Deep Space Communication Tool Now Available Here On Earth

Rob Brougham and Drew Smithsimmons are the co-founders of a company that makes an incredibly exciting collaborative communications product called Braided Space. They talked to me about how they have developed this product for use in deep space and how it can be used by earthbound organisations to increase diversity and inclusion.

I was excited about doing this interview with my guests, Rob Brougham and Drew Smithsimmons, because for the first time on this show, we were leaving earth and going into outer space! I don’t know if this was a world first, but all will become clear as you read on.

Rob and Drew are the founders of a company called Braided Space. They have developed a product that was initially for use in space and now it’s being used on earth. We talked about the product itself and how it is important for diversity and inclusion, particularly around neurodiversity.

I started by asking Rob to introduce himself, tell me a bit more about his professional background and what led to creating Braided Space? 

‘My degree is in astrophysics. Although that was a long time ago it’s relevant and I’ve always been very excited about everything to do with space and physics. I spent the bulk of my early career working in telecommunications. I worked in technical and commercial roles across a whole bunch of different companies and was lucky enough to travel to different countries. That was fantastic.

Then about seven or eight years ago, I moved into the Digital Health field called Digital Health, also relevant given the recent pandemic. The sector is all about helping patients to support themselves remotely with access to clinicians. I wasn’t on the clinical side, of course, I was on the commercial side. I loved doing that and one of my roles was working in mental healthcare where I first met Drew. We can talk about that a little bit later, but it was through working in astrophysics and then telecoms and then mental healthcare that came together as fortuitous experiences and skill sets that helped us to build Braided.’

Drew’s professional background is as a psychological therapist. He told me, ‘I’ve worked in mental health services around the UK for about 20 years, particularly in Scotland in remote and rural communities. Access to psychological support was difficult quite often because of geography, but also because people were time-poor making it difficult to attend appointments within the hours that were being offered. Those sorts of things were creating barriers to access.

As I was working as a clinician in those services, I began to experiment with using technology in different ways to open up access. That led me to working with a company where I met Rob and I started there as a therapist, delivering live text sessions, so no video stream, of evidence-based therapy with people.

This meant we were supporting lots of people in remote communities who wouldn’t be able to engage in therapy otherwise. At the same time in 2017, NASA announced the Artemis program and there was lots of material about the planned deep space missions to the moon and to Mars. There was a particular focus on the risks to the mental health of crew in such an extreme situation.

It’s quite a natural progression from focusing on psychological support in remote communities to thinking about a team of people in the most remote situation we could imagine that far from earth. It all came out of that and the collaboration with Rob.’

So, Rob and Drew set up a company called Braided Space to focus on long missions in space. I was interested to hear more about Braided Space and the problem that Rob and Drew were trying to solve.

Rob explained. ‘It’s not a problem for today but it’s a problem we’re going to have in the next few years. The planning is underway for this and it’s to do with answering the question, “How do we communicate with the crew on a future mission into deep space?” Deep space means beyond low earth orbit. As an example, the international space station goes around the earth in orbit relatively low down, it’s not very far away. 

The last time any human beings went into deep space was when the Apollo astronauts went to the moon and there are plans now, as Drew already mentioned with the Artemis program, to send people back to the moon and then to use that as a springboard to send human beings onwards to Mars. When you start to go that far away you have a big problem with communication in that it takes a very long time for a communication signal to travel across the void.

We’re doing this interview in different parts of the UK. As I speak, you are hearing me almost instantaneously, but if I was on my way to Mars and you were still on earth, there would be a delay which could be many, many minutes. So, I would say something and it would take three minutes for you to hear it, three minutes for me to hear your reply. When earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the sun in their respective orbits, that delay goes up to over twenty minutes. What that means is you simply cannot have a normal conversation because if I have to say, “Hey, Toby, how are you?” And then I’ve got like six minutes, at least, probably ten minutes… I can go make a cup of tea or whatever, it’s not a proper conversation. This is challenging operationally if the crew’s 

trying to get instructions and support from the ground it will become confusing.

It’s also really, really challenging for their mental health as Drew already alluded to. The impact on someone of being isolated in a small tin can flying to Mars with six or seven other people perhaps, and not being able to speak to their loved ones on earth is very, very significant.

That’s the problem that we set out to solve with space Braiding and we managed to do that and we’ve built it. We can talk in a minute about how it works. I’m sure you’ll ask us that. But we’ve built it. We’ve tested it in studies, working with NASA, with the European Space Agency and the UK Space Agency and it works very well.’

What I find fascinating is that this solution has been developed for deep space missions, but it has now become a tool that we can use on earth. I’ve had a go with it myself and it’s such a cool tool. I asked Drew, ‘Why did you develop the solution for us earthlings? How is it being used on earth and why is it a good solution for neurodivergent individuals?’

