New MDA boss makes the case for space

MDA president Mike Greenley addresses the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade | Credit: Greater Vancouver Board of Trade

Mike Greenley sees much potential for Canada to regain its status as a leader in the space industry.

That is, if the country could just get a little more organized.

“Canada has faced declining investment for many years and has not had a long-term space plan for close to 15 years,” the president of Canadian space-sector stalwart MDA told an audience at a Greater Vancouver Board of Trade luncheon on June 28.

“It’s time for a long-term space plan for Canada.”

Greenley, who has been leading MDA for six months, told Business in Vancouver that the Canadian government has been pursuing “great consultation in the last few years,” and he’s hopeful a space strategy will emerge at some point.

The challenge for Canada is that many others are waiting to supplant the country as the cost of putting new technologies into orbit continues to decrease, according to Greenley.

“If Canada doesn’t stay in the core club, it will take about 10 minutes for somebody else to [replace Canada],” he said.

A 2017 government report on the future of the Canadian space sector identified six major issues for Ottawa to consider as it develops a new space strategy.

Among them was strengthening the country’s capacity to compete globally, drafting new policies and regulations to develop new space technologies and “revitalizing Canada’s space program to ensure it remains responsive and relevant to its international partners.”

Meanwhile, one of Greenley’s first initiatives since joining the company in January is developing a program targeting small businesses to get more involved in an industry worth $3.7 billion in annual revenue, according to a 2016 white paper from the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada.

Beginning in September the MDA Launch Pad program will feature a dedicated staff working with small businesses with expertise in tools that could be used in the next generation of space technologies, such as artificial-intelligence-based robotics for deep space missions or AI-based analytics that could be used for sensors.

“From our selfish perspective, we want to be able to tap into that,” Greenley said. “But it’s sometimes difficult for a small business to interface and get our attention.”

MDA might still be best known locally under its old name, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, the maker of the robotic Canadarm that astronauts use on space missions.

Aside from the Launch Pad program, the company has been reorienting itself in recent years, focusing more on the much larger American market.

This strategy was underway under former CEO Daniel Friedmann, who made way in 2016 for his American replacement, Howard Lance.

Under Lance, MDA pursued the US$2.4 billion acquisition of Colorado-based DigitalGlobe Inc., helping the Canadian firm gain U.S. security clearances and access to lucrative U.S. government contracts.

Lance now serves as CEO of MDA’s newly created parent company, Maxar Technologies Inc. (TSX:MAXR), which is incorporated in the U.S.

“But MDA is the Canadian business within Maxar, which is quite common in all kinds of industries as people grow up. The Canadian market’s only so large, and you have to export worldwide,” Greenley said.

“So as MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates was maturing and getting bigger and bigger, it correctly identified that in many of these sectors, the United States is half the world market. So if you want to continue to grow, it’s great to have better access to that market. And in things like space, especially military, or intelligence, more classified space work, you need to be an American company to be able to have access to that.”

torton@biv.com

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