2020 April-May Analysis

Investor spotlight: the Georgian spacesuit that will work like magic on Mars

Elven Technologies is shooting for the stars by hoping their innovative approach to spacesuit design may make the first manned mission to Mars a reality.

Elven Technologies wants to build the spacesuit that will send humankind to Mars.

The spacesuits we currently have? Won’t do. They can weigh up to 200kg, which is alright when you’re in open space (no gravity), or on the moon (about a sixth of Earth’s gravity), but Mars, which has a bit more than a third of Earth’s gravity, is a different story.

The company is working against the clock. Elon Musk wants to get a manned mission to Mars by 2024 with SpaceX. And so when Elven Technologies came together back in April 2019, it recognized the immediacy of the task.

But just like the journey to Mars itself, the road to developing a suit that will work on the red planet is a long one, and so Elven Technologies is approaching the task by dividing it into parts.

“We want to be a part of this new frontier of exploration. So we decided to take the problem apart, piece by piece, and innovate in each technology to gradually improve upon the suit. We realized that if we built the first two easiest technologies and combined them into a suit, we could make a product for earth that would generate revenue, and thus lead us towards the production of a space suit”, Elven Technologies founder, CEO and High Elder Vamekh Kherkheulidze says.

Elven Technologies is currently working on two of 10 technologies that will need to be perfected before a Mars suit will be viable: heat resistance and a cooling system.

On the Martian landscape, there is barely an atmosphere or magnetic field to stop the sun’s rays, and humans on the surface would be exposed to both intense heat and radiation.

Kherkheulidze says it’s conceivable that you could have a situation on Mars in which “on one side, where you are standing in the sun, it might be 100 – 150 degrees, whereas on the other it’ll be negative 100 – 150. That’s the problem to be solved.”

Once the suit comes together in about six months, Elven Technologies plans to cooperate with local firefighters, who will test the suit in both laboratory and field conditions, after which they may begin to use the suit themselves.

Elven claims its current prototype in laboratory conditions can withstand flames and temperatures up to 1,200 degrees Celsius for at least 30 minutes (!), compared to the 8-10 seconds of protection afforded by conventional firefighter suits – that’s about 180 times longer protection.

With a viable product in hand, Elven Technologies plans to move the firefighting suit to foreign markets, establishing a revenue stream to continue its chain of innovations.

But moving from a fire suit to a spacesuit is a long game, and the startup realized they would need enormous support along the way.

“When we set out, we asked ourselves the question – can we even do this? We saw that the major reason the suit didn’t exist yet was not the lack of expertise, it was the lack of desire to go there – the problem is that science is not a process dedicated to speed. It’s not market driven. Science is done for its own sake”, Kherkheulidze says.

Elven Technologies thus chose a startup business model to attack the problem.

“With a startup, you don’t have the possibility of researching for 10 years, you will fail. That’s why SpaceX has progressed so much in so little time, because it is a private company. It relies on revenue and not on grants. And that’s why NASA now uses SpaceX to fly to the space station”, Kherkheulidze points out.

Elven Technologies bootstrapped itself and shortly thereafter received a 100,000 GEL grant from the Georgian Innovation and Technology Agency (GITA). A further 30,000 euro grant from the EU’s CBRN (Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear) Risk Mitigation Initiative helped the company stay on its feet as it moved towards a buildable prototype.

Kherkheulidze says the company needs another 700,000 USD to achieve its goal, of which $400,000 will be private investment. The company hopes to receive a 650,000 GEL grant from the Georgian Innovation and Technology Agency later this year.

Perhaps surprisingly, given local investors’ reticence to getting involved in large-scale and risky projects, some of this money the company plans to source from private investors in Georgia.

“There are private investors in the country willing to invest in exciting projects, but this is a fairly new development. You have to get out there, talk to everyone you can. Not because you are likely to find the investor yourself – but because once the word is out there, if you’ve something worth investing in, they’ll find you”, Kherkheulidze says.

The question of financing has been a persistent one for Elven Technologies as it is for any startup, but one they have addressed by asking the question: ‘would we invest in the company if we weren’t the founders?’

Elven Technologies founders Vamekh Kherkheulidze, Giorgi Gabarashvili and Sandro Chubinidze

“In the beginning of any project, the answer is probably ‘no.’ But when you say that, and admit this truth, you realize how to build the company in which you would want to invest yourself”, Kherkheulidze says.

As for why Elven Technologies got into the suit business at all, that story goes back to Kherkheulidze’s training as a doctor.

“I studied medicine out of concern for human well-being. But I soon felt that medicine had stagnated, as it doesn’t provide for patients whose conditions lie outside the realm of established protocols. So I decided to do something that would more immediately affect and provide for people’s well-being”, Kherkheulidze recounts.

The startup’s concern for human health and well-being has its roots in what they say is the astounding potential and capacity of science to problem-solve.

“The fact that life on earth is so accidental makes it so precious”, Kherkheulidze explains, adding that the pursuit of scientific advancement is an attempt to protect this ‘rare accident’, “and so we want to share with other people the joy we feel in the uniqueness, and maybe even the absurdity, of our existence. We want the next generations to continue to feel this same sense of wonder.”

It’s to this same next generation and other startuppers that Kherkheulidze advises remaining truthful to yourself about your business and your goals, noting that the fear of failure can be so dramatic so as to distort the evidence in front of you.

“Failure is not something you want to experience, and so you automatically are inclined to defend yourself against it. You lie, tell yourself that everything is going to be OK. But actually, there is absolutely no way that everything will be OK. If you’re truthful, you can see the challenges you might have in the future, plan accordingly, and have a higher chance of success.”

As for the origins of the name Elven Technologies: “they say that magic is simply technology that you can’t understand. It works seamlessly. We want our suits to work in the same way: we want them to work so well that people think they’re Elven magic.”

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