‘I have a lifetime of experience of communication being difficult at times when we do it in traditional formats, as in at face-to-face meetings or by video. I’m autistic and I still manage to participate in those modalities, but it’s effortful and I don’t always find it easy to share the best of my thinking. Whilst we were focused on solving the problem for NASA in deep space, Rob and I still had to use the tools thousands of times, as we were testing and testing and testing and ironing out bugs. I simply found myself much happier in Braided, having meetings and working with Rob through that tool, because as we’ll go on to describe, it has some key qualities that add up to giving me some time to process what’s being said before I fully contribute what I want to say. There’s a bit more time to think, and it creates a discussion that’s highly structured.

It means I know the topics that are coming, I can prepare my thoughts on them and I can edit my contributions. It’s much more expected, the direction of the conversation is more knowable and I find that very, very helpful. You might have heard the expression, that if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person, right? We didn’t want to assume that just because I found that a more comfortable, less stressful way to be in a live discussion, that that would be true for other people. 

We went down this path where we had to evolve the technology so that it would work for a group of people on earth having a meeting, which took some development work and then getting it into people’s hands to explore, did they see the same values that I did? What was it like for them? We did some structured testing with knowledge sector professionals who were also autistic and lots of demonstrations with other neurodivergent people, people with ADHD and people with dyslexia who found different value in the tool. 

That led us to begin to think about Braided meetings as a tool that could remove barriers to participation in meetings at work, which have been excluding people from discussions for a very long time.’

I liked Drew’s use of the words time to think, because it reminds me of a podcast interview, I did a while back with Mitzi Wyman, who is a trained facilitator in a technique called the thinking environment that’s all about creating structured meetings that gives everybody the opportunity to have a voice. It’s a very inclusive way of running meetings and if you’re interested in reading about that interview it’s available here.

I asked Rob to tell me a bit about how the Braided system works. For example, if I was looking at it on my computer screen, what would I see? 

‘I like to describe the whole idea as a very simple, but not an obvious idea. I’ll explain briefly how it works for space first and then we can talk about how that gets adapted on earth. We call it Braiding because each communication is subdivided into a number of threads or braids, which are intertwined and presented in a specific way to people to provide the benefits we’ve talked about. If you were on Mars and I was on earth and we were having a conversation, what you would see on your computer screen, is a multi-sided carousel shape and each of those sides would carry a window of text. 

You can type into this tool and you can read what I’m writing on that same subject and there can be multiple subjects on that carousel. At the moment, it’s a written-only tool. The way it works in space to disguise that latency is that while you’re reading what I wrote before and typing your response there, I’m actively typing in another braid on the opposite side of the carousel and I’m reading something that you might have typed five or six minutes ago that has spent some time travelling across the void between Mars and Earth. As time passes the carousel rotates one step at a time and each time it does, it brings to me fresh content from you and at the same instant it brings to you fresh content from me. So, to each of us, it feels like an entirely natural conversation with no latency, because every time the carousel moves, you get a fresh message from me that you’ve never seen before and you reply to it as if I just messaged you. In reality, it happened several minutes ago but because that experience is the same for both of us, we have the same feeling of being in a natural shared discussion. So that’s how it works in space. 

The great benefit of using the tool on earth is there is no latency so we don’t need to spend time with some of that content travelling across the void and not being engaged with. That means we could have that same carousel with, let’s say, six panels on it and instead of having two people, one either side, on Earth we can have six people, each person sitting there at a laptop looking at one panel. It works with six different panels, six people, six separate threads or braids of conversation, which are all rotating continuously in the meeting. 

A topic might start from me, I add some comments onto it. It then goes to Drew he adds some comments onto it. He’s got there at that point in time that opportunity to add his thoughts without me interrupting him, without any of the usual distractions you get in a meeting. And then after he’s added his thoughts, that would then go on to you. It’s a continually rotating carousel with multiple threads of conversation which come together to feel like a very natural engagement.’

I asked Rob to tell me more about the benefits that the organisations testing the product are noticing when they run meetings and communicate through these braids or the carousel.

‘I think it comes down to the individuals in those meetings, what’s important to them and what they struggle with. I’ll answer it from my personal point of view and my experience of being, I think, neurotypical. I’m sure plenty of my friends would disagree in various ways but, in general, I think I am. If answer what this does for me then I can hand over to Drew to talk about what it does for him. 

I enjoy face to face meetings. I get a lot of energy from them. I love being in a room and bouncing ideas backwards and forwards. Now that’s fantastic but doesn’t mean I’m a great value contributor to a meeting, even though I enjoy it. Being extrovert, one thing I don’t like is silence. If there’s silence in the room, I will talk to fill it. It doesn’t mean I’ve got something clever to say, or even well thought through or anything. It just means I don’t like the silence so I start speaking, which means that I’m potentially distracting other people who were about to say something more profound and more well thought through. 

