This Alabama Startup Is Literally Flying On The International Space Station Right Now

Space enthusiasts (including all you solar eclipse watchers!) will want to keep an eye on one Alabama startup that is currently orbiting around Earth sixteen times a day on the International Space Station (ISS).

Birmingham-based Shipshape Urban Farms, an AgTech startup creating localized food networks with modular hydroponic farms, blasted off with NASA last month from its launchpad in Florida to run agricultural experiments on the ISS. Over the next several weeks, close to 15,000 of Shipshape’s lettuce and tomato seeds will be in a special container outside of the ISS in hopes of “identifying new species based on genetic mutations” that could help shape future agricultural efforts, said Shipshape’s CEO Dale Speetjens.

The launch is an important step forward in the startup’s MISSIE (Microgravity Investigation of Seedling Systems in Extraterrestrial Environments) experiment.

At first glance, space might not seem like the most obvious testing ground for agriculture startups. But “space farming” has massive implications for the future of space travel and for our future food consumptions back down here on Earth. Ultimately, going up into space is about discovering seeds that could grow better in hydroponic systems. Finding new seed varieties can help increase the efficiency of crop yields in hydroponic systems at a time when the Earth is witnessing a massive reduction in available agricultural land.

Speetjens believes the “big goal” down the road would be to “one day in the future grow crops up in space and then essentially drop them down to Earth and into disaster areas.” But it can also play an important role in ensuring the growing number of space missions – and eventually space settlements – have a sustainable way to grow food while in orbit.

ISS launch
Photo of the Florida launch from Shipshape


From Alabama To The International Space Station

It’s been anything but a smooth path for the Shipshape team to get to space. The pandemic threatened to take out their business. A hurricane wiped out the team’s test farm. A lightning strike hit their first customer unit.

“We make up for the bad luck with grit and perseverance and we’ve just kept on plugging away,” Speetjens told Hypepotamus.

In order to grow, the team has plugged in across the Alabama startup ecosystem. Shipshape went through Techstars Alabama EnergyTech Accelerator in Birmingham and gener8tor’s HudsonAlpha AgTech Accelerator in Huntsville.

Alabama was also crucial in Shipshape finding the partners necessary to make the recent launch possible. Above Space out of Huntsville was Shipshape’s launch partner, and John Schmitt and Mike Docherty at Huntsville-based Amiic helped build the housing used for the seeds.

Speetjens said that this is the “first in a string of launches” that Shipshape has on its roadmap.

ISS launch

All Eyes On Alabama

Huntsville — the “Rocket City” known as the birthplace of the US aerospace industry — has become an epicenter for both commercial space startups and startups building in the growing industry of space farming. Christopher Udall, Managing Director of the HudsonAlpha AgTech Accelerator in the city, said that the “Huntsville startup scene is the same as the Bay Area in the 1980s or early 1990s. It is just chock full of deep tech.”

A lot of the city’s growth has come through the city’s HudsonAlpha AgTech Accelerator. The program invests in selected startups and has helped several teams — including Shipshape in its 2022 cohort — forge important relationships with NASA.

“Our goal is to find new startups that are really going to lead the forefront of the commercialization of space and in low Earth orbit — specifically relating to space farming — which is one of the largest problems we have in figuring out human spaceflight and colonizing spaces,” Udall told Hypepotamus.