A Space Talent Spotlight Series Interview with Dan Ceperley, CEO of LeoLabs, former Program Manager at SRI International.
What have been your top career accomplishments so far?
The first major step was early in my career and the first time I tried management. I'd stepped out from being a technical contributor and led a small team at SRI International focused on space debris tracking. It forced me to step out of my comfort zone and lead the project to successful completion. I knew I was able to do good technical work, but that gave me the confidence to also lead a team and achieve big goals.
My management experience laid the foundation for me to launch LeoLabs. The act of raising my first round of funding was a huge change in what I'd been doing, it's intimidating when you start out and to actually have the business case come together was a big relief.
Probably my biggest accomplishment so far is the recent successes we’ve had at LeoLabs, which is the culmination of 10 to 12 years of work. Opening the Kiwi space radar and unlocking 2 cm resolution was big. We founded the company to deliver on that technology and now we’re able to support and provide useful information for a variety of customers involved in space activities. Seeing that kind of technology and all that work come to fruition and knowing that it was in part due to my efforts, but also in part due to the team that I helped to put together, is really rewarding.
What were the critical steps/choices that helped you get ahead?
The biggest changes have been a result of stepping out of my comfort zone and it came in a few ways. I tend to be a pretty technical person, both my nature and also by training. From the beginning, I realized that to be able to lead a team and pursue projects that really interested me was important. Throughout college and grad school, I did a number of internships at space and tech companies. I went to IBM for a summer, I worked at JPL and Ball Aerospace, as well as others. That was really helpful because I saw different organizations, different technical problems, and it gave me a sense of how to operate in different teams and also how to make transitions between different environments.
Another key decision was signing up for a few business classes during grad school. Just being in the environment, listening to the MBA students talk about leading businesses and running teams, was really useful. Then I started at SRI International and began moving into management - it was hugely important to have a framework to immediately begin applying and improving.
What part of your education had the most impact on your career?
I was fortunate to have some great mentors along the way. Starting my undergrad at the University of Virginia, I connected with Seth Silverstein who ultimately became a mentor and helped me identify a project that became the first paper I published. This set me on a track for a research competition I placed in and pushed my technical ambitions forward. And the same thing was true when I left research and launched LeoLabs. It was a combination of my boss at SRI International and the Head of SRI Ventures that provided really helpful guidance and, frankly, the opportunity to launch the company.
I had a number of points in my career where there was an opportunity, but I knew very little about it and a good mentor was able to point me in the right direction. A number of times I found people that were good mentors and in hindsight that made all the difference. At the start of any good adventure it's not fully clear where it will end, but if you have good mentors - a good team - it usually ends up in a good place and it'll at least be interesting and exciting along the way.
What about your career have you enjoyed the most and least?
I look back and realize that in a way, for awhile, I was stuck on these satellite tracking projects where we did similar research multiple times. We would achieve big things and realize we could deploy this, we could make it operational. And then the research funding would end and I would have to put it on a shelf and move on to something new. I felt stuck.
The most satisfying thing was launching LeoLabs and actually building some of our radars. I'd done the research piece. I knew how the research funding worked and that it wasn’t enough to get a technology fully operational. Then I realized that there was venture capital, which allowed me to take a giant leap forward. It's no longer just R and D, there's still a technology bet, but you actually start investigating the business model, and build a team around you. That was really exciting and really drove home the need to not only have the technology, but have all those other pieces to build a successful company. If you've got all those systems and teams and processes, the technology can be widely used and you can have a big impact.
In summary, coming out of the research world I was very focused on developing the tech, but there's actually a lot of other pieces required to build the business and they're very interesting in their own right.
Where do you see the most promising career opportunities in the future?
Focusing on the space industry, I'd say the really exciting opportunities are at the intersection of the software layer and the space industry. There's a lot of opportunities to participate in the space industry that weren't available before. For example, LeoLabs started out as a team of radar engineers, but we hired a bunch of software engineers because that's ultimately what made the radars useful. None of them were from the space industry, they're all from other industries. Some were making human resources software, and others came from the video game industry, some are from mobile advertising, and it turns out we needed all of them.
The space industry really needs talent from outside because they are bringing in modern computing and software practices to help push the space industry forward.
What advice/resources would you share with the next generation?
I would advise, especially technical people, to try project management, try launching a startup, or at least participating in one. These broader experiences and skills are super important and can also be very satisfying when it all comes together. For me, having that perspective, I think is hugely valuable in whatever you do. Going from a small team and scaling it up to a large organization and seeing various parts of the business is valuable. If I'd had that perspective earlier in my career, when I was working for a larger organization, I think I would have been more effective because I could have got involved in other aspects of the business like contracting, legal reviews, and increased my value to the business.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
The changes we're seeing in the space industry are once in a lifetime, it’s a fundamental re-architecting of space. If there was ever a time to try it, especially people outside the space industry, it's now! There's a lot of new investor money flowing in and really interesting ideas have gained enough momentum industry-wide now that the barriers are coming down. I really applaud some of the early movers, like SpaceX and Planet that were very early in this and broke down a lot of barriers. There's still a lot of change, it’s really dynamic, but jump in now.