The Italian Rocket Man

Our interview with Mattia Barbarossa, the world's youngest CEO leading the space renaissance.

Italian Rocket Man Mattia Barbarossa
Mattia Barbarossa in front of his company's office.

An interview with Mattia Barbarossa, the youngest CEO leading the space renaissance.

At 20 years old, Mattia Barbarossa is the world’s youngest CEO in the aerospace industry, a title that was confirmed recently by Forbes. Born in Naples to a family with musical talents, Mattia broke the mold by finding his passion in making rockets.

Nevertheless, despite his lack of passion for playing musical instruments, Mattia told me that he actually finds a galaxy of inspiration for his space innovations in music, films and literature, being an avid fan of rock band Pink Floyd, Russian classical composer Rachmaninoff, film directors Stanley Kubrick and Sergio Leone, and even getting the inspiration for the name of his space technology company Sidereus Space Dynamics from Galileo Galilei’s book Sidereus Nuncius about the Italian astronomer’s early observations of moons.

Mattia’s own capacity for exploration and traversing the creative divide between the natural world, sciences and the arts is arguably what makes his space technology innovations so potentially exciting for the aerospace industry. “Exploration is making imagination real,” he points out. He even once found a practical solution to improving the performance and safety features of a rocket fuel on one of his launch vehicles in his dreams. “These are just some of the catalysts that can engage my imagination,” he says.

Support from those around you is an important component for success

Creative inspiration comes from many sources, not least from those people closer to home. Mattia recognizes the importance of the support that his parents, Rosario and Flora, have always given him, acknowledging that “you can give [to the world] if the ones that ‘grow’ you, support you.” He goes on to say, “my work should be dedicated to the people who developed me. They gave me something: everywhere I went with my mind, they followed me.”

He also acknowledges the great value of having teachers who believe in you and nurture your talents. His physics teachers Raffaele Monaco and Joe Raiola were important mentors and in his final year at high school, Mattia got the chance to teach modern physics, nuclear physics, astrophysics and space exploration. Since he was 5, Mattia has been deeply inspired by the TV shows of father-son scientists Piero Angela and Alberto Angela, getting to actually meet his childhood heroes on Italian chat show Porta Porta where they were all being interviewed by host Bruno Vespa for the 50th anniversary of the lunar landings. “I thanked him [Piero] for inspiring my curiosity, but I was surprised when he then thanked me, saying how pleased he was that his work had inspired my own.”

It’s not all as easy as it might seem

Even though Mattia started out at a young age, giving science talks at INAF Osservatorio Astronomico di Capodimonte in Naples from when he was 12, and was chosen at 15 to compete in Lab2Moon in 2016, a hackathon set up by Team Indus, a private aerospace company in Bangalore, India and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) which Mattia’s team later won. “It’s not been really easy. I have to demonstrate everything I’m doing because I’m so young.” He first set up his company Sidereus in 2019 and moved into new premises last July. “I spend 12 hours a day in the office, Monday to Friday and spend my weekends working in a softer way.”

As a busy CEO, Mattia doesn’t get that much free-time, but has been spending this second lockdown catching up on movies in the evenings with his dad. “Watching movies is one of the real ways to explore other possible realities.” And when it was his 20th birthday recently, he says he had a drink with colleagues to celebrate and then went on to test some rocket fuels. “I’m not really into parties,” he admits.

Heading North for now

Rocket fuels are his favorite field in aerospace. He explains proudly that all his space technology products are his ‘babies’ with his favorite ‘child’ being the EOS, a small rocket launch vehicle that can transport small satellites into space at a fraction of the cost of clunkier models. This is currently his biggest contribution to the, as Mattia puts it, “space renaissance” that is taking off globally.

To increase his company’s chances at reshaping the future of space exploration, Mattia also has plans to relocate to the North of Italy to an, as yet, undecided location. “This will mean I’ll be where the customers and investors are for the construction of the launcher. Unfortunately, Naples doesn’t offer that chance at the moment, and I will probably go back one day — or even before — depending on how successful I become in my work.”

Mattia Barbarossa CEO Sidereus Space Dynamics
Mattia and his team at Siderus Space Dynamics.

Q&A with Mattia Barbarossa

First of all, a bit of background: how did you get into making actual rockets at such an early age? And who was your inspiration?

I’ve always been curious, that is my main characteristic. During my childhood I discovered a new passion every year, starting from volcanology to climatology and all the natural sciences and engineering. When I was 12, I realized that the ultimate exploration frontier for humanity was space. Soon after I understood that this historical period of renewed interest for it, and as I like to call it ‘space renaissance’, would be crucial for our future. Our planet gave us clear signals that if we want to do more, we have to look for another place for the resources needed. So, I decided to try and help what I call the ‘planetary leap’.

