Not many startups land their tech on the moon.
Dymon has designed an autonomous lunar rover that will land near the lunar south pole later this year as part of NASA’s Artemis program.
Today, we sit down and talk with founder Shin Nakajima who explains what it takes for a startup to become part of a NASA mission, the role YouTube had to play, what startups can contribute to space exploration, and how NASA and JAXA are changing to be more startup-friendly.
It’s a great conversation, and I think you’ll enjoy it.
How Yaoki became part of NASA’s Artemis program
How Yaoki got its name
- Why Dymon focused on lunar rather than terrestrial problems
- How to (not) make money building autonomous lunar rovers
- How the Artemis program is driving innovation
- Why we expect a lot of water at the lunar South Pole
- How a YouTube video got the attention of NASA
- What’s involved in getting technology approved by NASA
- Possible Earth-bound use cases and long-term business model
- How to raise money for a literal moonshot
- The future of lunar exploration and settlement
- The role startups have to play in space exportation
Why Japanese aerospace startups want to work with NASA rather than JAXA
Links from the Founder
- Everything you ever wanted to know about Yaoki
- Follow Shin on Twitter @Shin_Nakajima
- Friend him on Facebook
Welcome to Disrupting Japan. Straight Talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs.
I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.
Today we’re going to talk about moonshots, and I don’t mean moonshots in the sense of wildly ambitious dreams, although come to think of it, yeah, yeah. We’re also going to talk a lot about wildly ambitious dreams.
But today’s focus is on actually going to the moon. Shin Nakajima’s startup Dymon has built a lunar rover called Yaoki that later this year we’ll be traveling to the moon as part of NASA’s Artemis project.
Now, the name Yaoki comes from the Japanese expression nanakorobi-yaoki, which means falling down seven times and getting up eight. It means persisting in the face of repeated failures. It means never giving up. And both that word and that outlook on life feature prominently in today’s conversation.
We have an interesting debate on the role startups have to play in space exploration. And I don’t mean just the SpaceX scale startups. SpaceX is doing awesome things, but most aspiring founders don’t have access to the level of capital needed to play at that scale. We’re talking about how small teams of innovators can make a difference and how NASA and maybe even JAXA are changing in order to give them the chance to make that difference.
Shin and I talk about the design of the Yaoki Rover itself, how we raised money for a project that almost no one believed in, and what it really takes to get your technology approved for a NASA mission.
But, you know, Shin tells that story much better than I can. So let’s get right to the interview.
Tim: So we’re sitting here with Shin Nakajima of Dymon, so thanks for sitting down with us.
Shin: Thank you. Me too.
Tim: You make this amazing lunar rover Yaoki, which is just amazingly cool. Tell us a little about the rover.
Shin: This is what I am developing for 10 years, and now it’s finished, and now it is contract with NASA Moon Rover project, which is called an Artemis. We are joining for commercial .
Tim: Right. And for our listeners who can’t see this, this looks nothing like you would imagine a lunar rover would look like. It’s like, can I hold it?
Shin: Yes, you can.
Tim: Okay. That’s so cool. I don’t even know how to describe it. It looks like a little barbell with treads on it.
Tim: I mean, this is really tiny, right?
Shin: So very, very tiny. And it’s just on the hand.
Tim: So it’s about six inches by six inches or so.
Shin: It looks like a camera, camera size, and the two holes. And also this can lamb even drop because the hole is covering the body. So each time, every time wheel can touch the ground.
Tim: So no matter what happens to it, it will always have wheels on the ground.
Tim: All of us can always move forward. And that’s actually part of the name, right?
Shin: This name is Yaoki. Yaoki come from the nanakorobi-yaoki. Nanakorobi-yaoki direct translate to English is seven drops, but eight coming up.
Tim: So fall down seven times. Stand up eight.
Shin: So I never give up.
Tim: Right. And you are, well, not you, but this cool little rover is flying to the moon later this year.
Shin: Later this year. This is decided on announced by NASA website.
Tim: Okay. I really want you to get into the specs and the mission and the business model in just a minute. But before that, I want to talk a little about you. And you have been working on this project for a really long time.
Shin: Yes, actually it takes about 10 years.