It also means that I am then taking the conversation or the meeting in a way that isn’t necessarily what we’re there to try to work on. I’ve got all of those inherent weaknesses in my meeting performance that I didn’t really realise until we started to play with Braiding.

My initial thoughts were that I might find Braiding restrictive. Actually, I find it very liberating because instead of always being thinking about how to get a word in, I’ve just got one topic to focus on. I put my thoughts in, the carousel rotates to the next topic, and then I’m giving my thoughts on that as well. That’s what I’m seeing personally. And we’re getting some feedback from other people who say that’s something that they’re seeing as well. But of course, a team is not just one person, so when you’ve got a team that’s as neurodiverse as we are, as a founding team, you have a lot more value. I’m sure Drew will have additional points to make.’

Drew continued from his perspective, ‘I think one of the most important qualities is that it equalises access to the discussion. So even more broadly than thinking about neuro inclusion, there’s reliable research data from the States, which led up to this concept called the uneven conversation problem. You might have heard of it? In any group of six people, for example, three of them will do 75% of the talking. There’s lots of different factors that go into that beyond neurodiversity. So, for me and many other people who find it hard to fully participate in the discussion, Braiding gives me the space to do so. It gives me the equal opportunity to say what I think about the topics under discussion without being interrupted, spoken over or distracted. 

Where someone needs a bit more processing time it allows for it and that could be for lots of reasons. I imagine if, say, I had an accident and it affected my hearing, and then I was going to a meeting and I was struggling to hear compared to before, I imagine the extra processing that needs to go on experiencing that, that having a little bit more time would again, allow for equal participation.

This is what we hear from people who are testing it. The group of autistic professionals that I mentioned earlier, of that group 100% of them said that they were able to fully participate in the discussion in a way that had not felt possible for them in face-to-face meetings.’

I love the business journey of my guests with Rob coming from a telecoms and healthcare tech background and Drew from mental health services. It’s brilliant to hear how they met and ended up creating a business and solutions for deep space missions. 

Now that the product is becoming available for us earthlings, I wondered what it was like having a founding team with neurodivergent members on it? I asked Rob and Drew if they felt that neurodivergent thinking helped with the business and product development.

Drew replied, ‘I think it is the engine that has allowed us to make the progress that we have. Maybe there’s something about being a co-founder in a startup that allows you some more flexibility. Certainly, if you’ve ever been in a co-founding relationship, it’s very intense. We speak many times every day. We work on hard problems every day, but it has afforded us the opportunity to experiment with how we can appreciate and recognise each other’s differences and leverage them to our advantage rather than try and sort of suppress them or push them out of the way and try and be identical to each other. If you present us with a situation or a problem, we will see different things to each other. We will have different approaches. We will understand it in different ways. A

We have learned to value the time and effort that we put into teasing out those differences, not trying to push them away because it’s in the differences where the innovative thinking is. We know, whenever we work on a thing together, fully together, giving each other the space to be ourselves while we do that, we always have better outcomes. Always.’

It was time to pose the question I ask everybody when they come on the show. I started with Rob, asking ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘I’ve got a lot of thoughts on that. It’s a very big question and I think some of this comes down to my personal journey. I’ve had some reasonably big corporate jobs over the years and generally teams that have worked for me have given me feedback that has always been positive about my ability to be inclusive and supportive of people. But when I look back now, I realise how bad I was in some of the meetings I used to run. If people like Drew had been in them, they would’ve had a terrible time. They probably wouldn’t have told me and I wouldn’t have realised. I just wouldn’t have. 

I’m now much more aware of that going forward. I think what I’d say what inclusive growth means to me is what Drew just articulated. We’ve been on a journey together and making sure that as Braided grows going forward, we want to keep that as a core part of everything about the business. It’s been so powerful for us. I’ve learned so much through it myself, and it’s certainly going to be a core component of our future.

I posed the same question to Drew.

‘It would mean growing equality, I think. In my specific vein of interest, that would mean equalising job opportunities for all people. Somebody will correct me on these figures, but I think broadly speaking, 75% of autistic adults want to be in employment and about 15% are, so equalising job opportunities for all people. But also once people are into jobs, in the Inclusive Growth podcast interview with Jonathan Hassell, he spoke eloquently about once you have a more diverse work workforce, if you don’t provide people with the context and tools that they need to do their best work, then the organisation is disabling them, not the other way around.

It is about improving job opportunities, but then also improving the work context and processes so that everybody has what they need to do their best work. I think in that future state, when truly diverse teams can collaborate effectively, I think that’s when growth will really take off.’

To learn more about Braided Space, how it works and how it can help improve communications visit the website Once there, you can read all about the background of the product’s development for communicating in deep space and also about Braided Meetings. You can also sign up for a free Braided Meetings trial or directly buy the product. 

Deep Space Communication Tool Now Available Here On Earth - Mildon