Volodymyr Levykin is the CEO and founder of Skyrora, a British rocket company building launch services for small satellites.
Edinburgh-headquartered Skyrora became the first company to complete a successful integrated rocket stage test in the UK since the 1970s, and has completed four suborbital rocket launches. While a test flight crashed in the Norwegian Sea last October, the company says it is on track to complete its first vertical orbital launch from UK soil this year.
Levykin, a Ukrainian-born tech entrepreneur, spent time working in IT in Silicon Valley before moving to Edinburgh to found Skyrora.
In this week’s Founder in Five Q&A, Levykin shares who he admires at SpaceX (it’s not Elon Musk), how he prevents burnout from running a rocket company, and why he’s excited by ChatGPT.
1. Who’s a leader you admire in your industry?
Volodymyr Levykin: Naturally, the obvious answer is Elon Musk given what he’s achieved but commercially Gwynne Shotwell, the president and COO of SpaceX, has truly taken the company’s growth to new heights. Joining the company more than 20 years ago as its seventh employee, her impact on the commercial space sector is something to be admired; and her accomplishments have been recognised by both Forbes and the TIMES100.
From a UK standpoint, George Freeman MP, is making great strides towards establishing us as a science superpower and a force on the global stage in the space industry. His commitment to seeking out opportunities, understanding the innovation within the field and the potential impact this industry could have for the UK, both domestically and internationally, is pivotal. Government support and investment in this burgeoning sector will foster change and generate economic growth at a vital moment for the country. His drive within government can help early-stage space companies secure further investment to make sure the UK keeps hold of key talent and doesn’t repeat the ‘brain drain’ from 50 years ago.
2. Has sustainability changed any of your business processes?
VL: At Skyrora, we seek to implement responsible design and development processes to minimise waste, emissions and energy consumption. Our flagship orbital rocket Skylark L is designed to use a fuel mix that produces 45% less CO2 emissions than most other launches. We’ve also constructed our own in-house hybrid 3D printers, Skyprint 1 and Skyprint 2, that allow us to develop our rocket engines through additive manufacturing and eliminate wasted resources.
From an ecological perspective, we minimise the footprint of our launch operations due to our mobile launch complex. With its modular design, the entire launch infrastructure can fit into shipping containers and little to no trace of the launch is left in the surrounding environment.
We’re also committed to managing our consumption of natural resources. Water recycling is a core feature of our rocket test facility in Midlothian – the largest of its kind in the UK. It harnesses rainfall from the Scottish Lowlands as part of the cooling systems for the test stand. From an environmental and sustainability perspective, having a local test facility means a lower carbon footprint compared to having to transport machinery to third-party facilities.
3. In another life you’d be?
VL: If I hadn’t moved to Edinburgh with my family and founded Skyrora, I would still be working in IT. I used to run my own IT company and studied computer science at university, so I’ve always had a keen interest in the subject. IT is great because it’s so extensive, practically every industry benefits from IT and it enables me to apply my skills to any sector. The ability to choose and discover new opportunities, ranging from healthcare to finance to defence, seems like an exciting venture for anyone starting out in the world of work.
There are so many more opportunities to learn technical, scientific and engineering skills, not to mention the different ways in which AI is being developed and applied across different sectors. I feel it’s an incredibly exciting time to be studying such things to help drive future innovation and industries.
4. How do you prevent burnout?
VL: I tend to deal with stress in one of two ways: by breaking down the problem and by interacting with those around me.
Tackling a series of smaller, more palatable problems is easier than focusing on one huge issue. This has helped me many times, and also provides me with a sense of a personal achievement, as each step can be ticked off a to-do list.
It’s simple but talking to people also really helps. As the old saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved. This enables me to get out of my own head and gain insights from those with different perspectives. Aside from this, driving through the beautiful Scottish countryside and spending time outdoors with my family does wonders for lowering stress levels.
5. Which nascent technology holds the most promise?
VL: There’s been a lot of chat – pardon the pun – recently about ChatGPT. Generative and open source AI have the potential to become an integral part of our everyday lives, and we’ll see them integrated across all industries. Its ability to increase efficiency and yield faster results cannot be denied.
Like the internet, email, and mobile phones, generative AI can be the next “big thing” and OpenAI has the makings of a new Big Tech player. The ethical issues must of course be addressed before its widespread use, but making use of such tools is important. Those that fail to utilise new technologies will lose out – both financially and from a talent perspective – to companies that innovate and look forward. Adaptability is one of the most important attributes for any entrepreneur and no one can afford to ignore these trends when it comes to their own business.
Founder in Five – a UKTN Q&A series with the entrepreneurs behind the UK’s innovative tech startups, scaleups and unicorns – is published every Friday.