First a quick summary of Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation Theory (think of this as three strategic options for RLV companies entering the suborbital launch market):
- Sustaining Innovation: As an RLV company, enhance one of the current sounding rocket capabilities. Fly higher, reduce g-forces on payloads, reduce cost of launch, reduce purchase-to-launch cycle times, etc. Competition from incumbents will be high. Marketing Risk will be low (you already know the market exists).
- Low-End Disruptive Innovation: As an RLV company, offer a lower price than sounding rockets and offer an inferior product (e.g. by not flying as high as a sounding rocket - early RLV’s will offer fewer minutes of quality micro-gravity). Competition from incumbents will be low since this strategy steals the lower margin portion of the market (those customers wanting “a deal”). The incumbent will instead focus on the high-margin portion of the market. Marketing Risk will be low.
- New Market Disruptive Innovation: Offer a new capability not offered by sounding rockets. Fly people, return experiments at mission end, fly more than once per day, etc. Incumbents will not be able to compete in the near-term in most cases since current sounding rockets do not offer such capabilities. Marketing risk will be high since new market disruptive innovation must pursue “non-customers” – those not currently served by sounding rockets.
- The paper argues in favor of Low-End Disruptive Innovation as a preferred strategy for Government customers to support RLV operators – encouraging use of RLV services even before the capabilities of such RLV services fully meet Government needs (or fully matches sounding rocket capabilities). The authors argue this is the best way to help grow a sustainable industry.
- Quoting studies from Christensen’s book, Innovator’s Dilemma, new RLV companies would garner a significant first mover advantage by pursuing either of the disruptive innovation strategies mentioned above: new entrants in an established market were successful only 6% of the time while “first mover” new entrants pursuing disruptive innovation strategies were successful 37% of the time. The first move advantage is large!
- The paper considered “low-end” suborbital markets to be: earth remote sensing, astronomical & atmospheric observations, technology demonstrations, educational payloads, and novelty payloads that can be performed with only one minute of quality microgravity.
- Since 1942, suborbital sounding rocket altitudes are grouped into three categories: 100 kilometers (4 min of microgravity), 300 kilometers (10 min of microgravity), and 300-1500 kilometers (astronomical observation mostly) – with the majority huddled into the 100-300 kilometer range.
- The paper predicts according to Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation Theory, early RLV’s will use proprietary technology and be highly integrated, but as more RLV competitors join the market, RLV products will become more modular.
If I had a critique, it would be:
The authors assume the suborbital market would have a large enough “high-margin” market segment to allow incumbents to thrive even while surrendering the low-margin segments to RLV’s. Let’s assume the high-end segment of the suborbital market is any mission significantly over 100 kilometers and the low-end segment is 0-100 kilometers. Looking at the powerful graph on page 11 of their paper, it is clear that the suborbital market is already disproportionately skewed toward the “low-end” portion of the market (although the higher altitude market does appear to be growing). Just by eyeballing the graph I would estimate 35-45% of the suborbital market is 100 kilometers or lower. Would incumbent sounding rockets be able to charge a large enough premium for launches above 100 kilometers to justify losing 35-45% of the market and not retaliate through lower prices?
Remember, I am not doubting the success of RLV introduction into the suborbital market. Instead I am raising doubts on one of the authors’ key conclusions that the sounding rocket incumbents will flee up market rather than retaliate with lower prices. I am not sure the market is large enough for the incumbent to do that. If not, I would expect sounding rocket companies to lower prices to compete with RLV’s even up to 100 kilometers. If, as an RLV operator, you agree with my critique, “New Market” disruptive innovation strategies (although higher marketing risk) may actually make more sense since sounding rockets would not be able to emulate the new RLV-enabled capabilities (in the near-term).
I am a big fan of Clayton Christensen and believe his disruptive innovation theories (especially low-end disruptive innovation) would more perfectly apply to an analysis of Nanosat launchers as a disruptive orbital launch technology. But with that said, Davidian and Foust’s paper provides a great overview of Christensen’s theories and provides significant insight into the future of the suborbital market. And let’s not forget, this is primarily a government paper written to provide recommendations to the US Government on how best they can promote this industry – I do very much like that!