Just Call Him Mann, Julian Mann

Feb 24, 2012

Entrepreneur Julian Mann is a bit like a modern day James Bond. His hobbies include racing sailboats, SCUBA diving, and snowboarding. He interned at a small little outfit you may of heard of called NASA. And, he co-founded his company, Skybox Imaging, while doing his graduate research work at the Stanford Space Systems Development Lab (SSDL). 

Skybox, which makes small satellites that cost less to build and launch than traditional ones, was just named one of MIT’s 50 most innovative companies for 2012.

A recent article by Fast Company describes what Skybox does and why it’s revolutionary:

“…the three-year-old company is developing cheaper satellites that can take high-resolution photos of the entire surface of the Earth throughout the day and distill it into relevant data. Instead of building traditional satellites that last decades, Skybox offers a low-cost model. The satellites are easier to maneuver and can take high-res images several times a day, rather then once a year, which is common for costlier traditional satellites. Cost is in the tens of millions rather than $500 million, which is common for some of today’s larger satellites.”

When he’s not out pursuing blood-pumping hobbies or doing amazing high-tech science stuff, Mann is actively advocating on behalf of business on the need to reduce regulations.

Last November, he testified before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on behalf of the U.S. Chamber, and highlighted a few specific regulations that have impeded growth at Skybox, including the huge financial investment needed to get a necessary federal license:

“As a commercial earth observation satellite company, we must operate under NOAA, FCC & ITAR regulation. Each one of these has presented its own set of challenges in our growth. For example, in obtaining a license from the FCC to operate an earth observation satellite a company must post a $5 million surety bond. While this may not be overly burdensome for a traditional imaging satellite program, which costs over $500 million, our satellites are over an order of magnitude less expensive, resulting in greater than 10% of the overall program cost being consumed by a federal licensing bond. This is a very difficult challenge for a new venture being funded with equity dollars to weather.”

He also told members about his difficulty in getting certain parts, again, thanks to the heavy-handed regulations:

“As a satellite manufacturing company, virtually everything done by our engineering organization is governed under the ITAR. Even the most benign mechanical bracket can only be manufactured by an ITAR certified machine shop. The vast majority of local machine shops are not ITAR certified, and have no interest in becoming certified due to the high cost, burdensome documentation requirements, and increased liability. As a result we have an artificially reduced supply market, which has resulted in our manufacturing costs being increased by a factor of ten. Furthermore, these machine shops are typically very busy, which means we have a lead-time that is two to three times longer than if we were operating in a less regulated industry.”

Mann called for a more reasonable regulatory environment that doesn’t treat each and every business like they’re evil characters in a James Bond movie:

“…it is important to remember is that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution when it comes to reducing regulatory burden for entrepreneurs. What are needed, however, are mechanisms to help entrepreneurs re-cast these issues as blockers to innovation, with the ultimate goal of alleviating the regulatory burden. No one wants to inhibit innovation within our nation, yet it is incredibly expensive and difficult for entrepreneurs to interact with the federal government. At Skybox we have spent thousands of man-hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars solely trying to better understand the regulations that are relevant to us, and educate regulators about what we are doing and how we are doing things differently. We are the lucky ones; we are well financed and have comparatively strong ties to the federal government. Many other entrepreneurs are not so lucky.” 


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