A new frontier: from NatWest Markets to outer-space start-up

Entrepreneur Rohit Jha is developing a space laser network to provide a super-fast internet connection for the world. He’s part of a new wave of space explorers and tech visionaries, but he explains why it’s not such a giant leap from his early career at NatWest Markets.

It cannot have escaped your attention that we’re living through a golden age of space exploration. The 50th anniversary of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins’s visit to the moon is the background to a number of sky-high initiatives, from New Horizons to SpaceX, satellites to mining. The difference this time round is that today’s space race mixes strategic advantage with science and commerce.

There are planned manned missions to Mars – a 34-million-mile trip. The BepiColombo mission, a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is travelling towards Mercury, the planet closest to the sun. It’s due to arrive in 2025, where it will encounter temperatures of more than 350°C and gather data for at least one year. NASA plans to establish a permanent human presence on the moon within the next decade to make scientific discoveries and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy. Oh, and there are plans for genuine space tourism.

Rohit Jha is one of the new wave of astropreneurs. Three years ago, he co-founded Transcelestial, a Singapore-based space and communications company. It plans to build a laser network in space and combine this with small (or ‘nano’) satellites. The aim: to provide ultra-fast broadband technology on earth. The planned broadband speed is up to 100 gigabytes per second – enough to fuel a new, hyper-fast generation of broadband internet access.

It’s a competitive industry. Add to that the challenges – logistical, intellectual, financial – of running a start-up. These grow exponentially when half of your business isn’t even on this planet.

Fortunately, Jha’s early career has prepared him for the challenges ahead. When he joined NatWest Markets as a graduate trainee, he was a technology analyst. The job involved analysing probabilities and exploring every possible angle for optimum outcomes, often in challenging and fast-changing conditions.

In trading, tiny margins − of fractions of a second − can make the difference between billions of dollars in profits or losses. Much depends on the algorithms − powerful computers running complex mathematical formulas for trading. The financial sector is a test bed for innovative technology.

"It was the most technical business team in the organisation, at the forefront of what was possible in technology,” Jha says. “I was fascinated by algorithmic and electronic trading. I was really lucky to be surrounded by very capable people – and the team was much more than the sum of the individuals in it."

Interstellar

After four years at NatWest Markets, Jha was ready for a new challenge. "I'd always wanted to start something on my own," he says. "My background is in electronics and computers. I'd also wanted to get back into hardware and move towards space tech innovation."

At university, Jha had worked on robotics, human-computer interaction and Singapore's first satellite. When he left NatWest Markets in 2015, he took a year out to focus on studies – the laws of physics and working on the edge of what is possible with current technology. He had an idea. “I started talking to an organisation that is looking at how we can send a satellite to our nearest star system," he says.

When Jha co-founded Transcelestial, no one could accuse him of thinking small or inside the box. Or indeed, the solar system.

"We wanted to build a company that solves the problem of how to communicate data back from a star system," he says. “We want to provide a much more scalable backbone infrastructure for the internet for the next 50 years of terrestrial and deep-space connectivity.”

One of the first industries that Jha is looking to work with is the financial sector. "A lot of the personal connections I have are from my time working in the FX industry," he says. "They’re invaluable now. And my knowledge of things like how undersea cable connectivity works is something I’ve been able to bring to my own company."

Contacts and connections

Over the coming years, Jha can use an analytical approach to explore the limitless possibilities of space. Who knows how many young graduates will be inspired to follow in his footsteps?