What’s the future of Space Food? A talk with Interstellar Lab

If you wonder about the future of space food, then you should ask Interstellar Lab.
We spoke with Jim Rhoné, Chief Product Officer of Interstellar Lab and founder of Soliquid, who told us what it means to have a vision and truly build it.

Interstellar Lab is a cross-functional team of engineers, scientists and designers, who develop and build environment-controlled modules for sustainable crop cultivation on Earth and life support in space. In May 2023, they rank among the winners of the Deep Space Food Challenge, launched by NASA. The challenge’s goal was to create innovative food production methods that use few resources, generate minimal waste, and offer safe, nutritious, and delicious food for long-term space missions.

Hi Jim, let’s start with your exciting career, how was your path?

Yes, of course! My background is in architecture and I specialized in a unique Master’s program called Digital Knowledge in Paris. This program focused on parametric modeling, digital fabrication and robot-assisted processes, providing insights into materiality and precise construction processes.
After graduating in 2014, I worked at Jean Nouvel, focusing on automation and parametric modeling, particularly for a Parisian tower. Later, I joined Gery Technologies, the technical arm of Gery Partners, where I gained expertise in coordinating complex building designs using their software.
In 2018, I founded Soliquid and I developed a technology for minimizing concrete usage in construction through 3D lattices. Despite discontinuing the project, we deployed a prototype in the Mediterranean Sea with potential future applications.
Following this experience, I joined the Interstellar Lab. The moment I explored the project’s website, I got crazy about the vision of the company.

Could you tell us what exactly Interstellar Lab does?

Interstellar, was founded by our CEO Barbara Belvisi, with the main vision to build a future full of life on Earth and in Space. Initially focused on space-related endeavors, the project aimed to create an analog station on Earth to prepare for life in space, emphasizing habitat development, food production, autonomy, and closed-cycle systems.
Over time, we have expanded our terrestrial applications to ensure the sustainability of the project, aligning them with our long-term goals in the space industry, which may be realized in the next 5-10, or even 15 years.

Could you tell us more about the Deep Space Food Challenge, your collaboration with NASA, and most importantly, what does your creative solution consist of?

When NASA launched this project, we were developing what was called the BIOPOD, primarily designed for terrestrial applications.

The core concept was to create a modular environment where we could replicate ideal conditions for crop growth. This marked our initial application, and the prototype we currently operate here in Paris is intended exclusively for deployment on Earth. It encompasses various aspects, including air circulation, water management, and resource conservation, all within a closed-loop system. Our primary focus is on resource efficiency, striving to maximize output while minimizing inputs. This is the underlying philosophy of our work. When NASA introduced this challenge, we immediately recognized its relevance to our mission. The objective of the challenge is to identify innovative solutions for achieving food self-sufficiency in space.

We adapted the principles we had developed with BIOPOD into a more compact system called Nucleus, which stands for NUtritional Closed-Loop Eco-Unit System.

Nucleus comprises nine independent units, each capable of creating precise conditions for crop cultivation. The key lies in optimizing the interdependence among these units and their communication. Similar to BioPod, our goal is to establish a closed-loop ecosystem.
What sets Nucleus apart is its integration of vegetables, microgreens, insects, and mushrooms.
By incorporating insects and mushrooms, we can effectively recycle CO2 emissions from some of these organisms.
It’s a fascinating concept where we leverage this closed-loop dynamic to achieve a harmonious balance among the units, resulting in a highly sustainable, self-sufficient, and resource-efficient system.

How important is it to have a diverse educational background, and how has the convergence of different knowledge and backgrounds helped you achieve your goals?

It’s quite funny because when I started to work at the Interstellar lab, my background was primarily in architecture. I had limited knowledge about closed-loop systems, resource efficiency, agronomy, life sciences, and related topics.

What made my experience special was getting to explore different areas of expertise that I didn’t expect to be important for our work

As I reflect on it now, it makes perfect sense because BioPod, and this is how our company is structured today, is a blend of hardware, software, life sciences, and design. We’ve organized our company into four departments that collaborate seamlessly to address the challenges we encounter. It has been essential to have these diverse fields of expertise: we’ve witnessed the immense value of this diversity during the product development phase.

