2022 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Ensemble Space Labs, Wharton School

Ensemble Space Labs

Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Industry: Space Tech

Founding Student Name(s): Michael Contreras

Brief Description of Solution: Ensemble Space Labs provides analysts with data and forecasts to mitigate space weather disruptions to satellites, energy grids, telecommunications networks, and other infrastructure.

Funding Dollars: $1.1 million totaled from Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from NASA, a startup grant and matching funds from the Puerto Rico Science, Technology, and Research Trust, and a seed award from University of Pennsylvania Venture Lab.

What led you to launch this venture? Prior to Wharton, I bootstrapped Ensemble as a digital services company with expertise in innovation and data science. Being a builder at heart, I was constantly looking for the right opportunity to make the pivot from being a services company to a technology company. Having NASA as a customer since 2018 allowed us to intimately understand its space weather data pain points.  Once we felt those pains firsthand while maintaining a NASA space weather web application, we felt confident that we could develop better technology for the growing number of space weather users.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? Receiving two phases of funding from the NASA’s SBIR program has been a big step in our journey.  We are working towards a Phase 3 award because recipients can sell their technology directly to the Federal Government without a competitive proposal process. The SBIR award process has been validation that government can be both an investor and a customer, and NASA’s brand has been an imprimatur of our technology.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? The Wharton Executive MBA program has been a catalyst for Ensemble Space Labs. It’s safe to say that we would not be where we are today if it wasn’t for the WEMBA program. In general, WEMBA gave me the license and the network to think boldly and transformatively about the problem we are solving and the direction of the business.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? In graduate school and at the start of my professional career at NASA JPL, I attempted to commercialize several different research ideas as side hustles and each failed to get traction. Over time, I realized that operating a business can take just as much creativity as developing the technology. While I don’t really have any one entrepreneur that I attribute to the start of my entrepreneurial journey, I’m a fan of Thoma Bravo Founder, Orlando Bravo, because he has demonstrated through his investments that creative technologists can evolve into skilled operators. Decades ago, when most private equity investors were not investing in software companies, he saw there was an opportunity to “turn great innovators into great companies,” and that philosophy which I share is a key part of his success today.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it? One positive development from taking MBA courses during COVID, was Wharton’s Global Virtual Courses. During a typical semester this course might have involved travel to a specific geographic location, but the virtual setting lowered the barrier for me to take Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship in the New Space Era taught by Rahul Kapoor and Ignacio Peña. This was the perfect opportunity to reconnect with the commercial aerospace industry since starting my career in it.

As part of the course, we had to form teams and propose a space tech startup idea. Guided by my previous digital services experience supporting NASA, our team proposed a space weather data-as-a-service business and was selected among the top three startup ideas in the course to pitch in front of investors during the class. The feedback from peers, investors, and other course speakers encouraged me to pursue a startup pivot after the course had concluded. Considering that I almost did not enroll in the course, I feel very fortunate that things worked out the way they did, and I’m left with the lesson learned that timing and luck play a role in startup success.

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? I have to give a shoutout to Professor Rahul Kapor for teaching the course: Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship in the New Space Era.  I took it the first time that he offered it at Wharton, and the content, structure, and guest lecturers of the course served effectively as an incubator for Ensemble Space Labs.

How has your local startup ecosystem contributed to your venture’s development and success? After incubating the idea for Ensemble Space Labs in Professor Kapor’s class, we applied to the University of Pennsylvania Venture Lab accelerator program called VIP-X. In addition to receiving a seed award, being selected for VIP-X helped us plug into the Venture Lab’s ecosystem of startups, talent, mentors, and investors.  This fall we’ll have two student VIP Fellows working on various aspects of the product and business development.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? Today, almost everyone with a mobile phone checks the weather daily.  In the not-to-distant future, there will be more consumers that ever before relying daily on space weather . . . delivered by us.


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