The Exploration Blueprint: Learnings from Hélène Huby's Entrepreneurial Choices and Strategies
When Hélène Huby left Airbus in 2021 to start her own space company, The Exploration Company, she was betting on a new vision for the future of the industry. With plans to launch its first two reusable space capsules in 2024, Exploration has raised more than €40 million in funding in just two years, and won contracts worth much more.
Hélène's journey from aerospace giant to startup provides important lessons for anyone looking to innovate in this fast-paced industry. At its core, it's about making space more human - away from the astronaut, towards the astronaut.
Hélène Huby, founder and CEO of The Exploration Company, is a pivotal figure in European space technology. Leveraging her experience as the former Director of Innovation at Airbus Defence & Space, she has infused her startup with invaluable expertise. The Exploration Company recently raised a record €40.5 million in a Series A funding round, attracting a diverse array of high-profile investors. Huby's leadership is instrumental in positioning Europe as a significant player in the next era of space exploration. As a board member and early supporter of SpaceFounders, and having recently given a session to Cohort 4, Huby's insights are not just visionary but also immediately actionable for aspiring entrepreneurs in the space sector. So here is the blueprint for new space and how Hélène Huby is reimagining space.
Selling befoe you fly
Unlike the traditional players, Hélène took a pragmatic approach right from the start: win customers as early as possible, even if the technology is not yet 100% perfected. The Exploration company sold its first missions when it had little more than PowerPoints and CAD models to show for it. Hélène began pitching potential clients just 6 months after founding Exploration.
Some space startups wait years before engaging customers. But Hélène Huby sold 15% of her earliest capsule capacity over lunch for €5,000 per seat. This allowed The Exploration Company to validate its business case and raise seed funding.
As Hélène Huby explains, "I think what was successful here is that first we put a price...And then in my first lunch I sold, I think 15% of our capacity for 5000 euro." By being able "to sell something, which is a first step towards the product of the service," young companies can gain investor confidence.
The early bookings also helped to secure funding.
In contrast to the often technocratic industry, Hélène Huby also focuses on human needs. The goal: to give everyone easy access to space, to arouse curiosity, to open up new perspectives. What counts is the benefit to the passenger.
From astronaut to astronaut
In the long term, Hélène aims to make space travel more humane and more useful to society on Earth. New perspectives lead to new ideas that take us forward. By opening up space to more people, Exploration is investing in our collective future.
Hélène Huby is also committed to transparency and a healthy mistrust of established structures vis-à-vis government agencies in Europe. She regularly provides insight into finances and risks to build credibility.
Her aim is to create a critical mass of committed "advocates" in the authorities. This is the only way to break down entrenched structures and make new approaches possible. For Hélène Huby, it is clear that the future belongs to collaboration, not one-sided, top-down decisions.
By bringing customers on board early, being radically transparent and part of a movement, Exploration is making space more human. This is not about shooting supermen into space in tin capsules, but about opening up new perspectives that will benefit us all. Hélène Huby's vision is nothing less than the democratisation of space.
Out Among the Stars: The Audacious Journey of Space Tech Founder Hélène Huby
Hélène Huby's journey from aerospace giant to successful startup founder reveals important lessons for anyone seeking to innovate in this fast-moving sector. Chief among them: start selling from day one, build government relationships through transparency, and let commercial clients lead the way.
On leaping before you look
The Exploration company's strategy has been to "derisk the main risks" by building and testing capabilities long before the final product is ready. As Hélène explains, "We have one way which is to say, okay, we go to the final vehicle directly and then it will take five years and it will not fly before five years. And you have a lot of risk if you do that because there are many unknowns on the road," Hélène states. Instead, they are incrementally proving their technology in space while courting customers and investors.
This approach has allowed The Exploration Company to quickly demonstrate progress. "In our case, the biggest risk is reentry, because that’s something Europe has done three times in the whole space history of Europe. And we never had in Europe a product which reenters on the recurring basis," says Hélène Huby. By focusing first on building and launching reentry test capsules, The Exploration company can "very fast prove to your investors that you’re on time, you’re on cost, you’re on quality, and that you have clients."
This leap of faith by the first customers forced the team to actually build the promised capsules.
For government space agencies, Hélène Huby has found transparency and relationship-building to be key. She shares detailed financials, risks, and delays with agencies each quarter: "I am showing exactly my cash position, exactly my NASA risk metrics, my delays, my planning, et cetera, on a quarterly basis."
Her goal is to cultivate 20 "champions" within each agency: "If you have one or two champion, this is very risky. Like the day the person changes job or like is ill or whatsoever, then you lose your access. If you have 20 people, that’s a critical mass."
Nurturing relationships with top decision-makers has allowed Exploration to shape policy and funding in its favor. Rather than complaining about slow bureaucracies, Hélène Huby focuses on "building desire" and realizing shared dreams. As she says, "This is bringing a lot of trust."
Let Commercial Drive
Somewhat counterintuitively, Exploration's first major contract came not from European government agencies, but from US-based private space station startup Axiom Space. As Hélène Huby explains, "The first big client with whom we signed our first contract is Axiom Space. So let’s say the first private space station."
