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MDA CEO Mike Greenley makes the case for Canada in space

Podcast & Video

Today’s Hub Dialogue is with Mike Greenley, the CEO of MDA, Canada’s internationally recognized leader in space robotics and sensors, Earth observation, and satellite systems. 

MDA has a long history of developing world-leading space technologies. While its famous innovation, the Canadarm, is one of Canada’s true breakthrough technologies, it is only one of MDA’s major technological developments since the company’s founding in 1969.

Greenley similarly has a long history in the defence and security sector. He joined MDA in 2018 and in his role with the company he has consistently been a powerful proselytizer for space. He is a sought-after speaker and thought leader on the growing global competition in the space sector and the need for Canada to raise its ambitions. 

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

SEAN SPEER: I am honoured to speak with Mike Greenley about a range of topics including innovation, technology, and the case for space. Thanks for joining us today. 

MIKE GREENLEY: I’m glad to speak with you. 

Policy choices

SEAN SPEER: Readers will remember that back in 2008, the federal government blocked the sale of MDA to a U.S.-based company on the grounds that it represented a strategic capacity or asset for Canada’s national interests. This notion of strategic sectors or firms has grown in recent years, particularly as the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of having certain domestic productive capacities.

My first question is, what do you think generally of the idea that there are certain sectors or capacities that countries ought to cultivate? If so, how should business leaders and policymakers make judgments about what sectors and capacities are indeed strategic? And if a government does come to view sectors, capacities, or even firms as strategic, what role is there for public policy to support them?

MIKE GREENLEY: First of all, it is important to make choices. I think that treating everything the same or every opportunity the same doesn’t always work. Making strategic choices does make sense for companies and for countries. Certainly, the existence of our corporation and our success is based on historical strategic choices that Canada has made in terms of areas to focus on. 

I think in terms of the question, “What strategic choices do you make?”, you have to decide based on where you want to take your country. In some cases, there might be elements of a national strategy rooted in a country’s philosophies and values. You might need to do certain things to make sure those things are a strong, foundational aspect of a country. 

Another area of strategic choice is economic growth. Economic growth is derived from the creation of high-quality jobs and the economic spin-offs that result, including the ability to export and participate in the global economy, this requires thinking about Canada’s capabilities. 

For us today, in the conversation around space, we believe that Canada can fit into the big developments that are occurring and the opportunities that they represent. We have this 60-year-old capability in the country as the third country in space. We get to stand tall on it. It’s a really strong foundation in an area of potential high growth where Canada has actually been a leader. We’ll have tremendous global growth for at least the next 10 to 15 years. 

So, there’s an opportunity for Canadians to say, “If we want high-quality positions, if we want tremendous growth, if we want exports in a part of the economy where we’re really already strong, let’s double-down on that and get as much of that as we can as part of economic recovery in the short-term and boost growth potential over a long timeframe.” Other nations are doing that. The United Kingdom has selected space, for example, as an area, a strategic sector, to double down on.

I think that once you make those choices, and you say there are certain areas for different reasons, foundational reasons, in a nation based on values or economic growth, then for sure public policy can play a role in that. Public policy can guide and create forums for cooperation and engagement. 

There’s a National Space Council in the United States, for instance, led by the Vice President because space affects all government departments. So, you bring it up to the top, and you create structures around that and you create policies around that, including policies that leverage public procurement or advance sectoral priorities through international trade. These are some of the key policy building blocks once you’ve made strategic choices about which parts of the economy you want to prioritize. 


SEAN SPEER: As many readers will know, MDA is responsible for developing the Canadarm, which is an iconic and world-leading innovation. A lot of companies that achieve such technological breakthroughs seem to subsequently plateau, whether it’s due to complacency or due to the competition that that induces from others, or some other explanation. The history of capitalism is marked by companies that breakthrough and are then overtaken by competitors. How has MDA managed to stay innovative, competitive, and frankly, hungry after such a major technological accomplishment?

