On the eve of 2020, followers of the Canadian space industry were greeted with exciting news. Northern Private Capital, a Toronto-based investment consortium, had reclaimed a national asset by buying MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) for an eye-popping $1 billion.
The latest saviours of Canada’s storied space giant read like a who’s who of Canadian venture capital royalty. Northern Private Capital’s CEO, Andrew Lapham, brings a stellar resume to the deal, including a Princeton education and work experience at the highest levels with investment giants the Blackstone Group, ONEX Corporation, Odyssey Investments and Morgan Stanley. Mr. Lapham’s family connections are equally impressive: his father-in-law, the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney, who while Prime Minister brought into being the Canadian Space Agency; his wife, the Honourable Caroline Mulroney, a Cabinet Minister in the Ontario government; and his father, Lewis Lapham, one of the United States’ most influential public intellectuals and former editor of the renowned Atlantic Monthly Magazine.
While Mr. Lapham is the public face and CEO of Northern Private Capital, the company is the investment vehicle of CFFI Ventures owned by billionaire John C. Risley. Less known publicly, Mr. Risley is quietly connected to a wide variety of power brokers across Canada.
Another player in the Northern Private Capital alliance for MDA include Jim Balsille, co-founder and retired CEO of Research in Motion /Blackberry. Today Mr. Balsillie is a high-profile global tech entrepreneur who is outspoken about Canada’s need for more strategic and targeted approaches in the areas of high-technology and big data.
For those of us who’ve been actively engaged in Canada’s space and geospatial ecosystem over the past ten years, this move by Northern Private Capital is a welcome and momentous one. Given the blue-ribbon pedigree of the players involved and the networks upon which they can draw, we are hopeful that MDA will finally be able to boldly go into space with the considerable financial and executive leadership necessary to succeed and endure.
In 2020, a little retrospection may be useful to understand what’s at stake – because, in hindsight, we have been here before. In the 1960s, Canada’s interest in space was focused on the development of communications satellites like the fabled Alouette and Anik satellites in the 1960s and 1970s. Launched on September 29, 1962, the Alouette I scientific satellite marked Canada’s entry into the space age and was seen by many as initiating the most progressive space program of that era.
With the launch of Anik A in 1972, Canada became the first country in the world to have a domestic communications satellite system using a satellite in the geostationary orbit. In 1969, excited by the possibility of building a domestic satellite communications system, an Act of Parliament established the Telesat Canada Corporation.
While Canadians delivered innovative communications capabilities using space, we also took some brave steps forward to chart a globally independent course in the domain of earth observation – by using radar equipped space-based satellites to study changes on the surface of our planet. Led largely out of a desire to find out who was traversing our Arctic waters, the Trudeau and then Mulroney governments funded the design and development of the RADARSAT 1 mission. Subsequent efforts led to the development of RADARSAT 2 – with considerable private sector investment and then last year, the government funded RADARSAT Constellation Mission.
Canada’s satellite radar program was a unique Canadian gift and innovation for the world as it made a previously niche technological capability mainstream, by enabling space-based radar remote sensing which was all-weather, multi-spectral (seeing what the eye can’t see), and commercially available. To top it all, the technical excellence in the design, delivery and longevity of the system set a bar that took other countries decades to reach. Its data applications touched on issues of tremendous national importance – resource management, agriculture, crop monitoring and forecasting, ocean and ice monitoring, transportation monitoring (ship detection), and infrastructure monitoring.
Looking back at the early days of the Anik, Alouette, and RADARSAT programs, Canadians’ space initiatives were propelled largely by goals of unifying the country and building visual and electronic linkages to better understand ourselves and communicate with each other. Despite the illusion of continuity across several RADARSAT missions and ongoing investments in communications infrastructure, the path forged by Canada’s space pioneers has atrophied, as funding sources from government have disappeared, and forces of consolidation internationally left Canadian companies particularly vulnerable to international (non-Canadian) investors.
I personally hope that the new investors in MDA will use their very significant networks and stature not only to the benefit of MDA. I want to believe that MDA could be a core national asset that is central to Canada’s space and geospatial ecosystem. I want to believe that we finally have individuals of Canadian and International pedigree that understand that their investment and success depends on a vibrant, well-funded, private, public, and not-for-profit Canadian space and geospatial ecosystem. Perhaps even, they will push for consideration of our space and geospatial value chain as a critical national asset and foundation for 21st prosperity.
Any less than this … will leave the Canadian space and geospatial sector in the position of boldly going … where we all have been before.