She has used this deal to push Europe to move faster on exploration funding. But commercial sales remain Exploration's oxygen. With agencies often slow and risk-averse, private sector customers force the rapid iteration and development investors seek.
Hélène Huby's advice to space founders: "I don’t think you can neglect your home," but commercial traction is critical. As she says, "If I’m not number one in Europe, I’m lacking half of my equity story."
Hélène Huby is charting a bold course among the stars, guided by her vision but shaped by early customer needs. By starting small, being ambitiously transparent, and letting commercial opportunities flourish, she has put Exploration on the path to success. For European space entrepreneurs, her journey proves the wisdom of addressing market needs first and perfect technology later.
Breaking new ground
The Exploration Company is also breaking new ground in technology, with an eye to the future and to people. For example, the company is focusing on reusable space capsules to reduce costs and increase sustainability.
It is also working on green hydrogen propulsion systems to reduce the environmental impact of launches. For Hélène Huby, one thing is clear: space must quickly improve its carbon footprint to remain socially acceptable. Only then can it fulfil its potential for humanity.
Here again, Hélène Huby's pragmatic approach is evident: instead of relying on established but harmful technologies like the big players, Exploration is boldly breaking new ground. They start small, but focus on the big picture from the start.
This philosophy permeates the entire business. The Exploration Company enters into partnerships on an equal footing, bringing small players and start-ups on board at an early stage. The belief is that innovation comes from collaboration.
The corporate culture is also characterised by trust and integrity. Transparency and risk awareness are emphasised, and hierarchies are broken down. The best ideas count, not the highest rank.
For Hélène Huby, this is the only way to create something truly new in this fast-moving industry. Thinking boldly about the future without ignoring people is the Exploration philosophy.
A philosophy that, in the long run, can change not only space, but society as a whole, for the better. After all, we must all become astronauts.
Rediscovering the moon
In the long term, Hélène Huby has even bigger plans than commercial flights into Earth orbit. Exploration wants to take humanity back to the moon - but in a completely new way.
Instead of colonialist symbolic politics, this time the focus is on scientific exploration, international cooperation and participatory research. The Exploration Company's lunar missions will bring people together and open a new chapter in peaceful space exploration.
Again, the focus is on benefits for people on Earth. In addition to scientific knowledge, it is hoped that a lunar base will lead to technological breakthroughs that will help us in areas such as energy, medicine and environmental protection.
For Hélène Huby, space travel is not an end in itself, but a tool to improve life on our planet. She aims to create affordable and clean rockets, transparent democracies and scientific cooperation. This is what Europe needs more then anything else: Visionaries like Hélène Huby, who are able to set a vision and make it work.
Make space a little more human.
The greatest breakthroughs come not in spite of high ideals, but because of them. Hélène Huby and The Exploration Company can be role models for a new age of space tech.
As The Exploration Company sets an example for the industry, we've turned it into a Harvard Business School case study. Future space leaders, come and learn.
Launching a New Space Venture Case Study
In 2021, veteran aerospace executive Hélène Huby left her role as Vice President of the Orion ESM program at Airbus to found her own commercial space startup, Exploration. Within two years, Exploration raised over €40 million in funding, won a €165 million worth of contracts, and was on track to launch its first reusable space capsules in 2024.
This case study will analyze Hélène Huby's key strategic decisions in:
Crafting Exploration's technology roadmap
Securing early customers
Navigating government relationships
This case study evaluates Hélène Huby's entrepreneurial strategies and their applicability to other new ventures.
Key Strategic Decisions
Unlike traditional aerospace firms that perfect technology before seeking customers, Hélène Huby consciously chose an incremental "test as you fly" strategy focused on derisking the biggest technological unknowns first. For Exploration, this meant building reentry test capsules early to prove out reusable capsule technology, a novel capability in Europe. This approach allowed Exploration to rapidly validate capabilities and attract customers and investors sooner.
Was a pragmatic, incremental technology strategy the right choice given Exploration's goals and constraints? What tradeoffs did this entail?
To raise Exploration's seed round with little more than a PowerPoint deck, Hélène Huby sold 15% of the capacity on their first capsule missions over lunch meetings. This small paid customer base helped validate Exploration's market opportunity and forecasted economics.
Should other early-stage ventures follow this playbook of "selling before building" to demonstrate traction? What downsides or risks could this create?
Huby sold Exploration's first missions at a 80% discount, promising fixed pricing and launch dates. This approach successfully attracted government and corporate buyers eager for affordable tests and research time in space.
How can new ventures attract early customers at discounted but minimally viable price points? Is Huby's fixed-date promise smart or risky?
To build relationships with European space agencies, Hélène Huby engaged in consistent transparency, sharing detailed financials and risks to gain trust. She strived to cultivate 20 "champions" in each agency.
What strategies beyond transparency can effectively cultivate government partnerships? How could these be tailored to specific agencies?
In summary, Hélène Huby made astute strategic choices in positioning The Exploration Company's capabilities, narrative, and partnerships to align with investor and customer needs in the new space economy.
By analyzing this early phase of The Exploration Company's journey, we can discern promising strategies and potential pitfalls for any space tech entrepreneur striving to strategically position a new venture in a capital-intensive, rapidly changing industry. Huby's experience offers an instructive model both for the space sector specifically and ambitious startups generally.