From Genetic Engineering to the Space Industry: A Journey of Exploration and Innovation — Interview with Hanna Steplewska, President/COO, Cognitive Space
In a captivating interview, I had the opportunity to sit down with Hanna Steplewska, a pioneering Space Industry professional and currently President and COO of Grit Portfolio company, Cognitive Space. Raised in diverse cultures Hanna’s adaptability and broad perspective have shaped her unique career path. We delved into her transition from studying plant science and oceanography to finding her passion in the space industry, witnessing the rapid evolution of technology and new players.
JGR: Hi Hanna! Tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up?
HS: I’m originally from Poland and my family moved to the Middle East when I was very young. I was raised in the United Arab Emirates and went to boarding school in England. Constantly moving between so many different cultures — Soviet-era Communist Poland, Middle Eastern multinational expatriate melting pot and Britain — gave me a somewhat unique ability to assimilate in many different business settings and to understand different cultures and socio-economic environments.
JGR: Did these experiences influence your career choice?
HS: They influenced my view of politics, social systems and career path. I studied plant science for my Bachelors. I was fascinated by genetic engineering and the splicing of DNA. However, I couldn’t see myself spending my entire career in the lab. I found my passion in oceanography — combining plant biology, chemistry, physics and geology. From large ocean systems to microscopic algae, I enjoyed thinking about systems across different scales. My undergrad thesis was actually on using optical remote sensing to look for harmful algal blooms. It was part of the work that was used to create the early warning systems that Europe now uses for toxic algal blooms in the ocean for aquaculture. Ocean and space — I knew I had found my thing!
JGR: I love that a real life application spurred your interest versus just the technology. What was your first job out of school?
HS: Finding work in oceanography was challenging, particularly as a woman. My first job out of college was in an environmental services company called Intertek, where I gained business development and sales experience. I then moved to the UAE where my family was living and landed a job with Space Imaging Middle East in Dubai. This eventually led me to a role at Space Imaging’s global headquarters in Denver.
JGR: How do you view the progression of the space industry?
HS: New Space 1.0 was Space Imaging and EarthWatch, with the first high resolution commercial imaging satellites, IKONOS and Quickbird in the late 1990s. Until then the only organizations that were doing high resolution space imaging were the National Reconnaissance Office and others’ spy satellites.
A few years later, Google Maps came along and then Google Earth — and everything changed because now people had access to imagery every day.
New Space 2.0 — Skybox revolutionized the industry with smaller, cheaper satellites and a different approach to earth observation systems. The incumbents in the industry thought that Skybox’s fridge-sized satellite would not be able to meet some customers’ needs like the half-billion-dollar, bus-sized satellites that we had in orbit. Well, boy, were they wrong!”
JGR: Where were you doing at the time in 2010?
HS: In 2010 I was at GeoEye working with a team that was putting together a solution for how satellite companies could deliver satellite imagery products through this then-newfangled thing called “the cloud”. We were building a SaaS platform that would allow GeoEye to stream imagery as opposed to deliver it on hard drives, and allow users to begin to plug in and do analytics against the imagery at scale.
This was about the same time that SpaceX was throwing Falcon 1s into the ocean on a regular basis. Of course, after many iterations, they were eventually able to successfully launch the Falcon 9. Suddenly access to space became cheaper. And along came Skybox who was making more affordable satellites that were almost as good as these large, exquisite systems. Use cases started to proliferate, which drove a big uptick of VC money into the Space industry.
JGR: When did SpaceX’s impact become apparent?
HS: SpaceX entered the collective consciousness of what’s possible for launch around 2012, and even more so when they hit a floating platform in the ocean attempting the first landing of a Falcon 9 in 2015. Now, with the introduction of Starlink as their revenue flywheel and their regular cadence of launches things have started to really accelerate. Starship will completely rewrite the rules of the launch game.
JGR: How did these developments shape your career aspirations?
HS: I wanted to explore the wider space industry beyond remote sensing. I worked for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit before it spun out of Virgin Galactic. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I moved out to California and worked on business development for the LauncherOne vehicle for a couple years. To this day I’m grateful to the engineering leads there at the time, many former SpaceX engineers, especially Tim Buzza, Roger Carlson, Robyn Ringuette, Scott Macklin, Brian Morse, John Fuller and Chad Foerster for helping me learn so much about launch vehicles and working from first principles.
From there I went to RUAG (now Beyond Gravity) and got to learn about all the other rockets, including SpaceX and Blue Origin’s vehicles. I learned a lot more about the larger launch vehicle industry. Then I was headhunted to join Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch — another air-launch-to-space company. At the time, the team was working on a large, reusable space plane design. It was very cool. After Paul’s untimely death we had to get the world’s largest aircraft, the Roc-1, in the air for First Flight, which was an amazing day, and subsequently the company was sold. Afterward I became fascinated with optical communications’ potential to solve satellite data downlink challenges, so I spent some time at Mynaric in Germany.
