Robin Riedel to Lead Berkeley SkyDeck’s Aero-Astro Track
By Sibyl Chen
Both the aerospace and space industry have seen serious innovation over the past few decades. So much so that in 2019 UC Berkeley announced plans to build a satellite campus near Moffett Field to nurture education and accelerate R&D in collaboration with NASA. While the development is still underway, it won’t be long before the UC Berkeley community begins to see and hear more about innovations spawned from our talented network of faculty and students.
At Berkeley SkyDeck, we launched the Aero-Astro track in 2020 to begin seeding the growth of our advisor network in related fields and begin developing curriculum to better serve startups in the aerospace and space industry. Since then we have been home to a small, but growing number of startups in this area.
As we continue to nurture innovation in this field, we are very delighted to announce that Robin Riedel has joined as the Chair of the Aero-Astro Track at Berkeley SkyDeck. Read on to hear more about the different aspects of Robin’s journey, his insights on the industry and SkyDeck’s Accelerator Program.
Sibyl: Robin, SkyDeck is super excited to welcome you as our new Aero-Astro Track Chair. A lot of folks in our community are going to be curious and want to know, who is Robin Riedel? You have an extensive background in both aviation and management consulting, as a Partner in Mckinsey’s San Francisco office and as the global leader of the Disruptive Aerospace sector within the Aerospace & Defense Practice. I would love for you to share more about your background!
Robin: Starting with what I value most, I am a father of two boys and a husband of a wonderful wife, who is currently a professor at UC Berkeley. And then I am a lifelong aviation enthusiast, with some of my earliest memories being me playing with toy airplanes and standing at the airport fences, watching airplanes fly. My life is really centered around these defining things.
My aviation life has different aspects. From a pilot perspective, I got to experience the joy of flying early on as a private pilot and eventually as an airline pilot and instructor, and while it was never my main career, I was able to fly large aircraft, including the Airbus A320 series which has been a lot of fun. Then from an aerospace engineer perspective, I studied aerospace engineering at MIT for six years, earning an appreciation for the technical side of aviation. And finally from the business perspective, I spent a few years in different department head roles at a large airline, which gave me an appreciation for the complexity of making global aviation function. Now, at Mckinsey, I get to do a little bit of all of that! I serve clients across the value chain, from aircraft OEMs, to airlines, to airports, to regulators and investors, and even startups. Ultimately, I help clients solve their most challenging problems, transform themselves to be more effective, and find ways to grow.
It’s all a ton of fun. I get a full range of experiences and make sure my boys go to the aerospace museum!
Sibyl: Nice! Throughout your professional journey, were there certain moments that came to define the lens through which you view and think about the aerospace/space industry?
Robin: A few! Some really defining moments for me are my earliest flights as a commercial pilot, where I got to see what it takes to bring a full aviation system together. I grew up in Europe, where flying from one city to another meant crossing over a bunch of countries. It is fascinating to see how many people are involved to make a single flight work — from the flight planners and dispatchers that plan the route, to the meteorologists that advise on the weather, to the mechanics to make sure the plane is safe and ready, to the ground staff that ensures fuel, passengers, bags and catering are on board, to the air traffic controllers who guide the aircraft along the flight and so many more.
What seems effortless from a passenger’s perspective involves these hundreds of people on every single flight, and not just people, but also reliable and efficient technology. The fact that we’re sitting on hundreds of tons of aluminum, 30,000 feet up in the air, pressurized, surrounded by explosive fuel, and moving at almost the speed of sound is just so magical in itself. Most people, when they get on an airplane, complain about the wifi speed or the food…
Sibyl: Ha, right. It does seem like first world problems when you put it like that!
Robin: To me, the epiphany of how much it takes to make a complex process seem so effortless was a real shaping moment; I had that in my early years as a commercial pilot while I was an undergraduate at MIT. It not only really shaped my understanding of how much we need to collaborate in this industry, but also how tremendously complex of a systems approach we need to take to achieve anything in aviation.
Sibyl: For those unfamiliar with the aerospace and space industry, can you please explain the types of innovations that people can expect to see?
Robin: That’s a great question! I think that it’s the full range of anything that flies above the earth and into space, and related support systems. Traditional airplanes are included but also things like drones, flying cars, and blimps. On the space side, satellites, spaceships, and launch systems are included. And then all the support systems: on the aero side, it is airports, ground radars, communication systems, and on the astro side launch pads, ground communication stations, rocket fuel infrastructure, just to name a few. All of these are rapidly evolving and innovation is everywhere.
Sibyl: Of all the vast technologies in this space being developed, what are you personally most excited about?
Robin: For the last 50 years, we’ve used aviation as a way to move across long distances faster; aviation was initially for the rich and later more democratized in the civilian context. Now all of a sudden, because we have electric propulsion, AI, big data, better sensors and composites, we can think about aviation for so many different purposes. For example, drones can be used for infrastructure inspections, or for delivering essential goods in dangerous areas. This is already starting to happen and will scale over the next decade.
And the same goes for space for the last 50 years. We’ve been using space mostly for communication satellites and all of a sudden we have space tourism, are thinking about mining asteroids, are going back to the moon and even to Mars, and are deploying a whole new set of earth observation use cases, e.g. leveraging large constellations of small satellites to better predict weather and help us better manage our lives.
We’re using the sky and space for all kinds of new applications, and we’re just at the beginning of that. We’ll see more of this in the next decade, which is why this is such a fascinating track for me. And SkyDeck is an amazing place for founders to spend their time because lots of the change in this industry is happening in the Bay Area and even in Berkeley.
Sibyl: Of course, as you know, the idea of programs and accelerators and this network of mentorship is to help startups leapfrog and get to where they want to go faster. How do you see aero-astro startups being able to benefit from SkyDeck? What are some of the challenges that most of these startups deal with that an accelerator can help with?
Robin: There are a couple of important things SkyDeck can offer. I think one being its US and more specific Bay Area location. The United States is one of the most leading aerospace countries in the world. Having the presence in the US and being in this ecosystem, that’s an advantage, especially for foreign startups. Secondly, Berkeley and the whole UC system has lots to offer here. They are true experts in a number of deep verticals, for example there are multiple spacecraft being controlled on campus on any given day. And there are some of the world’s best thinkers in autonomy and aerial autonomy. Berkeley has one of the best transport science labs in the world. Those are, from a knowledge perspective, a tremendous advantage.
Even more, SkyDeck is an established accelerator with amazing resources and network. It can help founders really think about future use cases, how to apply them, and connect them to industry.
Sibyl: What impact do you hope to leave as head of track?
Robin: I truly hope that I can have a small impact towards the future of this industry, where aero-astro innovation creates new use cases, new utility, and therefore new benefits for society at large. I want to help the right startups, and get them the right support and sponsorship. The goal is to funnel the right attention to the right players.
Sibyl: Thank you so much Robin for your time. SkyDeck is looking forward to building out this track under your leadership. I have to admit, since I was a little kid, I was a Star Trek geek — I love this stuff, and I’m so excited we’re doing this.
Robin: Yes, when you think about it, civilians can now fly to space! How amazing is that?! The possibilities are limitless.
Sibyl Chen is the Senior Director of Program at Berkeley SkyDeck, UC Berkeley’s premier tech accelerator. Learn more at skydeck.berkeley.edu