by Peter Timko

Twelve hours after arriving in Japan, I found myself, jetlagged and bleary, entering a sleek office tower in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. I was there for AXELA Demo Day, a networking event for space startups. One by one, five different founders took the stage to pitch their companies—there was AstroX, a small launch company and Space Quarters, makers of space manufacturing technology, to name a few. After the pitches, the attending crowd quickly stacked away their seats, and began to mingle and exchange business cards. I did my best to keep up.

This event was organized and hosted by SPACETIDE. This group was founded in 2015 with the goal of fostering a more robust space industry in Japan. It’s small, only a few dozen members. Notably, it’s almost entirely staffed by pro-bono volunteers. Some come from the world of business, but others bring different backgrounds. There are students, painters, and scientists, too. One member I spoke to works full time as a flight attendant, she makes time for her SPACETIDE duties by working from her hotel room during long layovers between trans-pacific fights. All these members united by a shared desire to see the space sector grow and expand, or as SPACETIDE members often phrase it: the mission is to build Japan’s “space ecosystem.”

This word—ecosystem—is inescapable in the space world. It’s cropped up again and again through this past year of fieldworld, but it’s been especially prevalent since I’ve arrived in Tokyo. It’s a surprisingly young word, first appearing in print in 1935. Back then, British botanist Arthur Tansley coined the neologism to describe the unity of animals, plants, and the physical environment. He argued that scientists shouldn’t merely examine one species, but rather should understand the total system of relationships they are embedded in. Decades later, the term was smuggled into the business world.

Often cited is a 1993 piece in Harvard Business Review by strategist James Moore. The paper, titled “Predators and prey: A new ecology of competition,” takes up ecosystem as a metaphor, swapping out species for corporations. Moore argues that, much like antelopes and lions on the savanna, businesses grow and change as compete for resources and territory, but they are also mutually dependent based on a shared market environment, Succinctly, “Business ecosystems condense out of the original swirl of capital, customer interest, and talent generated by a new innovation, just as successful species spring from the natural resources of sunlight, water, and soil nutrients.”

Today, in business and management literature talk of ecosystems leans even more heavily into these notions of interdependence and interaction. It’s an especially popular way to frame entrepreneurship and innovation—there are a dizzying number of studies defining, classifying, and re-classifying various economic ecosystems and their properties (Adner, 2017). Reading through recent work, recurring themes and buzzwords pile up: synergies, aggregation, emergent value, spillover, and co-creation. Researchers observing the new space economy describe its ecosystem in baroque terms; they speak of “indirect, complex, and non-linear relationships among actors,” and “co-evolution and multilateral dependencies,” (Orlova et al. 2020). At some point, it begins to sound almost Deleuzian.

Importantly, when talking with people actually working in the industry, you hear similar concepts in a more pedestrian language. A startup founder will praise a competitor’s success as “good for the whole space community,” an CTO will describe how a different sector’s new technology will make their product even more useful, an engineering student will brag that their university’s location offers great opportunities for internships in nearby firms. Synergy, co-creation, multilateral dependencies. Still, if I ask people directly what they mean by “space ecosystem,” that answer can be vague, like it should be obvious. A common reply is something about “stakeholders,” all the institutions involved in space, the state agencies, universities, and businesses, you know… all that stuff.

All that stuff is often the subject of white papers and policy briefs. Over the past decade, the Japanese government has been increasingly proactive about crafting frameworks that help these various institutions work together. In 2008, the National Diet passed the Basic Space Act, a law that established a Strategic Headquarters for Space Policy and laid the groundwork for an industrial policy and legal regime oriented toward the commercialization of space activity. In the following years, the state has released four Basic Space Plans. These detailed documents outline “concrete programmatic targets and their implementation timelines,” for expanding space power. The latest, the Basic Space Plan 2020, aims to double the country’s space economy by 2030 by “creating a new ecosystem for space activities where industry, academia, and government work together; expand domestic demand and capture foreign demand; promote R&D as well as demonstration of advanced technologies,” (ESPI, 2020).

The conception of “ecosystem” in the Basic Space Plans is structural; it focuses on adjusting the country’s economic and regulatory environment to make it more amenable to space business. It’s all about pulling the big levers. Speaking with SPACETIDE co-founder Masayasu Ishida, I hear a different approach to ecosystem building, one that is more intimate. He tells me it’s more about fostering personal relationships, a sense of community, and a sense of excitement that a space economy is possible in Japan. While in Tokyo, a number of people have spoken to me about “Japan’s space problem,” that potential investors are very risk-averse and most young people are more likely to follow the well-established path of joining a large corporation or JAXA rather than striking out on a new space venture. One of SPACETIDE’s goals is to change that on a very social level.

After the AXELA Demo Day, I joined SPACETIDE members across the street for a small after party in a nearby co-working space. The event had gone well and spirits were high. The formality of the afternoon was giving way to a more casual atmosphere—all around people were loosening collars and cracking open beers. Soon, members were taking turns sitting in a high barstool and giving short speeches to the group. After some friendly cajoling, a young person took the hot seat, a student intern at one of AXELA startups. A SPACETIDE member translated for me as they spoke.

The student spoke of growing up interested in the cosmos. He got a huge laugh telling the crowd—mostly people in their 30s and 40s—that he was still in primary school when Hayabusa 2 returned in 2010. As the chuckling subsided, he made his real point: his age was important and an asset, because for him, the possibility of space was always there. When everyone else was young, there was nothing, but now things are different. And he’s right. Now there’s SpaceX and private astronauts; there’s iSpace and there’s Astroscale; there’s energy, events, and people to meet; there’s connections to make and business cards to exchange; there’s money; there are groups like SPACETIDE and after parties with beer and gossip and jokes to tell from bar stools. You could call it an ecosystem.


Photo: SPACETIDE members posing for a group picture after the AXELA Demo Day.


Adner, R. (2017). Ecosystem as structure: An actionable construct for strategy. Journal of management, 43(1), 39-58.

ESPI. (2020) ESPI Report 72 – Securing Japan – Executive Summary. Vienna: ESPI.

Moore, J. F. (1993). Predators and prey: a new ecology of competition. Harvard business review, 71(3), 75-86.

Orlova, A., Nogueira, R., & Chimenti, P. (2020). The present and future of the space sector: a business ecosystem approach. Space Policy, 52, 101374.

Tansley, A. G. (1935). The use and abuse of vegetational concepts and terms. Ecology, 16(3), 284-307.


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