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"A Launching Pad for Space Entrepreneurs"

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    A Launching Pad for Space Entrepreneurs By Ellen McCarthy Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page E01
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      A Launching Pad for Space Entrepreneurs

      By Ellen McCarthy
      Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page E01


      Guillermo Soehnlein was one of those kids who grew up stargazing and dreaming of space travel.

      As an adult, though, he found his first success starting and selling a California company that made speech-recognition technology.

      He moved to Washington in late 2001 so his small children could be closer to their grandparents. As he drove across the country, contemplating his next career move, Soehnlein's thoughts kept orbiting back to that childhood passion: space. In Washington, he reasoned, amid the giant aerospace firms and the government space agencies, he would surely find like-minded entrepreneurs -- people who bounced ideas off of each other and shared tips on new opportunities and resources in the space industry.

      His goal was to make friends with these people, learn the ropes from others who had started space businesses, figure out what was needed in the industry and launch a start-up.

      "I realized that I wanted to start a space company, but I didn't know the first thing about the space business," said Soehnlein, 38. "And starting a company is all about who you know and who you can bring into the business."

      His plans were derailed at step one -- finding compatriots who were trying to start their own space-oriented ventures. Soehnlein knew they must be around, but there was nothing to bring them together. So for the past 20 months, he has been setting up an organization intended to create a community of start-up executives in the space and satellite industries.

      Soehnlein founded the International Association of Space Entrepreneurs, which launched its first chapter in Washington in April 2003.

      At the first IASE meeting, just six people showed up. Twenty came to the next, and 75 attended the third. About 500 people have signed up to receive IASE's monthly online newsletters, and entrepreneurs in Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta have set up their own regional chapters.

      Some of the members are merely thinking about starting businesses and want to learn the basics, Soehnlein said, but others are further along and are interested in finding out whom to approach for venture capital.

      One of the first members, Steven Fisher, runs a small Reston firm called SlipStream Aerospace Inc. that makes software to help control private jets. He joined IASE because he is already scheming about his next start-up, and though he doesn't yet have a specific plan, he is intent on breaking into the space industry.

      "It's a great way for me to learn the business and get to know the players," Fisher says. And, he added, "I'm just a fan of the space industry. I love space and I want to help foster entrepreneurship in the community."

      The Washington area has bigger, more established organizations for those who work in the space industry, such as the Washington Space Business Roundtable and the Space Foundation, which works to promote public appreciation of space programs. Soehnlein said most members of those groups are already well-situated in large aerospace companies, such as Boeing Co., or satellite firms, such as Intelsat Ltd.

      Rather than view Soehnlein's group as a rival, the established organizations have embraced it.

      "It's an idea that's long overdue," said Roscoe Moore, chairman of the WSBR. "It could really fill a niche that nobody has filled before."

      Moore is an entrepreneur in the satellite industry. His Silver Spring start-up, PeerSatInc. sells technology that helps deliver satellite content to portable devices. The challenges for entrepreneurs in this industry are great, Moore says, in part because it often takes so much capital to go from concept to delivery.

      Soehnlein said that once he started talking about his new organization, he encountered "closeted" space entrepreneurs at every turn. Some had far-out plans to build habitats in outer space, while others had already established software companies and were interested in finding out how to get in front of procurement officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

      Among those Soehnlein looks up to as leaders in the next generation of space entrepreneurs, Peter H. Diamandis tops the list. Soehnlein was a rapt listener at a recent WSBR meeting, nodding slightly as Diamandis matter-of-factly declared that people will die in the quest to commercialize space travel.

      "We've got to embrace failures. We've got to embrace risks," Diamandis told the button-down business crowd in a ballroom at the University Club. "Space is the greatest frontier -- our children and grandchildren will thank us."

      Diamandis gained attention as chairman of the X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit that sponsored a competition promising $10 million to the first group of entrepreneurs to launch three people into space on privately financed rockets twice within two weeks. Diamandis has started a dozen space companies and says he made lots of mistakes along the way -- in part because there was no one to ask when he had questions about the business.

      He lives mostly in California now, but one of the companies Diamandis helped found, SpaceAdventures Ltd., is based in Arlington. It organizes space-training and simulation programs and has sent two private citizens into space on Russian rockets. He said he hopes entrepreneurial ventures in the space industry will be encouraged by efforts like SpaceAdventures' and by groups such as Soehnlein's organization.

      Soehnlein said he spends about 20 hours a week on his International Association of Space Engineers. Next month, the group plans to launch a revamped Web site at www.spaceentrepreneurs.org with a library of resources to answer questions, event listings, member directories and message boards.

      As for his own dreams, Soehnlein is working as a vice president at Aptela Inc., a McLean telecom start-up. His plans to start his own space business are on hold for now.

      But spending so much time thinking and talking about space has made him more eager than ever to get into the game. And now, at least, he knows a few folks in the industry.

      Ellen McCarthy writes about the local tech scene every other Thursday. Her e-mail address is mccarthye@....

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