Tim: So, I mean, let’s see. You found it in 2012. Right?
Shin: 2012. I founded this company. Dymon.
Tim: Okay, well let’s, let’s back up to the very beginning. So before Dymon, you worked at Audi’s and automotive engineer.
Shin: Yes. Audi Quantum system. You know, the Quantum system means
Tim: Four wheel drive.
Shin: Four wheel systems. I was inventor of that system.
Tim: So what made you decide to start a startup and especially like a lunar explorer startup?
Shin: 10 years ago, I was something like one of the cool driving engineer. I prouded myself, honestly. And the earthquake, big earthquake happens in Japan. Maybe everybody knows Tohoku earthquake. That time I decided to stop the, my engineer job and make startup, because I don’t think in the future car big is not important, but something else.
Tim: So was your original vision lunar rovers or was your original vision something else?
Shin: Honestly speaking, after last week, what I decided is just quit my job. And after that, I think what to do next. then. Okay. I’m a driving engineer, so next step should be, not us, but the space. Okay. Moon.
Tim: Wow. Because I would think, especially after the 3/11 earthquake, there’s so much like in search and rescue or like the nuclear power plants, they were looking for robots to go in and clean up with. Did you ever think about that or were you just focused on space?
Shin: Okay. 10 years ago, there is no plan to go to the moon every countries. But I decided my goal is to develop the lunar rover, but actually how can I earn money? Right?
Tim: Yeah. Yeah.
Shin: I mean, this is big problem because I was only one person, so nothing, nothing. But I decided to develop the lunar rover. And next big matter is how to earn the money. To earn the money. I also developed a robot, not to say lunar rover, but say robots. So 10 years ago, the main business is to develop the robots.
Tim: Right? Because I mean, 10 years ago, no one is going to pay you to develop a lunar rover.
Shin: Doesn’t make any money.
Tim: Not going to happen. So, what kind of projects, what kind of robots were you developing in the early days?
Shin: Of course, many things, but some example wire inspection robot.
Tim: Oh, so for example the power lines.
Shin: Yes, power lines, electric power lines. And as everybody knows, it is now getting older and still this inspection is done by human. So very dangerous. And of course, some accident happens.
Tim: Well, that sounds like an incredibly useful and profitable robot to be building. Why did you stop? Why did you, is it just you really just had this passion for building the lunar rover?
Shin: Because this kind of development is not my own dream. So this is important, but not perfectly mine. My own dream is moon.
Tim: So in the background, you were always working on the lunar rover?
Shin: Something like that. On the daytime, I am doing a job for robots. And nighttime I am developing the lunar rover.
Tim: So, when was the big chain in 2012, nobody’s thinking about private lunar robots except for you and maybe a few people? When was Dymon able to really pivot and focus on lunar rovers?
Shin: This is a good question. This point was like five years ago to developing robots is going, well, very lucky, I can earn money then I have one idea. Maybe I can continue developing the lunar rover for maybe two years. In two years, maybe some developing the rocket to go to the moon, but no guarantee. And actually Trump did, President Trump announced, we decided to go to the moon again.
Tim: The Artemis project?
Shin: Which is called Artemis and lucky things for me is Artemis program is having the ticket to join global ticket.
Tim: All right. It’s not just American companies, it’s anywhere in the world.
Shin: Yes. This is very rocky for me because Artemis is of course the American project, and most companies is of course American, but only few the global attendance is approved.
Tim: Okay, well that brings us back to today. So let’s get back to the moon. Your little rover will be flying to the lunar South Pole later this year. What’s the goal of this mission?
Shin: Yes, this mission to inspect the water.
Tim: So searching for water.
Shin: Searching water.
Tim: And why is that important?
Shin: In the upper case, upper inspection result is moon has nothing only sand. But after that the satellites are searching the water and it seems there should be a lot of water on the moon. And if there are lot of water on the moon, this water can be used space, energy, water to change to hydrogen. Hydrogen energy is very important for space. And of course for the human, water is very important.
Tim: Yes, yes it is. This is all part of the Artemis project. So, what was the process of getting involved and getting approved for this mission?
