CubeSats—A Disruptive Innovation
Technological innovation and the resulting scientific impact can relate to each other in a nonobvious way. It is obvious that a better computer can solve more complicated calculations, enabling better models to be run, which hopefully leads to more scientific insights. Thus, increased science impact can directly come from improved technology. There are, however, technology innovations that create a large impact in a nonobvious way: targeted application of technology can lead to new science, even if that technology performs at a lower level than the advanced technologies available. For example, a mass-spectrometer on a chip may have only 10 percent of the resolution and mass range of traditional instruments, but it can be carried on a balloon to make targeted measurements of pollution in places that traditional instruments cannot reach, leading to new science insights. Such targeted science applications often have huge commercial potential as well. It is the purpose of this chapter to introduce the theoretical foundation of disruptive innovation from innovation theory and to create a foundation for management recommendations later on.
In 1995, Clayton Christensen introduced the idea of disruptive innovation—distinguishing it from sustaining innovation—and defined it as the “process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.”1Figure 2.1 introduces the idea that has been used to describe many shifts in the economy, from the introduction of personal computers (that disrupted the mainframe computer industry), to cellular phones (that disrupted fixed line telephony), to smartphones (that continue disruption of multiple sectors, inter alia, computers, digital cameras, telephones, and GPS receivers). The term “disruptive” has also been misapplied, where any innovation that shakes up an industry or upsets previously successful incumbents is incorrectly called disruptive.
CubeSats meet many of the characteristics of a disruptive innovation. In this chapter, the committee discusses how and what that might mean for the future development of the platform.
CUBESATS AS A DISRUPTIVE PLATFORM
Disruptive innovations have unique characteristics that distinguish them from other types of innovation. At their start, for example, they have poorer performance than the current standard solution does. They are also significantly cheaper than is the status quo and target underserved or new applications or users. Their performance
1 C. Christensen, “Disruptive Innovation,” http://www.claytonchristensen.com/key-concepts/, accessed March 23, 2016; C. Christensen, 1997, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, Massachusetts.
improves rapidly and at low cost. They are typically introduced by a nonmainstream player, are advanced by an enabling technology, and follow business models not typically followed by incumbents. Examining the CubeSat paradigm along these dimensions indicates that CubeSats may be a disruptive innovation in the satellite sector. If CubeSats are a disruptive technology, then that has implications for the best way to manage their growth.
- At the start, has poorer performance than the status quo. Just as the early cameras on mobile phones were inferior to digital cameras but improved over time, CubeSats began with a threadbare set of capabilities, but today those capabilities are beginning to improve as the technology matures and the number of users increases. Indeed, some of the earliest CubeSats served rather limited on-orbit functions other than “beeping” back telemetry.
- Significantly cheaper than the status quo. While it has poorer performance, a mobile phone at about $500 provides users with a computing interface at a lower cost than for most computers. Similarly, although they are not as capable as traditional satellites, CubeSats are typically much cheaper than traditional satellites. Hardware for a basic Sputnik-type CubeSat can be purchased for only a few tens of thousands of dollars.
- Targets underserved or new application/user. Just as 3D printers are bringing in nontraditional manufacturers, such as members of the do-it-yourself “maker movement” as users, CubeSats are introducing students and other participants (e.g., information technology firms rather than aerospace firms) to space technology. TJ3Sat, for example, was the first satellite in history to be built by high school students.2 CubeSats are also introducing new functionalities (such as the ability to “stop and stare” at one bright Sun-like star to search for transiting exoplanets) often not feasible with traditional satellites. Most of all, by virtue of being able to launch low-cost constellations and swarms comprising hundreds or even thousands of data collection platforms, CubeSats have the potential to introduce entirely new architectures and ways to conceptualize space science.
2 Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, “CubeSat Experimental Satellite for Educational Outreach,” https://www.tjhsst.edu/students/activities/tj3sat/, accessed March 23, 2016.
- Performance improves rapidly and at low cost. Initially seen as a toy, 3D printers have seen speeds increase 500-fold. Another example of technologies improving rapidly is the PC company Compaq increasing its revenue more than tenfold and reaching parity with the industry leader, DEC, in only 12 years.3 Similarly, CubeSats that began as platforms for education or technology demonstration are increasingly being sought to supplement and supplant traditional satellites and spacecraft. NASA’s MarCO mission, for example, is an experimental capability designed to provide additional real-time relay communications to Earth from NASA’s Mars-bound InSight mission during entry, descent, and landing.4
- Typically introduced by a nonmainstream player. Streaming video was not introduced by any of the existing players in the home video market, but by a start-up firm, Netflix. Similarly, CubeSats did not emerge from the research and development laboratories of the powerhouse space companies—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrup Grumman—or even cutting-edge government laboratories; they were first proposed by researchers at Stanford University and California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly). Cal Poly, the institution where the CubeSat standard was created, was not a household name in the aerospace sector. All five of the winners of the first milestone of NASA’s Cube Quest Challenge are entrepreneurial entities within universities or relatively unknown companies in the aerospace sector.
- Typically advanced by an enabling technology. Netflix streaming was propelled by ubiquitous broadband Internet service. Similarly, CubeSats are being helped along by advances in non-space-related terrestrial, commercial technology areas: software advances, processing power, data storage, camera technology, compression, and solar array efficiency.
