Dr Natalie Rens is a neuroscientist, space nerd, and CEO and founder of Astreia, a venture building autonomous homes to enable a sustainable future on Earth and Mars. Natalie is also co-founder of Queensland AI, a founding Board Director for Open Data Australia, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council GeoTech Center, with a focus on ensuring technology for good across the globe. Natalie formerly served as the Artificial Intelligence Specialist for the Office of the Queensland Chief Entrepreneur, where she developed AI strategy at state and national levels for the Australian government.
Natalie holds a PhD in Neuroscience, Master in Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience, and a Bachelor in Biomedical Science (honors). Outside of professional life, she is trained in ballet, latin dance, and the Israeli martial art Krav Maga.
Q: What’s your background, and what are you working on?
I started out in science, studying Biomedical Science, Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience, and then a PhD in Neuroscience, in which I was using machine learning to predict decisions. I went on to do a stint in artificial intelligence strategy for the Australian government and then jumped and founded Astreia. We are building autonomous net zero homes on Earth with the ultimate goal of building self-sufficient habitats on Mars. Essentially, we build sustainable homes that are fabricated off-site, complete with sensors and an ‘operating system’ to maintain efficient and healthy conditions.
Q: Astreia was founded with the mission of building a sustainable future on and off Earth. How do you plan to achieve this mission?
We face a sustainability challenge both on Earth and on Mars. On Earth, our wasteful use of resources has led us to the climate crisis we now face. On Mars, wasteful use of the scarce resources would be fatal. At a fundamental level, building homes that are extremely efficient helps solve the challenges we face on both planets. Our immediate goal is to build and scale sustainable homes on Earth as rapidly as possible, with the ambition of ensuring that net zero carbon homes become the standard for future. In parallel, this technology, particularly the home mechanical and operating systems (“life support systems”), advances development of the technology required to sustain human life in the more extreme conditions of space.
Q: How have you attracted customers?
Getting to the first customers was a challenge, given the massive scope of our solution and the level of trust customers needed to have to take the bet on us. Going from zero to building an entire house is a bigger leap than a software app! That being said, I think being very strong in our ambition and values has naturally attracted those who share our outlook. Our early customer acquisition and lead generation has occurred by directly connecting with individuals with aligned values and goals to Astreia and, from that point, executing aggressively with the intent to exceed expectations.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you've faced so far?
I took a hard route, being a solo founder building a startup in a field I had no prior expertise in, moving alone to the US away from my support network, and then having the goal of building on another planet where the commercial viability simply doesn’t yet exist. Out of everything, I’d say the biggest challenge was figuring out a viable business model. I approached the business in reverse, starting with the future goal of Mars and the technology we would need to develop habitats, then spent a frustratingly long time working my way back in time to the best Earth-based business model to get us there. Then, realizing the best model was in construction, I had to teach myself construction. It’s totally contrary to any business advice.
Q: What’s your advice for female founders who are just starting out?
Embrace being a female, being you, and all the strengths that come with that. When I started out I was told that I had to be less feminine in business, because of how men would perceive me, but also, that I couldn’t be too aggressive, because of how men would perceive me. My advice is to never let yourself be defined by what men, or other women, think of you. Accept that you will be criticized no matter what you do. Don’t focus on it; focus instead on building your core confidence in who you are and what you are building. The more authentic you are in what you stand for, the easier it will be for those who resonate to find and support you and your business.