Next Stop: Outer Space. How Innovation Fuels Young Explorer Ilias Psyroukis

Innovation. It’s an idea central to the work of National Geographic Young Explorer Ilias Psyroukis. After becoming interested in space in high school, Ilias, a native of Greece, co-founded the nonprofit organization SPIN – Space Innovation, which educates young people about space and supports them in making and launching their own satellites. We caught up with Ilias recently, and he said of his organization, “I don’t think we could exist if we stopped being innovators.” Read on to learn more about Ilias’s experiences and tips for young innovators.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

National Geographic (NG): You told participants in a National Geographic Virtual Field Trip that you became interested in space in high school. What sparked that interest?

Ilias Psyroukis (IP): In the second year of our senior high school our teacher, George Kontellis, asked a group of eight of us, including me and Ilias Theodoridis, the other co-founder of SPIN, if we would like to participate in the CanSat [can-sized satellite] competition organized by the European Space Agency. We worked about six months on our own satellite, staying up till 4 in the morning and going to school again the next day at 9 o’clock. It was really challenging because in those years in Lesbos we didn’t even have a 3D printer, for example, so finding ways to overcome the lack of material or tools was very important.

NG: After winning second place overall in CanSat, you helped launch the organization SPIN – Space Innovation. Why was it important to you to emphasize innovation?

IP: Innovation is to change things. We wanted to start a conversation about space and how we can innovate in space, which can in turn improve life here on Earth. For example, NASA research on food for astronauts led to improvements in baby formula. That’s important because it changed the world we live in. It’s not only about living on another planet; it’s also about how we live here. Can you imagine life, for example, without GPS? That’s another product of space innovation.

NG: What qualities do young people need to develop to be successful innovators?

IP: There are a few:

  • Curiosity. If you don’t have the curiosity for something or that passion for something you cannot be an innovator. You have to ask every time why, and why, and why: why that’s working like that, or why that doesn’t work. You have to question everything, even yourself, each choice that you make.
  • Decisiveness. You have to start doing an experiment. It’s OK to have a vision or to imagine things, but you have to start as soon as possible. It starts with creating a plan; planning is very important. You have to write down how you will do the work and track the progress you make. This way, when you reach a dead end, you’ll understand the progress you’ve made and how to move forward.
  • Openness to risk and failure. Everything is hard when you start; you have to take the risk and be OK with failure. The only playbook is failure. The only way that you really learn is to fail and fail again and start over.

NG: Looking back on your journey, what lessons would you give other young people on building an innovative organization?

IP: When you are young you want to try everything or you want to do everything, but that’s not always possible. So, it’s important to:

  • Prioritize. You cannot do everything. You have to let things go. You have to take breaks and keep a balance.
  • Ask for help when you need it. Don’t be proud.
  • Build a strong team. The most important thing you have is your friends and coworkers.

NG: What tips do you have for not only being innovative yourself, but also fostering an innovative environment within a team?

IP: Get to know your team and help create bonds between them. You have to feel OK being with these people. Give them space—space to make errors, to experiment. Be honest with them and ask them to be honest with you. Engage them in building the vision. Don’t overload them with a lot of work.

NG: In addition to innovation, SPIN’s core values include collaboration, creativity, learning by doing, thinking out of the box, and volunteerism. What do these mean to you?

IP: These values drive our organization.

  • First of all, collaboration. The most important thing is our team. In space, a complicated sector, you need different perspectives, and if you know how to collaborate and work with different perspectives you have a better chance to innovate. 
  • Creativity reflects the idea that our work can be not just technically sound but also beautiful. 
  • Learning by doing: this goes back to our high school years. We saw that we started understanding math and physics better in school when we started our satellite project. Project-based learning is very important for us. 
  • Thinking out of the box: you have to understand that we started in the middle of the economic crisis in Greece and we were talking about wanting to do space technologies and bring students to work on space technologies. It was a little bit crazy, but you have to have a vision to help the world change. 
  • Volunteerism: for a lot of years we worked as volunteers in SPIN, and we have a lot of volunteers every year and that’s very important. Students that want to innovate, that want to think out of the box, want to collaborate: they have a lot of questions and a lot of problems and they need help. You have to be an educator too.

NG: What is your vision for the future of SPIN and the role of innovation in your work?

IP: The next big step for us is to create our first mission or satellite to outer space—that’s a milestone for us—and also create an innovation hub here in Greece to give young people access to space technologies. So we have two basic things: go out to outer space and create a hub that will facilitate the next missions.

Ilias Psyroukis is a National Geographic Young Explorer and co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit organization SPIN – Space Innovation. You can connect with Ilias @ilpsyroukis on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

At National Geographic, we believe young people have the innovative potential and ingenuity to address some of the world’s most pressing problems. Sign up to be a part of the growing #GenGeo community of young people who are committed to exploring connections, taking action for our planet, and inspiring a sustainable future.

Header image: Ilias attends the launch of the Greek satellite Hellas Sat 4 at the Guiana Space Centre, French Guiana, in 2019 (Ilias Psyroukis / SPIN – Space Innovation).

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