Life after Delft: dreaming big

Less than two years after graduating from TU Delft, Christina Aas is the managing director and co-founder of two aerospace companies: Namisat and the Norwegian branch of S&T Corps.

She talks to Delta about her experiences as a female engineer and entrepreneur, the challenges of starting a company and the importance of dreaming big.

Christina Aas, 26, originally from Oslo, Norway, graduated from the Aerospace Engineering’s Space Systems Engineering department in June 2009. Her MSc thesis project - a conceptual design tool for nano- and micro-satellites called Scales - became the basis of her own startup company, Namisat, focused on systems engineering products and services.  Additionally, Aas co-founded the Norwegian branch of S&T (Science & Technology) Corps, a company specialising in consultancy and software engineering.

In your last Delta interview, you said you wanted to be a Systems Engineer working for ESA. How and why have your ambitions changed since then?
“My ambitions haven’t changed, just grown: I still want to be a Systems Engineer, only instead of dreaming of being an ESA employee I’m doing it for my own company. While presenting the results of my MSc thesis at conferences, I was positively surprised by the feedback from the community, indicating that the kind of tool I had developed didn’t exist and the market was interested. I’d always had the ambition to start my own company but initially wasn’t sure how to do it. Then I did International Space University’s Summer Space Studies Program, following courses in space business and management, which ultimately gave me the confidence to believe I could start my own space company and make it successful.”

How did Namisat become a reality? 
“My employers at S&T overheard my plans and were very supportive of the idea. The company generally backs innovative ideas and spin-offs. Then I explained my idea at the Aerospace Engineering faculty’s SSE department and, again, they were very accommodating: TU Delft likes to see students make something from their MSc thesis projects. All this support was very encouraging. I wouldn’t have been able to do this on my own. 

In September 2010 I started the S&T branch in Norway, so it made sense to kill two birds with one stone and start up Namisat as well, in the same location.” 

What are the challenges of starting a new company?
“The biggest challenge is showing that you exist and are capable of providing products and services that can add value for your potential clients. Generating the first set of contracts without previous experience can be difficult: nobody needs anything from you because so far they’ve survived without your help. So it’s really up to you to put yourself forward and prove that you have a certain expertise that they need.

So it’s the chicken-and-egg problem?
“Indeed, with new companies it’s always the chicken-and-egg problem of getting contracts while you don’t have employees, or getting employees and making them wait for contracts. I’m trying to work in parallel: negotiating contracts while actively looking for interns and employees for both companies. I’m also attending numerous conferences to represent my companies, learning about recent developments and meeting other parties in the field. It’s almost detective work, searching for overlaps between our field and other companies’ activities to find ways to collaborate. It’s hard work but lots of fun.”

Can you briefly describe the Scales tool?
“It’s a conceptual design tool for nano- and micro-satellites weighing between 1 and 50 kilograms. It allows a great flexibility because it’s not necessarily linked to a database with a limited amount of components, but instead allows for using design estimation relationships to get an entire satellite design, down to the mass of the data cables and electrical wires, with just a few simple inputs. It’s not a tool to automatically generate a satellite design, because I wanted to leave the important design choices to the engineer. Instead, it helps to speed up the process: with this tool an engineer can do a feasibility study during a 15-minute coffee break, which otherwise would’ve taken a full work week to complete through the traditional manual design approach.”

As a female engineer and space entrepreneur, do you face any challenges in the male-dominated sphere of work? 
“Honestly, not at all. I initially had that fear since there are few women in top-level positions, so we might not be able to pull each other up, but I think the world has come to a good place where we’re all equal. If anything being a woman in this field can be advantageous in that people remember you more simply because you stand out in the crowd.” 

Many working women face the challenge of balancing their work and family lives. Is this an issue for you? 
“I’m a member of a women’s network called, ‘Women in Aerospace Europe’, and we had that discussion at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Prague last fall. One of my business associates at S&T has four children, and she runs the company. Another woman who was part of the discussion had two kids and ran a company. So we were saying that we should make it clear to other women that it’s fully possible to combine family life and work life if you’re good at planning, delegating and prioritizing. Currently I don’t have a family, so I can put lots of my time and effort into starting two companies, but I’m also not working 24/7. It’s important that it be possible to run a family and a company at the same time, and I’m not excluding any plans of having children in future.”

You wanted to be an astronaut. Have you set that dream aside? 
“I love to dream big. It’s fun to dream, and whether the exact dream happens or not doesn’t matter - it’s the process of envisioning new things for you that’s important. I learned that it’s equally interesting to develop the technologies we use to send astronauts into space, and that space technology can be used to gain knowledge about how to take care of our Earth. So I’m perfectly happy being an engineer or researcher in this field, but if I’m ever offered a ticket to space I’m saying ‘Yes’!”

De Landelijke Studentenvakbond deed onderzoek naar de huurprijs van studentenkamers. Op de website konden studenten allerlei vragen beantwoorden over hun ‘onzelfstandige’ woonruimte zonder eigen voordeur en huisnummer en met gedeelde voorzieningen als toilet, douche en keuken.

De brandveiligheid houdt nog altijd te wensen over, maar de situatie gaat vooruit. In 2007 had een op de drie studenten geen rookmelder. Nu hangt bij 71 procent van de studenten ergens een rookmelder en bij 36 procent hangt er zelfs een rookmelder op elke verdieping. Alleen weet slechts één op de vijf studenten precies waar het blusmateriaal ligt en hoe je het moet gebruiken. De rest heeft geen brandslang in huis of weet niet waar die hangt.

Te veel huur

Dinsdag 11 mei meldde de LSVb al dat twee op de drie studenten te veel huur betalen, als je het puntensysteem van de huurcommissie volgt. Die groep groeit: drie jaar geleden, toen het onderzoek voor het eerst werd gedaan, was de huur in veertig procent van de gevallen te hoog. Gemiddeld betalen studenten nu 65 euro meer dan het wettelijk toegestane maximumbedrag, wat neerkomt op jaarlijks 784 euro. Omgerekend is dat drie maanden extra huur.

De hoogste huren blijken in Den Bosch te worden betaald (285 euro), maar daar zijn de kamers dan ook het grootst: gemiddeld 18,45 vierkante meter. Verrassend genoeg zijn de prijzen in Enschede en Hengelo (272 euro) even hoog als in Amsterdam, waar de kamers gemiddeld wat kleiner zijn. In Utrecht ligt de kamerhuur zelfs onder het gemiddelde.

Nijmegen komt het slechtst uit de test: driekwart van de studenten betaalt daar gemiddeld 78 euro te veel. Het enige pluspunt is dat de gemiddelde huurprijs (266 euro) wel onder het landelijke gemiddelde ligt. De ‘zeer actieve’ huurteams in Nijmegen zijn wellicht onvoldoende bekend onder studenten, veronderstelt de LSVb.

De gemiddelde huurprijs is in dit onderzoek bijna tachtig euro lager dan bij de website Kamernet, maar daar zijn de kamerprijzen inclusief gas, water en licht. Waarom Enschede volgens Kamernet relatief zeer goedkoop is en in het eigen onderzoek juist heel duur, weet de LSVb niet.