Shin: I started development 10 years ago, and after that takes eight years to lead certain level of the development. Then I have to open to any, so council peoples like NASA, JAXA and some space companies.
Tim: So did you need like sponsorship from JAXA to apply for the Artemis or did you apply directly or…?
Shin: Next what I did was to make a promotion video.
Shin: For me, take videos. This is my first time. Very exciting. It was actually this was very difficult dumb development.
Tim: Right? Getting the video. Right?
Shin: Yes. Getting the video. Anyway, then to upload YouTube, then send a message, any concern, space or moon project, such a NASA, JAXA, any space companies by sending a messenger. Please see my video and if you are interested, please contact me.
Shin: One or two American companies replied.
Tim: Wait a minute. Wait, wait, wait. So there was not a like formal application, you just made a video, sent out email and messaging say, please watch my video and really?
Tim: That’s incredible.
Shin: For that time. I didn’t know the Artemis program is searching the global jointment. One company said if you really want to do, you can do. And of course I surprised and my wife said, maybe it is not true. Scared, maybe. Yeah, maybe. But anyway, of course this was to do project. The company name was asked Asrobotic Technology nominated as one Luna Land from NASA.
Tim: So even after you made that connection, the evaluation of the technology, the evaluation of the rover must have been very, very severe?
Shin: Yes. There is two steps. One step is simply aberration targeting. This should not hurt the land. The after that detailed aberration examination is happened, this was very hard. This takes one years to make many, many, many tests.
Tim: What kind of tests were they?
Shin: Test was simulation of the, to going into the moon. So first test is the shock test, high-G launch. Then a simulating test is the shock test. The next is vibration test because rocket launch time is very not smooth. So vibration test after that, going to space means vacuum heat test. Space is of course no air. No air means very high temperature for the sunny side.
Tim: Right. So you can have really high temperature on one side and really cold temperature on the other side.
Shin: Yes. So very big difference of the temperature sun side going up to 100 degrees Celsius and shadow side is minus 100 degrees Celsius.
Tim: How do they test something like that?
Shin: This is a vacuum chamber. Vacuum chamber is used.
Tim: How did Yaoki do? Did it break and you had to go back and fix it or was it okay all the way through?
Shin: We found that this Yaoki is very strong for the temperatures. So temperature test is going well, but the most severe test was the vibration. Vibration was very severe. And the test that teacher said, this condition is most severe condition ever happened.
Tim: Oh, really? Okay.
Shin: Now maybe this we will break because vibration conditions too much. Actually we failed several times.
Tim: So you just have to keep re-engineering and improving.
Tim: And going back until you succeed.
Shin: Yes. Problem is to the main parts. It’s very expensive. Yeah.
Tim: Well that’s very much in the spirit of nanakorobi-yaoki.
Shin: Yes. Same spirits. We actually do like this.
Tim: Yeah. So what about things like the lunar environment, like the lunar dust radiation? And are there’s tests for those as well?
Shin: Yes. Also we did maybe we are the first company which do the dust test, dust test using real renal conditions, no air, the gravity is six divided one.
Tim: One sixth. How do they simulate that?
Shin: To simulate no air is very simple. Just put the sand in the vacuum chamber. But of course the vacuum chamber is very expensive equipment, so nobody wants to install the sand inside. This was what we are doing maybe past the company in the world.
Tim: Yeah. Especially that, that like spiky, silica, lunar sand.
Shin: Of course lunar simulated sand is used.
Tim: Yeah. You also mentioned that you are simulating the one six gravity. How do you simulate gravity?
Shin: Gravity is very difficult, but the method is very simple. The lunar rover install into the box with sand and the box drop down.
Tim: So you have a vacuum chamber with lunar sand.
Shin: Sorry, not the same. The vacuum chamber and the gravity test.
Tim: So the different tests.
Shin: Good question. Of course we wanted to do it at once, vacuum chamber and drop the vacuum chamber.
Tim: But that sounds very risky. Very expensive.
Shin: Very, very expensive. And maybe this behavior going to like a police, something like that. This is why we decide to separating. So vacuum test and gravity test with lower and with sound. And during the dropping period, the lunar rover switch on and dry.
Tim: So how long, how many seconds is that test? The dropping test?
