Interview with Laura Crabtree, Co-Founder and CEO of Epsilon3
For this week's SpaceDotBiz issue, I'm sharing my first interview with an early-stage startup founder and operator, Laura Crabtree. Laura, formerly with SpaceX, is co-founder and CEO of Epsilon3, a company building procedure and operations software for spacecraft and complex engineering. Epsilon3’s platform helps operators innovate reliably and securely at speed and scale, reducing errors and saving time and money. The company is one of the rare startups tackling space problems with an entirely software solution. Epsilon3 is seed-funded and participated in the Summer 2021 batch of the notable startup accelerator Y-Combinator.
Before Epsilon3, Laura spent 15 years as an aerospace engineer, first as a Systems Engineer with Northrop Grumman and then as a Mission Operations Engineer at SpaceX. At SpaceX she was part of the development and operations of the Crew Dragon missions that flew the first NASA astronauts on a commercially developed launch vehicle and capsule.
We chatted about the transition from an engineer to a founder in the space industry, solving space problems with software solutions, what she's most excited about in the space industry, and much more!
What are some of the projects you'd highlight from your time at SpaceX and Northrop Grumman?
My first job at Northrop I almost never talk about, so it's fun that I get to talk about it here. I was a Risk Manager on a program that was in its development phase, so we were still writing proposals. And I think that sort of shaped the rest of my career, because I realized I didn't only want to be writing proposals until the end of time. However, I did develop a unique perspective on how projects are developed and how you look to buy down technical risk in early program stages. That was really important for me in future roles at Northrop and SpaceX.
My next project at Northrop was an operational program where I was tasked with reviewing an anomaly and building a fault tree of all scenarios that could have contributed to that anomaly. That led to my next job moving overseas to the UK with Northrop working in operations. I was on an ops floor doing 24/7 operations, which ultimately led to my next gig in Mission Operations at SpaceX.
My passion for joining SpaceX was driven both by wanting to take on more risks and challenges, but also wanting to contribute to the future of human spaceflight. At the time in 2009, SpaceX had signed the deal for taking cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and I wanted to be a part of that.
I talk about it a lot, but my proudest moment at SpaceX came when we first got to the ISS. Afterward, one of the flight safety engineers approached me and said, "Laura, just wanted to say 'Thank you.' That felt just like a simulation." That was a very proud moment for me because it was not only the culmination of all of this hard work, but it was also a validation that all our work in preparation gave us the confidence to operate safely and effectively to get cargo to the ISS.
My next project was in laying the groundwork for getting humans to the ISS. The SpaceX Dragon vehicles for cargo and crew are very very different, but the foundation for operations that we laid early on in 2009 to 2018 was very pivotal in getting us to an operational landscape that allowed for humans to reach the space station on a commercially developed SpaceX vehicle.
What motivated you to found your own company in the space industry, Epsilon3?
Epsilon3 was founded based on a number of challenges I saw during my career in space. I worked obviously at a very large company, Northrop, and then at a startup, SpaceX, which most people don’t consider a startup anymore. I saw how really good operational tools could help push people faster and help teams re-engineer systems and vehicles. After leaving SpaceX, I talked to a number of people who all said the same thing; that they don't have really good operational tools or that they use Excel or Python scripts.
I wanted to empower the industry. Epsilon3 is the result of that. It wasn't me saying that I have to start a company. It came from a desire to solve these problems for all the people I know in the space industry.
Can you share more about Epsilon3's product and the value you provide to your customers?
Epsilon3 is a SaaS platform for companies to write, edit, run, and then have records of all of their operations. So you can think of it as an electronic procedure system that you can integrate your command and telemetry, requirements, a ticketing system, part numbers, and more. You can integrate all of that into Epsilon3, so you have all of the information in one place. It's going to help you communicate better across your team and help reduce mistakes in the future.
Many founders choose to participate in accelerator programs to help their startups mature. What made you decide to participate in an accelerator and Y-Combinator in particular?
Early on at Epsilon3, we talked a lot about accelerators, mostly while saying to ourselves, "We understand the problem and the industry, but how do you build a business around this problem and how do you give the company the highest chance to succeed going forward?" With that in mind, I read a lot of startup books and newsletters. One of my advisors said to me, "These books are great, but have you ever thought about joining an accelerator?"
There were a couple of different accelerators we were looking at and Y-Combinator was kind of a no-brainer once we got in. When we interviewed and they accepted, I thought to myself, "If I'm going to build a business, I'm not going to have time to go to business school anymore, so this is the best possible way to learn how to build and scale." Y-Combinator really provided help in that path for myself and my two co-founders.
Epsilon3 is one of a handful of space companies focusing purely on software. What are some of the dynamics that are different or the same with building a software rather than hardware-enabled space company?
For a hardware company, the metrics and growth needed to show success are very different from those for a software company. We are a space-focused company with a SaaS-type business model. As a result, looking at the Software as a Service business model and applying it to the space industry is not something that I think many companies have done. So we're having to understand the technical aspect of what we're building and how it applies to the industry, as well as the SaaS model and how it applies to space. We don't fit into any of the molds, which is sort of the story of my life so it's fine.
Early on at Epsilon3, you considered bootstrapping the business, which is a rare path in space given the capital intensity of the industry. How did you consider that route and what ultimately led to raising capital from venture investors?
The bootstrapping idea came because our three founders started talking to tons of people and thought, "Well, we can build something quickly and get people on board sooner rather than later." Over time it became clear that we needed to add a couple more people to the team and the route to venture was an easy decision when we realized we needed to hire people. Obviously, I can't hire people and not pay them, so bootstrapping went out the window as soon as we looked to add people to the team.
Any advice for other potential space engineers considering starting their own company?
The thing that I think about a lot when looking at the various space startups out there is that you have to solve a problem. Number one, you have to look at the problem and question is this a big enough problem that people are going to pay money for? Number two, why are you the right person to start this business and not your neighbor or the person you became friends with at your last job?
Looking at those two things and comparing what you're building to the competition is really important. So first, have a problem, and second, be the unique person that is qualified to build the solution.
What are you most excited about for the future of the space industry.
Wow, it changes daily. Today I think it's in Earth observation with respect to what we can learn about the Earth that we don't know yet. People often talk about space in the context of going to Mars or deep space. I think that's really exciting, but I also think that a lot of times we overlook the things we don't yet know about our own planet. I would love to learn more about our own planet and I would love for people to have a deeper appreciation for this planet we live on. I think space gives people a unique perspective on that.
A second thing I'm really excited about is more people seeing Earth from space, which I think is coming in the next couple of years. You've got lots of human spaceflight companies and lots of companies focused on building either vehicles or space stations that are more accessible to a more general population or the science community.