contact, and we met up a few months later.

We didn’t have any funding at the time, so to show him the idea of our inflatable system, instead of actual solar cells, we had cardboard cutout squares. And we didn’t have the proper heat sealing or plastics, so we used rubbish bags. They were stuck together with duct tape, and we had this bike pump that was soldered to a car battery. So we presented this system that was shaking on his table and it literally looked like a bag of trash, like it could not have been any uglier. But he really liked what we were doing and how we tried to demonstrate it. So he asked us how much money we needed.

This was one year before we incorporated, and we didn’t realize how expensive things were. We were only really used to spending the university’s money. We thought it would take us $15,000 to get to space and that was a gross understatement.

How much did you actually need?

It took us $250,000 to get to space. So really we were asking for petty cash, and he gave it to us. And I’m sure he was like, “They’ll figure it out.”

Actually, it was good that we didn’t have that much money then, because there were a lot of things we needed to figure out, like how to spend money well. We went through a business incubator that year, and then the next year we raised $500,000, which helped us launch with Rocket Lab this year.

You’re about to close a $5 million seed round, and you’ve told me most of your original investors — Outset Ventures, K1W1, Icehouse Ventures, Rocket Lab — are all following on. Are you interested in any U.S. investors?

We’ve been speaking to U.S. VCs since we started, even though we haven’t had any of them come on board yet. I have a very strong preference for a U.S. investor for strategic reasons — just having that network, without Rocket Lab, to help introduce us to aerospace companies, lawyers, even salespeople.

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What differences have you found between U.S. and Kiwi investors?

In New Zealand, you very much have to validate everything you’ve done. Kiwi VCs do a much deeper due diligence look into your company.

What I found talking to U.S. firms, it’s not necessarily so focused on what you’ve done so far, but rather what is your plan for five years? Ten years? If I gave you twice your budget, what are you going to do with it? It’s a very different lens and a different culture.

When we first started pitching to U.S. investors, we had to shake off the tall poppy syndrome. We would very much underplay ourselves, and it wasn’t doing us any favors. Especially when they’re talking shit 24/7. So we had to get over that hump and get comfortable saying that yes, we want to be a huge company. And so what if I only get so far and then fail? My next company will have goals just as large.

Whereas with Kiwi VCs, you almost have to downplay it because they’d say there are so many big players in the market — are you really going to be competing with Boeing, for example? I think for Kiwi VCs, you get preventative questions if you try to be too big. I guess it was kind of crushing in a different kind of way.

As a young, woman founder, can you tell me if the horror stories I’ve heard of being questioned by VCs are true? Do you feel like you have to prove yourself extra hard?

It’s hard because the behavior is quite subtle. For example, if I took Max and Will with me, I’d speak for the entire session, and then the follow-up questions would be asked to Max and Will and not myself. And so I’ve had to just be like, “Hey team, sorry, I’m jumping in the next one without you both,” because then they have no choice but to communicate with me. So it’s not obvious enough to call it out, but it’s very difficult to work with.

It’s also reflected in the types of questions that we’re getting. The pro of bringing Max and Will is we get a few more promotive questions. Like, “If you pull off these first five customers, what are the problems you expect to encounter when you start scaling up to hundreds of satellites annually?” The questions that we get as a team are: “How are you going to handle the best-case scenario? Are you ready for your best-case scenario?” Whereas if the guys didn’t come to the meetings, it’s more like, “What’s your exit plan?”

“How are you gonna not fuck up my money?”

Pretty much. And so for when I’m by myself, I’ve done a lot of training with the Outset Ventures team as to how to redirect the preventative questions into promotive questions. So if they ask about our exit plan on how we’d sell out, I’d say: “This is our plan. We’d consider selling to these types of launch providers, if we were going to, but that won’t be necessary if we get to X stage because we have a better model looking at our revenue stages, and there’s a lot more to be gained by avoiding that.” So it’s like making them aware that they’re being biased.

It’s so hard to promote Astrix when we’re getting the kinds of questions on what are you going to do to stop Astrix from dying.

Has it improved at all now that you have an example of the product working?

It was way more prominent for us when we first started, before we launched. Right now, we’re a lot more fortunate that we have some technical validation. If VCs go too far with the preventative questions, then we can always fall back on, “Well, Peter Beck thinks it’s a great idea.” That really quickly shuts down that conversation and kind of puts things into perspective for them.

Whereas prior to that, oh my god the types of questions we were getting. You didn’t just ask me, “What am I going to do in the event of this worst-case scenario?” You just asked me, “What am I going to do if the space economy crashes?” Like, I can’t do anything if the space economy crashes! It was really unbelievable.

For other young founders, would you say it’s necessary to have that kind of business/intellectual muscle backing you up, not just financially, but also in a mentor way?

One thing that I can’t stand when people talk about our story, they’re like, “Oh, there was so much luck involved, like you happened to meet Peter Beck.” I didn’t happen to meet Peter Beck, and if I missed him at the ceremony, I would have continued to stalk him until I met him. I very intentionally went out to get his attention.

For other founders, I’m not saying they should chase down another CEO in their industry. But I think it can help to have an expert in the field, or someone who has credibility and clout, to back them up. It can make a huge difference, especially in deep tech or an industry where people expect you to have like 30 years of experience before touching it.

Do you have any advice for other founders who come right out of university with a startup idea?

I think the most difficult thing coming out of uni is switching that mindset from academic to business oriented. And so just be absolutely relentless when pushing into your market, and then just trying to say hello to anyone who will give you time. Also, there is no such thing as a stupid question. Like, just ask the stupid question.

What’s your biggest dream for Astrix?

It would be really, really cool if we had a huge power station in orbit, and then satellites can pass by to charge, like a gas station.

We also want to help power not just satellites but missions on Mars or the moon or even here on Earth. Like the military and defense need to go into isolated communities, and they take really large generators with them. They could just take this inflatable power system with them instead, set it up really easily, take it down again and keep moving.

Where do you think Astrix will be in a year?

Hopefully, we’ll have launched another three or four more real power systems that are going to be in orbit for more than a day and powering a real mission. We’ll be backing really cool customers that are trying to push their way into the market and are struggling to.