Shin: It’s about one seconds. Of course. One second is very short time. But the test method is just drop. We can do the 10 times in the day. Each test can have only one second.
Tim: And by combining the data…
Shin: So combining data, this is something.
Tim: All right. Getting back to the earlier question about using technology like this back here on earth. Does this technology, does it have applications and in things we were talking about before, like, I don’t know, search and rescue or toxic waste cleanup or inspection or is that anything you’re planning on looking into or are you strongly focused on the moon?
Shin: For now, we are focusing moon explorer only, but after that we are also planning to use this technology on the us such as pipe inspection, gas pipe, water pipe, and Yaoki can use us pipe inspection over. Also we are planning to use joint with drone do, of course frying the flying inspection. But drone cannot make underground inspection. And this robot is very strong and doesn’t break even for them 100 meter height. So please imagine the drone catch this rover and going up and make a search and if something the drone found, then drop out Yaoki on the ground, them Yaoki can inspect underground.
Tim: Okay. Because that brings me to my next question, which was sort of the business model. As amazing as this is, there’s not a huge demand for lunar rovers. There’s only so many you can sell. So five years from now, will Dymon be focusing on inspection robots here on earth and still do space exploration as a 20% passion project?
Shin: In five years, we are targeting, we are dreaming to send Yaoki. The amount is 100 units.
Tim: So is that a sustainable business? Can Dymon make enough income from selling Yaoki to continue development?
Shin: My real dream is we send 100 Yaoki on the moon. We are open control right? It means everybody everywhere can control the Yaoki from Earth.
Tim: On the moon?
Shin: On the moon. So Yaoki act as avatar robot. It means not only operating, but it is getting to travel.
Tim: Okay. So the business model will still be tied to lunar rovers.
Shin: And also we are planning to sell the rovers itself.
Tim: Right. For their own inspection projects are different. All right. That makes sense.
Shin: And Artemis contract between NASA, US and JAXA Japan one important things is the material on the moon, which someone find is their own material. Their own.
Tim: So they yeah, they own whatever they find.
Tim: Yeah. Okay. You’ve been working on this more than 10 years. How did you raise money for this project? This isn’t the sort of project, this isn’t the sort of company VCs normally invest in. So how, how did you raise money?
Shin: Our approach to get investors is different from other companies. What we are different is, we are firstly earned money by own. Then we offer the investment. We are now getting money to offer the sponsors because we are providing dreams and futures.
Tim: Okay. So your investors are not the traditional VC investors hoping to make a return. There are more companies who want to enhance their brand and be part of like the lunar exploration dream?
Shin: Yes. For now it’s one of the main technic matter. And also we have another business model, technical partners. Please imagine 10 years future. There is a big market on the moon. Maybe you want to join. So what to do if you do from now, then you take 10 years. Why not to join a project? Because we are going to the moon this year.
Tim: So, okay, that makes sense. So we’re talking about 10 years from now, there’s a big market on the moon. Let’s talk about that because I really want to hear your vision of what that’s going to look like. So what is the future of lunar exploration? Is it drones? Is it mining? Is it people living on the moon?
Shin: This year or next year, it’s era of moon explorer, which we are doing. Next era will be moon construction. Of course much, much bigger than the market of the explorer because construction needs many materials. Also do the construction has many potential.
Tim: When do you think the age of lunar construction is going to start?
Shin: I think maybe not next year, but after the next year.
Tim: So in two or three years?
Shin: Three years.
Tim: Very soon.
Shin: There is soon coming.
Tim: And then what follows?
Shin: Construction is of course it’s like to make a village on the moon.
Tim: So humans living on the moon, a lunar village.
Shin: Yes. Before human living, I am thinking energy line.
Tim: So power lines.
Shin: Power line is very important. Also makes, this is itself is the big market and after that there is house, there is power lines, then human can live.
Tim: So if we’re expecting the era of construction to start in two or three years, when do you think we’ll have humans living on the moon.
Shin: Living on the moon losing 10 years? Yes, exactly
Tim: I mean that’s soon.
Shin: I can’t guarantee my point is how many area than 10 years, five years, six years? I myself thinks in five years.
