Coventry graduate’s intergalactic idea gets Branson backing

Space invention could lead to educational breakthrough.

An aerospace technology graduate from Coventry University has won backing from Richard Branson for an idea which could dramatically cut the cost of launching a mini satellite for space research.

Phillip Keane saw off competition from hundreds of entrants in the prestigious Three New Things contest run by Virgin Media Business, which invited aspiring inventors to put forward their best digital innovations. A panel of science and technology experts voted Phillip’s 3DCubeSat concept of a low budget, 3D-printable miniature satellite as the joint winner alongside two others, and described his idea as ‘game-changing’.

Phillip’s design – which has won him £25,000 worth of telecoms support from Virgin Media Business and a meeting with Richard Branson – allows a one-litre cuboid satellite casing to be 3D-printed in space-resistant thermoplastic material at a vastly reduced cost, further opening up the possibility for schools and universities to explore the cosmos.

The 3DCubeSat can theoretically be printed in and released from another structure already in space, removing the cost of a ground launch which can reach several thousand pounds.

Duncan Higgins, marketing director at Virgin Media Business, said: “When we launched Three New Things, we were on the hunt for ideas that are fresh, bold and embrace the opportunities from the increasingly complex world around us. 3DCubeSat is such an idea and we’re thrilled to support Phillip in his venture into space. Entrepreneurs and small businesses are key for the UK economy and driving innovation. Virgin Media Business supports them in every way we can; be it through our products and services or initiatives like Three New Things and our recently announced Big Digital Skills Hub.”

Phillip graduated from Coventry University’s aerospace technology degree in 2010 before gaining a European Space Agency scholarship to study an MSc at the International Space University (ISU) in Strasbourg.

The 35 year-old is no stranger to success – while studying in Coventry as a mature student he made use of the University’s state of the art flight simulators to win the illustrious Merlin Aircraft Design and Handling competition contested between students in UK aerospace universities. The competition – which was judged by chief Virgin Galactic test pilot Dave Mackay – has since grown into an international contest between the UK and USA.

Phillip, who has just started a PhD at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, said: “Meeting Sir Richard Branson was a great experience. It was Virgin Galactic which inspired me to study aerospace engineering at Coventry University as a mature student in the first place, and Virgin Galactic’s chief test pilot Dave Mackay was a judge at the Merlin competition too, so meeting the big man himself was like coming full circle.

“Now Virgin Media Business is helping me to develop my company, ‘3rd Rock Aerospace’, to help get the 3DCubeSat out into industry, and NTU is teaching me the fundamentals of space flight certification and testing processes. Quality is key in this industry. I still have my Quality Management class notes from Coventry too! They will definitely come in useful.”

For enterprising individuals in the West Midlands looking to follow in Phillip’s footsteps and make a success of their business, a free Virgin Media Business digital skills workshop to help start-ups and SMEs improve their digital know-how will be run in Birmingham next month. The Big Digital Skills Tour will stop at the Custard Factory on Tuesday 21st October at 6.30pm.