MIKE GREENLEY: For starters, it’s in the bones of the company. MDA was created as a technical innovation company from scratch more than 52 years ago when John MacDonald and Vern Dettwiler created MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, which is the foundation for what today is known as MDA. Their thesis at the time was, “We want to build a company that’s going to engage Canadian engineers, keep them in the country and have them innovating over time.” That idea of persistent and relentless innovation is right down to the core of the DNA of the company, and the people you’ve got in it, and why they’re here is based on that. 

The sector that we work in is also a factor. We don’t have a choice. In our business, you cannot invent something and then ride on the product for a few quarters just because you’ve invented a communications device. Every activity, every cycle of a project or an engagement in the space sector is an international collaborative project with customers and partners that, in our experience, tend to push the bounds of what we’ve previously developed. 

We developed communications capacity for a satellite, and we’ve delivered it and it works, which we’ve done over 300 times. But for the next one, somebody wants more. Every single activity requires us to do more, whether it’s in satellite-based communications in our satellite systems business, robotic sensors in our robotics business, or radar-based Earth observation in our geo-intelligence business. Our customers around the world, small companies that are start-ups or larger companies that have been around, or even space agencies in different countries, push each other to be able to do more all the time. It’s what’s in our DNA and it’s in the nature of the work itself in the space sector. That constantly drives innovation. 

You mentioned the Canadarm. The first one we built was on the Space Shuttle—we built four more. They flew 90 missions and that was really successful, but then the International Space Station comes along, which required a really significant leap in innovation, so we built Canadarm2. In the 20+ years of operations on the International Space Station, we didn’t just put it up there and operate it. We have 3 million engineering hours of experience in planning and supporting operations on the Space Station over the last few decades. That’s caused us to have a robotic system that started off being controlled by a person on the Space Station looking out the window, then moved to being controlled from the ground in Houston or Montreal, to now, increasingly, reporting autonomously and relying on a greater aggregation of commands so that you can say “Do this task”, and it will go through all the sequences itself. 

All of that leading to the new Canadarm3 on the new Space Station, Lunar Gateway, where we’re going from operating on the current Space Station 400 kilometers away from Earth to a new space station by the Moon that’s 400,000 kilometers away from Earth, with very high levels of autonomy. We will give that system instructions that it will work on for days on its own devices, with its systems and the intelligence that’s in it, to be able to complete its tasks. That’s the result of this process of relentless innovation. 

SEAN SPEER: In your last answer you referred to both relentless innovation and what you called “leaps.” MDA has been involved in both incremental innovation—steady improvements to processes or technologies—and radical innovation that leads to new, disruptive technologies. How do you think about incremental innovation and radical innovation as a company? Do they involve a different mindset or a different process? Or are they ultimately part of the same innovation culture and processes?

MIKE GREENLEY: I think sometimes you’ve got to put a bit more fuel on the more radical innovations. Often, you have an incremental innovation that comes with each project or each new activity, and each time the designs advance and the problem you’re trying to solve creates more capability in the solution you’re delivering to people. It’s the business development cycle, where someone would like you to solve a problem, you come up with a solution, and you’ve nudged everything a bit forward. It happens in the normal flow of business. Then sometimes, you have got to pull aside and make a significant investment in doing something legitimately new and different to cause great capacity in the market. That could be a shift in technology; it could be a shift in the business model to create change. But it is important that we are pursuing both types of innovation. That’s how we keep progressing as a company and a country. 

The space economy

SEAN SPEER: As you’ve outlined in various speeches and op-eds, including a recent one in the Hill Times, we seem to be living in something of a space renaissance. There’s newfound energy, innovation, and investment in the sector. There’s also a growing recognition of the broad-based applications in space technology, and its link to national interests. What do you attribute this renewed zeal for space to? How can Canada better position itself in the new space economy?