Tim: So one of the most amazing developments in the last six or seven years has been startups in aerospace. So space exploration since the sixties, fifties has been governments contracting with large companies to build. I mean that’s just how it’s been done. So what do you think the role of startups is in space exploration?
Shin: Of course it is depends on the companies. We are one of the space development companies. But the method is different with SpaceX. SpaceX of course Target is very big and contract with government and make big business Dymon’s way is start from very small products, also small, but the concept is also small start.
Tim: There are a lot of cool Japanese space startups now, but most Japanese space startups are working with NASA or American companies, American contractors and not with JAXA. Why is that?
Shin: For me, it’s very simple. When I started Dymon and started south development of lunar rover, I of course contact to JAXA, but their answer is very simple. We don’t have the rocket to go to the moon, so your effort, maybe nothing happened and that is true.
Tim: Well that’s a good point, but more generally there are other space startups that maybe are more appropriate for JAXA, but they don’t seem to be working with JAXA. I’m just curious why?
Shin: Because NASA changed. NASA also is bit, traditional other government like companies. But now NASA is changing to make some areas which going on by commercial companies. If I talking about the lunar project NASA decided the project is developing only the commercial companies, not by NASA. This is NASA’s big decision before that decision, NASA is also very traditional company such as NASA is top and commercial company is a second like a big pyramid and still JAXA is using this style tax money is gathering and going into the JAXA after that…
Tim: JAXA decides how it will be spent.
Shin: How to spread.
Tim: Do you think JAXA will change or maybe start experimenting with more commercial?
Shin: I think nowadays JAXA is also starting to change. When I approach to Jackson, Jackson’s question always is this technology can use on us not only space.
Shin: Yes. JAXA is now starting to change the mind. The technology is not only space but should be used on the earth. Then even my small company getting very easily to conduct with JAXA
Tim: Oh, that is encouraging. That is encouraging. Okay, Shin, before we wrap up, I have one final question and I call it my magic wand question. And that is, if I gave you a magic wand and I said you could change one thing about Japan, maybe the education system, the way people think about risk, the way JAXA runs contracts, anything at all to make it better for startups and innovation in Japan, what would you change?
Shin: I change human mind that do dream has passed.
Tim: So dream first?
Shin: Dream is the most important human’s, right? Which never stolen, never been disappointed, not make a dream, but to see the real.
Tim: So I love that answer, I love that answer. I really do because Japan has a reputation of just being very practical and focused and efficient. So you’d say it would be people need to dream big.
Shin: Coming from my experience 10 years ago, I said I’m developing doing robots. Most I friends says it’s good dream. So good dream means not real.
Tim: And good dream should be a good thing.
Shin: Yes, dream should be good things, not bad things. This is what I want to say loudly.
Tim: I think that is a wonderful answer. Shin, thank you so much for sitting down with me.
Shin: Thank you so much.
And we’re back.
You know, I love the spirit of nanakorobi-yaoki not just in the sense that it describes the Yaoki lunar rover that you can flip around in any direction and it will always be operational. But in the way that Shin and Dymon spent 10 years developing a lunar rover before there was even a future possibility that NASA or JAXA would ever look to the private sector for that kind of thing.
Shin quit his job and worked for 10 years without a clear path to market.
Is this smart startup strategy? Well, no, but so what?
Moonshots come from following your crazy dreams? In fact, almost all meaningful human progress comes from somebody following their crazy dream.
Shin’s comment about how Japan views dreams as informative and honestly a little sad. Today, having a good dream in Japan is not seen as a positive thing. And he’s absolutely right. Japan won’t really change. Japan won’t be able to return to the level of innovation and global impact that was standard in the sixties and seventies until having big dreams is once again seen as a positive thing, as an inspiring thing.
So here’s to the crazy dreamers, they are the ones pulling the rest of us forward.
If you want to talk more about moonshots and big dreams Shin, and I would love to hear from you. So come by disrupting japan.com/show203 and let’s talk about it. And hey, if you enjoy Disrupting Japan, share a link online or just tell people about it. Disrupting Japan is free forever and letting people know about it is the absolute best way you can support the show.
But most of all, thanks for listening and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups know about the show.
I’m Tim Romero and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.