You’ve just recently been given the title of youngest entrepreneur in the world in the aerospace industry by Forbes in the science category. How does that make you feel, and what significance does that have for you personally as a young CEO with a growing business in Italy today?

Title are just titles. I don’t really care of their meaning. Facts are what really change your perspective, and that is exactly what I’m trying to do and demonstrate. Unfortunately, to do so in rocket science requires many more resources and time compared to other fields. I’m proud of my culture and of being Italian, our scientific and artistic heritage is very significant. Although Italy is not the best place to grow a company, times are changing.

Tell us how you managed to start up your company. What was the biggest challenge?

My philosophy is being small, simple and conservative. Small means that you do not have to spend too many resources on a particular project, that allows for faster and cheaper iteration and it also means that you can be much more innovative. Simple means less problems and a better understanding of what you’re doing; quoting Leonardo Da Vinci “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Conservative instead is the ‘Italian forma mentis’ that allows for being much more reliable than others both time-wise and economically-wise. Credibility is the main obstacle right now, but time will prove or not my ideas.

Can you tell us a little more about your products, the EOS, ELSE and TEV? What it is that makes them particularly innovative in today’s new space economy?

TEV and ELSE were ambitious projects, probably too much for the early stages of the company. EOS instead, my dear brainchild, is what I consider the key for us.

Space will remain a mysterious, expensive, apparently useless place to get to if we do not find a better way to reach the resources it has. The first step is still the most difficult part. Until we make space access part of our routine, space will never be part of our future. To make space exploration our future we have to make it our routine first. For that reason, I created EOS, as I like to call it the ‘personal computer of a launch vehicle’. The goal is indeed to make something not bigger than a car capable of launching a payload into space from everywhere, anytime. No complex launch sites, no long waiting time or any other constraints. Something that can be used as a tool, not as a space mission.

You’ve won many awards, such as Galactic Problem Solver for the NASA Space App Challenge Hackathon. What did those experiences teach you about the potential for space innovation and aerospace tech start-ups?

The competitions are a very good place to start. They teach you how the environment in the new space economy actually is, how to think, and how to catch every opportunity you can get. Many more of them should be around.

On the NASA website it outlines their goal to “work with commercial and international partners to go back to the Moon in 2024 and enable human expansion across the solar system.” How can Italy (and the ESA) be involved in this ambitious vision, and what is our added value compared to other countries?

Italy, as I said, is a unique country and there are very few opportunities, in general. This has taught us to get where we want with the limited amounts of resources we have and that is crucial. Not only is this ‘forma mentis’ perfectly fitted with the actual space environment, but it also enables us to express our greatest talent — creativity. The Moon and this whole new era for our species will not be ruled by just a couple of nations but surely the bigger our contribution now, the more significant impact we’ll get later. Especially if we do it not as a small country but as the whole of Europe.

Many people in Italy today believe that there are few opportunities for young people and that not enough can be done by Italy’s organizations and institutions to nurture and support young talent. What is your view on that, and what can be actually improved?

Surely, making a comparison with other countries with much more advanced innovation environments shows that Italy is not yet comparable. But a lot of work has been done and will be done in this direction. There are brilliant minds yet not uncovered or forced to move abroad for the limited resources available here, but I’m sure that the future of our nation will be different if we believe in improving it.

You come from Naples, a city which unfairly makes the national and international headlines for its social and economic contradictions. What can your city teach to the rest of Italy and to the world?

Naples is without any doubts one of the most evident places where our ‘Italian nature’ comes true. A nature of contradictions but also of ingenuity, the split, still evident between the North and South and with the rest of Europe, must be bridged. I’m Neapolitan first, Italian second and European third, and I cannot be prouder of that.

Having said that, I’m seriously convinced that being European is one of our greatest treasures, my dream is to see a much more united Europe, more than how it is now. Cultural differences are a significant challenge to overcome but in an everyday more globalized world, our only strength point is the common history Europe can share.

Now, let’s use both vision and imagination. What will the future look like in 2050? And how much will Italy be different from today?

Vision and imagination are a powerful tool, but the reality is often way more creative than us. Today each decade significantly reshapes our future. It’s really hard to tell how the world will look in 30 years, who would have known how it would have appeared from the 1990s.

Surely many challenges will be faced: AI integration in our life, climate changes, an approach to a more ecological future, ethical discussions on human-machine relations and the future of capitalism and democracy. Italy and Europe will for sure advance in these topics.

What are your main personal and professional goals for the next 5 years?

Firstly, on my professional profile, my goals are always related to my technical brainchildren, the things I care about most. My ultimate professional goal is to give my best contributions to the advances in spaceflight, with the hope of those to be significant. Incidentally, those are the same as my personal life goals.

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