MIKE GREENLEY: I think the zeal comes from a few things. The world has a 50 to 60-year history in space. Throughout that time, you learn more about what you can do with space and from space. That’s been just constantly maturing. There are a few things that are really moving the needle right now. The biggest thing has been the decreased cost of launch. So, if we go back to the 1990s and early 2000s, it was maybe $18,000 a kilogram to launch something into orbit. Right now, we’re below $3,000 and the launch providers have a target of about $500 a kilogram by the time they feel they have a full, mature industry with everybody dealing with higher volumes of launch. That has made it accessible. You don’t have a financial or scheduling barrier to get into space any longer, which means if you’ve got a good idea, and you can raise the necessary capital, you can go and get it done. That’s caused this tremendous commercial increase in activities in space. 

Governments have all embraced space for two reasons. One is the recognition of the impact on the economy. People want the high-quality positions that come from a space industrial sector in their nation. This is contributing to something of a global space race in which nations don’t want to be left out. When we started, there might have been half a dozen countries that had a space agency. Now, there are 90 countries around the world with space agencies and space programs and who want space activity. They want to be part of all this. 

And then there’s the tremendous impact that space has on Earth. The biggest area of what I call the space-to-Earth economy is going to be communications right now. There’s probably something like $150 billion a year of business activity around all of that, in terms of building and operating satellites for communications with a tremendous growth opportunity. Remember the United Nations declared in 2016 that access to the Internet is a basic human right. Everybody, no matter where they live, wants and increasingly needs, high-speed communications. They need to get an education, start a business, or stay connected. All these remote areas and mobile applications need space-based networks which are creating opportunities worth hundreds of millions to billions of dollars and bringing tremendous lift in the space-based communications market.

Another area is Earth observation, which is around a $20 billion a year activity for people observing the Earth. Governments started to be concerned about developing a surveillance capacity for military and intelligence reasons, but that’s now expanded across all government departments. Take climate change for instance. Something like 26 of the 50-odd variables that people want to monitor for climate change can only be measured from space. This also extends to monitoring natural disasters and various other benefits that come from space-based earth observation. 

Then we get into the space exploration area as people go to the Moon and go to Mars, build habitats and live there. That stuff is exciting. People get enamoured with it. It stimulates the imagination including drawing more people into STEM education. But even when we pursue space exploration, it’s still relevant for solving problems on Earth. When we learn how to grow food on the Moon, we’re necessarily learning how to grow food in almost any part of Earth. When we learn how to diagnose and treat ourselves medically on the Moon or Mars because we’ve got to take care of ourselves and do basic surgery through robotic-based devices, all of that space activity drives has tremendous benefit back on Earth. That engages a whole innovation cycle that’s now affordable and comes with a lot of benefits back on Earth. 

I think all that stuff combined drives zeal. Then there’s a little bit of flash and bang from space or space tourism that we’re seeing now, where for people with a lot of money, it’s actually an affordable, quick vacation, which will only get more and more affordable over time. People forecast that space tourism will be around a billion dollars a year industry when it’s mature, which means a fair number of people are going for a quick trip to go around the Earth a few times. That has put a little bit of excitement, jazz, and vacation-ism into the whole thing as well.

Cross-Canada talent

SEAN SPEER: One of the things that I think is so interesting about MDA is, unlike a lot of other large companies in Canada, you’re not concentrated in a small number of major centres. Your employment footprint and your physical capital are distributed from coast to coast, including in Richmond, British Columbia, Brampton, Ontario, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, as well as Montreal and Ottawa. How does having that broadly regional perspective inform your views about Canada’s overall economy, and shape your thinking about public policy? 

MIKE GREENLEY: I heard a phrase somebody said the other day—I forget who said it—but I was in a meeting and someone said, “Talent doesn’t have a postal code”. Canada has talent all across the country. 