- Follow development models that are very different from those of incumbents. The Apple iPhone disrupted the laptop sector by building a facilitated network connecting application developers with phone users. Similarly, CubeSat platforms are being developed by university-based and private-sector entrepreneurs using low-cost off-the-shelf components, small teams, rapid iterations, and high-risk postures. Planet Labs’ CubeSats have gone through 12 generations of design since the firm was established in 2010, and the company claims that 20 percent of its CubeSats (called Doves) can fail in orbit without losing a meaningful amount of imaging capacity. This model is unprecedented in the risk-averse satellite sector.
As with other fields, the small size and standardized form factor and interfaces of CubeSats are key ingredients to accelerating innovation, rather than obstructing it.5 Standardization, in particular, ensures that CubeSats can be easily inserted into launch vehicles, lowering the overall cost of integration and launch. Standardization also allows companies to develop subsystems, such as powerboards, that can be useful for many CubeSat missions.
It is important to note that disruptive innovation often does not and need not replace the mainstream technology. Laptops today do not replace high-performance computers at the Department of Energy (DOE), for example. Large DOE computers excel at complex computations and speed, while laptops excel at affordability and ease of use. Similarly, large spacecraft excel at large-scale investigations, when, for example, several instruments need to be collocated. CubeSats excel at simple, focused, or short-duration missions and missions that need to be low cost or that require multipoint measurements.
There are lessons to be drawn from the literature on managing disruptive innovations.6 It can be difficult to manage disruptive innovations and traditional approaches in the same organization. Disruptive ideas prosper if
3 C. Christensen, M. Raynor, and R. McDonald, What is disruptive innovation?, Harvard Business Review, December 2015, https://hbr.org/2015/12/what-is-disruptive-innovation.
4 Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “Mars Cube One (MarCO),” http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/cubesat/missions/marco.php, accessed April 15, 2016.
5 It is often believed that standards obstruct innovation. The literature on the topic, however, points to the opposite. See P. Swann, 2010, “The Economics of Standardization: An Update,” https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/461419/The_Economics_of_Standardization_-_an_update_.pdf; K. Blind, 2013, “The Impact of Standardization and Standards on Innovation,” https://www.nesta.org.uk/sites/default/files/the_impact_of_standardization_and_standards_on_innovation.pdf; K. Blind and S. Gauch, 2009, Research and standardization in nanotechnology: Evidence from Germany, Journal of Technology Transfer 34(3):320-342.
6 Deloitte, 2013, Public Sector, Disrupted: How Disruptive Innovation Can Help Government Achieve More for Less,http://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/global/Documents/Public-Sector/dttl-ps-publicsectordisrupted-08082013.pdf.
there are champions within such organizations who allow for experimentation and risk-taking but, at the same time can also focus resources on promising applications, once their value becomes clear.7
CubeSats share many characteristics of disruptive innovations similar to innovations in other sectors (PCs in computing, 3D printing) in that they are initially more inexpensive than are traditional satellites, emerged outside the mainstream industry, target new capabilities or new users, and initially showed poor (but growing) performance.
The theory of disruptive innovation, therefore, provides some best practices with respect to enabling CubeSat innovations in support of science. A key element of disruptive innovation, and the principal reason for an often-unexpected evolutionary path, lies in the cultural tensions that arise from its development. A novel and innovative technology that is cheaper than are current systems is not always welcomed in organizations that are responsible for these status quo systems. For such innovations to live up to their potential, the management of disruptive innovations needs to be deliberate and cognizant of the issues that arise. Thus,
- CubeSat programs are likely to be best managed with a focus on decentralized development that enables innovation via a wide variety of approaches. At the same time, this management needs to identify and focus resources onto promising applications.
- At government agencies such as NASA, CubeSats may need a high-level champion who understands their potential importance as they evolve in capability and scope, recognizing that major breakthroughs can also emerge from outside of the government, especially if one or several CubeSat-based companies become commercially successful.
- Although investment and technological development in the commercial sector may be substantial, CubeSats may benefit from government support in areas such as standards development, deorbiting technologies, or other areas of research and development that may not be supported by mainstream satellite actors, creating clarity and growth for the entire sector.
- There are opportunities for the government to leverage commercial progress through the creation of public-private partnerships, such as data-buys, and joint developments.
- CubeSats are likely to evolve in more than one way, depending on specific applications and value to stakeholders. For CubeSats to achieve their potential, these evolutionary trajectories need to be recognized and addressed. Prematurely limiting what CubeSats can become will likely limit their impact.
The balance of this report, especially the conclusions and recommendations proposed by the committee, follow these principles and try to strike the balance between enabling where CubeSats are promising while also remaining cognizant of the fact that these developments have to fit into the funding systems of NASA and NSF and have to be balanced with other value systems and priorities.
7 Additional references: Z. Szajnfarber, M.G. Richards, and A.L. Weigel, 2011, Challenges to Innovation in the Government Space Sector, Defense Acquisition University, July, http://www.dau.mil/pubscats/PubsCats/AR%20Journal/arj59/Szajnfarber_ARJ59.pdf; C. O’Reilly III and M. Tushman, 2013, Organizational ambidexterity: Past, present, and future, Academy of Management Perspectives 27(4):324-338; C. Markides and W. Chu, 2009, Innovation through ambidexterity: How to achieve the ambidextrous organization, Chapter 19 in Handbook of Research on Strategy and Foresight (L.A. Costanzo and R.B. MacKay, eds.), Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, U.K., http://www.elgaronline.com/view/9781845429638.xml; D. Wood, S. Pfotenhauer, W. Glover, and D. Newman, 2013, Disruptive innovation in public service sectors: Ambidexterity and the role of incumbents, pp. 669-676 in Proceedings of the 8th European Conference on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Volume 2, Academic Conferences and Publishing International, Reading, U.K.