Having a wide range of expertise and cultural backgrounds within our team brings forth different perspectives and sensitivities. We often refer to these as “shadow topics” because they are typically overlooked or not openly discussed. For instance, individuals in our team might have a deep sensitivity to sustainability, sustainable design, or eco-friendly practices, which others may not possess. This diversity helps us involve a wide community in our projects, making sure we can effectively deal with many challenges that come up during development.

What advice would you give to someone looking to embark on a disruptive and innovative path like yours?

No single individual within our company possesses the capability to oversee all aspects, given its multifaceted nature. The first piece of advice, though we’re still grappling with it ourselves, is to embrace the challenges. While it may seem daunting from an outsider’s perspective, the truth is quite the opposite. Building the right team, seeking counsel from advisors, investors, specialists, and experts, is the path to achieving our goals.

One recurring mantra, which we constantly emphasize to newcomers, is that
there’s no room for shame.
Instead, there’s ample room for trial, error, and iteration.

Time is of the essence; we’re a startup, so speed matters for cash flow and operational efficiency. We need to swiftly demonstrate our capabilities. Without a willingness to experiment, learn from mistakes, and refine our approaches, we risk getting stuck in a never-ending cycle.

Space can be an exclusive and challenging field to access. How important do you think it is to democratize access to it?

I think it is super important for two reasons. The first one is space access. Currently, space offers a unique vantage point from which we gain a profound perspective on Earth.
Many are familiar with the “overview effect” experienced by astronauts, which profoundly impacts their perspective on our planet. What we’re witnessing as a consequence of this experience is the development of powerful tools capable of precisely monitoring human activities on Earth.
These tools enable us to track resource utilization, environmental impacts, and much more. It is crucial to provide everyone with access to these tools and create new services around them to enhance our understanding of our daily activities on Earth. This relevance extends far beyond the space and engineering sectors, affecting a multitude of industries.
The second reason is related to the looming prospect of human habitation in space. It’s undeniable that more people will inhabit space in the future.
While the exact numbers remain uncertain, we must prepare for the challenge of establishing societies in space, complete with governance, regulations, and political systems. This endeavor cannot be solely the work of engineers—it requires the collective effort of various fields within our society.
This monumental task touches upon every aspect of our current society, necessitating awareness of the future changes that will unfold. Today’s students and individuals in educational institutions will play a crucial role in defining the path forward in the coming years. This is precisely why the democratization of access to space knowledge is imperative.

For many, space is something distant and not closely related to Earth’s problems.
How do you manage to give it a pragmatic dimension?

From my perspective, I’m quite confident in our project. The vision of our company, which Barbara introduced from day one, revolves around bridging the gap between Earth and space.
When you think about developing technologies for space application, in the end, it’s all about efficiency, managing the constraints, being as autonomous as possible, a methodology that can help address environmental challenges.
Where it gets much more complicated is about going in space. Many companies working on space transportation face significant challenges, as launching products or technologies into space demands tremendous energy and resources. I’ll be very honest with you: I’m not very convinced about the idea of space tourism.

I firmly believe that humans are natural explorers, and the urge to venture beyond our boundaries has been ingrained in us since the beginning. While there is a vast array of nebulous aspects in today’s space application field, I still believe that our company’s core mission has always revolved around the preservation of life, and this principle also guides our product development.
The logic we apply on Earth, with projects like BioPods, will be adapted when developing products for space. We have a clear vision, and I’m not apprehensive about our role in this journey, but I recognize that the general public might find it difficult to grasp the significance of our work, especially with the overwhelming information on social media and in the news.
NASA has been pushing a lot to explain all their spin off from the project and I think it’s very good. I believe companies like ours should keep the work on.

What is the company or organization that has inspired you the most?

That’s Tough…There’s a company, that really inspires me. It’s an architecture and design studio called EcoLogic Studio. I’m very passionate about their work because they are really trying to merge natural processes with architecture and design. The way life sciences can interact with the architecture and design, is fundamental in terms of functionality, but also ergonomics and materiality. All these aspects are crucial and they’re handling them very well.

To know more about Interstellar Lab:

This interview is part of our dossier on Space. Other content:

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