Then I found my way back to the remote sensing industry — and harnessing the power of AI to address the complexity of data collection planning for satellite constellations. Earth data collection constellations are growing from a few satellites each to tens and hundreds by 2030. We need to get human beings out of the loop in the decision making of the data collection plans. I joined Cognitive Space because I realized that this team was building the right solution at the right time for a problem that still intractable in the industry.
JGR: What is your role at Cognitive Space?
HS: With my experience in startups, I’ve embraced wearing multiple hats as President and COO. Frankly over my 25+ years in the industry I’ve had some great bosses and some terrible ones along the way. I’ve been able to bring the best practices and the best of all of those experiences to Cognitive Space. I work closely with our Founder and CEO, Guy de Carufel, to make sure that we’re not only building a world-class business, but also a work culture that enables our team to perform brilliantly, and one that really looks after our people. I’m super proud of what we’ve created so far. We live our values every day: Be Audacious, Build Trust, Execute Fiercely, Seek Excellence, Take Ownership.
JGR: where do you envision the company five years from now?
HS: We have a clear 10-year vision and mission, focusing on orchestrating a million intelligent machines across a multiplanetary system. And that’s a big, hairy, audacious goal, for sure. In 3 years we aim to have 500 satellites on the Cognitive Space CNTIENT platform, among other milestones.
We are in a transitional moment for the remote sensing industry. Or goal is to eliminate constellation downtime, maximize capacity and improve the user experience. The industry has some growing pains to go through to get there, and we have the tools needed to make that transition faster and easier.
JGR: What is like being a woman pioneer in the space industry?
HS: I definitely stand on the shoulders of other women who came before me.
For a good 10 to 15 years of my career, I was consistently the only woman in the room — if there was another woman in the room she was serving me tea. It was hard in many ways. That was mostly in International business settings, with some particularly memorable moments, like being stuck in Tokyo, solo, in the aftermath of the 9.0 earthquake, and then being stuck in Moscow after the Icelandic volcano eruption a few months later. 2011 was….challenging!
On the other hand, doing business in the Middle East, culturally there was an attitude of “if the company sent a *woman*, then she must be good,”
Then there were, of course, the truly egregious moments. For example I’d been traveling solo, regularly, to a particular country and negotiating a deal for eight months. When the customer was ready to sign my US-based, male boss flew in and told me to go organize lunch while he signed the deal. I told him that no, I was going to be in the room when he signed the deal I’d negotiated.
All of this to say, that I’ve seen the good and bad, and at this point in my career I am paying the good forward by supporting, and advocating for, women in the industry and helping my male colleagues understand a different point of view.
JGR: You joined Chief, a private membership network for women. Tell me about the mission of Chief and how the organization has served you?
HS: Chief is focused on getting women into positions of power and keeping them there. The numbers of women in leadership roles, especially in the C-suite are still far too low. I was looking for a group where I could freely talk about the needs and challenges of the COO role with peers who either are in that role or have been in that role and could provide guidance. I have a monthly group that I run within CHIEF, with women who are COOs from every conceivable industry, many of whom have been in the role for years. We have very frank discussions and that has been invaluable.
JGR: Peer relationships are so vital because there’s some things that you can only talk to someone outside the company about. Let’s end this interview on some of your interesting hobbies. Tell me about racing motorcycles, skiing and diving. And, What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
HS: I’ve always been drawn to speed and adrenaline and mastery of skills. For example with scuba diving, there’s a lot of little things you have to do right to for your dive to go well. With skiing, you there’s a lot of technical things that enable you to jump off cliffs into deep powder and do steep tree runs. I am a firm believer that if you really want to learn something to a level of mastery then you need to learn how to teach it. I’m a certified professional scuba instructor and a ski instructor.
These days I swim year round in Puget Sound. The open water swimming is something that draws me in because it’s such a mental exercise. You can train for the physical aspect, but the mental game is something else, especially if you’re doing it in cold water.
The craziest thing? I was working as a Dive Master. We were diving in the Straits of Hormuz off the Arabian Peninsula. The dive boat was clearly taking on water. We already had eight divers on the line, descending. The captain said he would go find a new boat. I jumped in and led a great shark dive. When we surfaced there was no boat. We had to float and keep ourselves safe and sane until somebody could come rescue us. And that took 12 hours. In the meantime we had oil tankers and smuggler boats go by and they didn’t even slow down — they just blew right by us.
JGR: Last question Let’s say you have a month off. Where would you go?
HS: I would go to three different places. I’d take a little jaunt through the grasslands in Mongolia because the people and the landscape of empty spaces are amazing. I would probably go to Raja Ampat to go scuba diving. It’s a protected area teeming with sharks and beautiful critters and coral. And if money were no object, then I would go to the International Space Station for a week.
JGR: Thank you so much, Hanna.