MDA was created to engage engineering talent, technical talent, and business talent to deliver innovation to the space market. For us, the distributive nature of our business lets us access talent across the country, which is really important because we need access to a lot. We hired 350 people last year and we’ve hired over 600 people this year. We’re growing phenomenally—in fact, we’ll do it again next year. Based on the contracts we have, we’re in a tremendous growth phase. Our ability to use multiple locations across the country to engage talent is an important thing to sustain that growth. It also allows us to engage in partnerships with municipalities and provincial entities, to be able to cause effects in the different parts of the country. 

We do have relationships with the provinces in different areas to be able to leverage economic development programs and the leadership that we can bring to create local ecosystems. In terms of the impact of that on public policy, I think that we’ve seen a bit of that on large government procurement. Large government procurement, from a policy perspective, encourages us to create jobs across the country. As a result of this, if we get a billion-dollar contract in Canada, we need to put a billion dollars more work back into the country directly and indirectly. We have to show how we’re going to create jobs, spread money around the economy, both in terms of the sizes and types of businesses that we’re engaging with, in addition to geographic distribution across the nation. So, that encourages us to do that, and we readily sign up for it, and therefore we deliver on that. So, I think policy can have a small role in encouraging us to spread the work around the country.

Space as inspiration

SEAN SPEER: Final question. There are some writers who have argued that one of the major factors behind the declining sense of aspiration and excitement about the future in Western societies has been this sustained period, after the Apollo program to the present, where we took our eye off of space exploration. In a 2021 parliamentary submission, you wrote about MDA’s contribution to crazy goals like the pursuit of viable Moon colonies. What is it about space, its mystery, and the potential of it that animates you, your employees, and so many Canadians?

MIKE GREENLEY: There’s a whole group of people that are, like you say, just enamoured by space and excited about it. It’s funny, in job interviews, you can interview someone, they can talk about their skills and their interests and their career and why they’re qualified for the job and why they think MDA would be a great, challenging place to work. Then you’ll interview someone and there’s this thing in their eyes, and they say, “I’ve dreamed about space since I was four years old, and I wanted to be an astronaut. I just want to work in space.” Those interviews are the best ones; it’s just in their bones. 

The excitement about space helps us in recruitment because everybody wants talented engineers, technical people, and business people. And to be able to be one of those people and build a rover that’s going to Mars for instance is very exciting. It’s beyond Earth; it’s technically challenging. You could build an artificial intelligence algorithm to be able to increase efficiencies for an insurance company or finance company, or you can develop software in artificial intelligence to run a rover on Mars. For some people, that’s the excitement—the sense of working on the seemingly impossibly and making it possible. People like to do hard things and feel the success of doing hard things. I think that definitely engages the employee base. 

In terms of the average population, there’s huge pride. We did some polling a few years ago, and when you ask people about Canada’s innovation, they listed the Canadarm as their most known innovation in Canada. You could argue that in medicine and other places there have been some pretty powerful innovations that have had a huge impact on our health and safety and how long we live in our lives. But the Canadarm is the thing that people connect with, so there is tremendous pride in the level of innovation that the nation brings. 

If you look at, read and measure the enthusiasm for science and technology and innovation at a time when a Canadian astronaut is in orbit, it is super high. It excites and stimulates people to want to try harder, to want to solve hard problems, and even if they’re not a part of it, it motivates them. It causes people to think “I’m a Canadian; Canadians are doing these things.” In some cases, for us, people want to be a part of that. In other cases, people are just motivated. People say now “I’m a Canadian too. I can do an impossibly hard thing and be successful on the world stage.” There’s a great motivating aspect for the ordinary Canadian.

SEAN SPEER: That sense of individual and collective pride is reflected in your op-ed in the Hill Times on November 24, entitled “The New Space Race is Canada’s to Lose.” 

We are grateful for the chance to hear your thoughts about what you’re doing in the company, the space industry more generally, and, of course, Canada’s role. We appreciate your time with me today. Thank you. 

MIKE GREENLEY: Thanks to The Hub. Appreciate it.