Enginuity is a story series spotlighting McMaster Faculty of Engineering grads who are doing things differently. They’re innovators, creators and entrepreneurs pursuing non-traditional engineering roles in diverse industries.
Space has long been thought of as the final frontier. For Alyssia Jovellanos, it’s quite the opposite. She views it as a new beginning.
As the founder of the non-profit A Billion Dreams, she has made it her mission to bridge the gap between Earth-dwelling dreamers, like herself, and the vastness of outer space.
Jovellanos’ organization is launching their first mission with SpaceX to send plaques engraved with people’s names and their dreams into space, attached to a weather satellite that will orbit the earth for five to 10 years. With a Falcon 9 launch scheduled for spring 2024, Jovellanos’ own entrepreneurial dream is poised for take off.
Getting to this career milestone has felt to Jovellanos like a winding road with significant personal and professional obstacles to overcome. She credits “an engineering mindset” honed at McMaster for teaching her to approach intimidating problems with tenacity.
A life-long passion for working with the latest tech brought Jovellanos to McMaster Engineering, where she graduated with a degree in Computer Science. Receiving the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award in her sophomore year, she found the lessons and community at McMaster to be hugely beneficial to her future goals.
“It really changed my life, the extracurriculars in particular,” says Jovellanos of her McMaster experience, reminiscing about traveling for hackathons with her Computer Science peers. “It allowed me to interact and collaborate with so many different students from across different universities, and it opened my eyes to how much opportunity there is in the field that I had chosen.”
With her degree in tow, Jovellanos set out to build her career in the computer science field. After accepting an offer from Microsoft, she worked on the Edge internet browser with a focus on personalization and federated learning within machine learning. While grateful for the opportunity, her entrepreneur dreams were never far from her mind.
Today, she makes the decision to pivot in her career sound simple. “Ultimately I knew that I wanted to try my own path,” she says. “I just quit to build a startup.”
Despite the potential risks associated with Jovellanos’ choice, her determination led her and a team to the famed Y Combinator startup accelerator, which has been involved with AirBnb, Instacart and Reddit. With investors on their side, she was poised to become the leader and entrepreneur she had dreamed of becoming.
Just as she was getting settled on a new path, Jovellanos received unexpected news: a diagnosis of an aggressive form of cancer. Her plans and goals immediately were put on hold so she could begin treatment, which occurred at the same time as the onset of the pandemic. “I wasn’t allowed visitors and I was suffering from my chemo treatments,” she says. “It was extremely difficult.”
In need of a distraction, she started dreaming up a list of what she’d do post-cancer treatment. The list included activities as simple as eating an ice cream cone to as complex as going to space, building something that people want and contributing to science. “I just kept telling myself, there’s no way that this is it for me,” she says.
When the news came that her cancer was in remission, Jovellanos was ready to make her dreams a reality and help others do the same.
“Space has a magical quality to it,” says Jovellanos. “It makes you think beyond yourself.” It was a fascination with space that was the genesis of A Billion Dreams. Making this vision come to life, however, would require a lot of work to properly navigate a myriad of red tape.
Jovellanos questioned: How do I even put something in space? Do I need to ask for permission from a government body? Why are these rockets being sent to space? Who funds them?
Honing her engineering mindset, she went in search of people who could answer her questions. Relationships formed during her career, including through Y Combinator, and numerous cold emails helped build a bridge to SpaceX.
Jovellanos is not one to be content for long, despite a laundry list of achievements that in addition to her work with SpaceX includes a WorldQuant Championship title and being a contestant in Miss Universe Canada. She intends to continue using the skills and mindset gained from McMaster Engineering to lead A Billion Dreams into its next phase. She has long-term goals to be part of cutting-edge research in space.
“Space research is an incredibly exciting field, and it can definitely help people here on Earth,” says Jovellanos. “I think a lot of people don’t realize how much of the things that they interact with on a day-to-day basis have come from research done in space. Things like UV filters, like portable ultrasound machines, like some cancer therapies, even a lot of drug development happens in space too.”
Specifically, Jovellanos is interested in getting involved in biomedical research including cancer research that happens in microgravity. “With unique conditions, you can do things that would be hard to replicate on earth,” she explains. “And it could potentially mean the difference between discovering a chemo drug that has side effects and one that doesn’t.”
“This space-based research is the first step in discovering new techniques that can improve the daily lives of people on earth,” says Jovellanos. “Pushing boundaries can lead to exciting possibilities.”
If you’re interested in sending a name or a dream into space with A Billion Dreams, the deadline to submit for this mission is September 30, 2023. Visit the A Billion Dreams website to learn more.
Are you a good fit for an Enginuity story? Get in touch with our Alumni Office at email@example.com.
Illustration of Alyssia Jovellanos by Kimberlyn Porter.