Payam Banazadeh, UT Austin TX engineering alumnus

In just eight short years, Payam Banazadeh (B.S. Aerospace Engineering 2012) skyrocketed from a passionate high school student sitting in an astronomy class to becoming the founder and CEO of Capella Space, the first commercial space company to launch and operate Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites. Since Capella’s start in 2016 the company has been rapidly expanding, adding several new employees per month to their current 170-person roster and recently making news for raising an additional $97 million, bringing their total capital raised to date to more than $170 million to expand their operations.

Banazadeh has always been fascinated with the science and physics behind astronomy, taking interest in how the planets and Earth rotate around the sun and stars. He chose to pursue his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from UT Austin and then went on to earn his master’s degree in business and management from Stanford University.

Banazadeh recently returned to the Forty Acres to meet with students and faculty and gave a talk, “Prepare to Launch: How to Build a Space Company Out of Your Dorm Room.” We sat down with him before he took the stage to hear what it’s like to be a young entrepreneur and what advice he has for other entrepreneurially minded engineers who may be interested in starting their own ventures.

What were some of the main principles you incorporated into your business plan and vision when you were building Capella?

The only thing that’s certain about startups is that things are going to change. Whatever you plan on day one is not going to be what you end up doing on day 30, nor is what you end up implementing and selling as a product going to be what you initially conceptualized. With that said, one of the main focuses for me was getting the right team together who had the right expertise and would be committed to the idea of the startup and then building a culture around that team. We’re very intentional with our culture at Capella – we’re collaborative, we take a lot of risks, we never say no – and that has helped us get through a lot of challenges to get to where we are today.

“New Space” is a fast-paced, ever-changing field characterized by rapid, large-scale innovation. As CEO, how do you keep Capella relevant while also anticipating the needs of the future?

We try to stay as vertically integrated as possible. We try to do everything from end to end in-house at the company. That means we build satellites, we build the sub-systems that go into our satellites and, while we don’t launch it, we do operate our satellites once they’re launched, build products from the data we collect from our satellites and have our sales and product team taking that data into market. Because of this vertical integration, we have visibility into the full spectrum and lifecycle of a project, from its conceptualization to creation and use. It’s beneficial because it allows us to bring the feedback from our customers immediately back into our lab and quickly iterate on something that our customers may want changed. Listening to your customers and being able to quickly act on that feedback is crucial to our success.

How do you navigate the stresses of running a company?

As an entrepreneur, no matter what your title is in the company – because not all entrepreneurs are going to be the CEO, and that’s fine – you’re dealing with problems, especially if you are the CEO. After all, if the problems were easy to solve, they would’ve been solved before they got to you. If that’s all you’re thinking about every day – the difficult problems – it gets really challenging. You must force yourself to step back, look at the big picture and remind yourself of how far you’ve already come to find the motivation to keep going. Taking a big picture perspective to the day-to-day work has helped me stay focused.

What characteristics does an entrepreneur need to be successful?

First and foremost, you have to want it, and want it really, really bad. That “it” can be your mission or the product that you believe needs to be in the world. In my opinion, that’s the only reason you should become an entrepreneur – because you’re fervently passionate about creating a product or acting on a mission. Becoming an entrepreneur for any other reason, like money or fame, doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t be successful, but your “why” won’t hold up as strongly when you hit the inevitable walls all entrepreneurs face, and you’ll be more at risk to give up because you don’t believe in a greater purpose.

Where do you find inspiration?

I’m an immigrant, and as an immigrant, you go through quite a bit of sacrifice, both personally and socially, to move to a new country and establish yourself. Everything is brand new. So I get a lot of inspiration from my family, particularly my parents and my grandparents. My parents were also immigrants and they went through quite a bit of sacrifice to allow me to immigrate. Reflecting on their sacrifices makes me want to be sure I’m using my opportunity and the hand I’ve been dealt in the best way possible.