5 Japanese Space Startups to Watch

Japan’s New Space economy has taken off in recent years, as the Japanese government, the nation’s civil space agency JAXA, and private investors have invested in new ventures. That investment is beginning to pay off as the number of startups increases. Here are five Japanese startups with global ambitions to watch.

Infostellar

Infostellar helps satellite startups scale by facilitating access to ground stations. It’s been called the “Airbnb of ground stations.” Infostellar is operational, and its cloud-based StellarStation platform matches ground owners with downtime with satellite operators who need ground station access.

The startup has a growing network of ground stations with operational stations in UHF-band, S-band, and X-band, and partnerships with Azerbaijani satellite operator Azercosmos and Australian ground segment operator Capricorn Space. Infostellar was founded in 2016 and has raised $11.5 million to date, with Airbus Ventures, Sony Innovation Fund, and Mitsubishi UFJ Capital among its investors.

“Satellite operators’ main business is to plan, develop, deploy, and operate satellites — building a ground station network is annoying work for them. They should not spend their precious time to develop something extra. By building the ground station network we support the satellite operators to expand their businesses,” says CEO and founder Dr. Naomi Kurahara.

Kurahara says the company is looking to expand globally, and increase its relationship with the U.S. space industry by opening a U.S. office sometime next year. Kurahara is excited that tech titans Amazon and Microsoft are interested in the ground station arena, with AWS Ground Station and Microsoft Azure Orbital, and believes Infostellar’s ground stations will play a role in bringing more satellite data to the cloud.

GITAI

GITAI founder and CEO Sho Nakanose is not a space industry veteran. He previously worked at IBM, and had then sold his first company when he started a personal project to develop robots to solve the safety and cost issues related to human mobility. After interviewing a number of industries about their needs, Nakanose found that the space industry had the greatest safety and cost challenges with human mobility, and founded GITAI, a space robotics startup, in 2016.

GITAI has worked closely with JAXA having conducted a robot demonstration onboard JAXA’s mock ISS Kibo module, partnerships to formulate guidelines to roboticize the ISS Kibo, and a J-SPARC agreement. Now, GITAI is working toward a robot demonstration on the ISS, and it is working with Nanoracks on that mission.

“Next year's demonstrations will be an important step in GITAI's efforts to provide an inexpensive and safe means of working for its customers, both space agencies and space companies,” Nakanose says. “Through the process of developing the robot, we will acquire the skills, know-how, and experience necessary to prepare a robot to be ISS compatible. And after the on-board operations, we will prove the maturity of our technology in the microgravity environment, plus capture the attention of potential customers.”

Nakanose says GITAI has already received a research and development order for space robots from a private space company, and plans to have GITAI’s robots working in space on an actual mission by the mid-2020s.

Astroscale

Astroscale is on a mission to commercialize sustainable space through end-of-life services, active debris removal, and life extension services, and it is paying off. The company has offices in five countries; partnerships with JAXA, OneWeb, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government; and influences policy around the world. Astroscale has become Japan’s highest-funded space venture since it was founded in 2013. It recently closed a $51 million investment round, bringing total funds raised to $191 million.

Astroscale is now awaiting the launch of its ELSA-d satellite, which will demonstrate debris docking and removal. ELSA-d is designed to facilitate end-of-life services, bringing retired or failed satellites out of orbit and into the atmosphere, where they will burn on reentry. And this year, the company also entered the Geostationary (GEO) satellite life extension market through an acquisition.

CEO and founder Nobu Okada says Astroscale is driving the conversation on cleaning up space, and it’s technologies can open up a new value chain in the industry and pave the way for needed regulations: “Two years ago, nobody was taking care of existing debris,” he said of active debris removal. “The issue was clear, but nobody wanted to take action. Without proven technologies, nobody can create regulations.”

Synspective

Synspective is looking to join the ranks of prominent Earth Observation (EO) companies, and its niche is Synthetic Aperture Radar, which can capture imagery at night and through clouds. One of Japan’s highest-funded startups, the company has raised just under $100 million, having completed a Series A round in 2019.

Synspective is awaiting the launch of its first SAR satellite, StriX-α, on a dedicated Rocket Lab launch this year. The satellite will be the first in Synspective’s planned StriX constellation of 30 SAR satellites designed to provide geospatial solutions. The company plans to launch six satellites by 2022.

CEO Dr. Motoyuki Arai says Synspective’s constellation will provide services and data to enable disaster risk management around the world, with the goal to provide information quickly. He said Synspective is looking to target both commercial and government contracts, both in Japan and internationally.

“Our initial focus for SAR solutions being the Asia Pacific region and expanding out from there gradually. Our SAR data business is meant to address client's needs globally from the start,” Arai says.

Skygate Technologies

Skygate Technologies is an early-stage Ground-Station-as-a-Service startup founded this year. Skygate is working to develop a cloud-based ground station in Japan with a platform “Skygate,” which satellite operators can use to plan their ground station use. It plans to launch in 2021, and recently received a seed investment in an undisclosed amount from the Keio University-based venture capital firm Keio Innovation Initiative.

Founder and CEO Takanori Awatsu handled satellite communications in the Japan Self-Defense Forces and then worked for a Fintech startup before starting Skygate Technologies with the goal of improving data delivery for satellite data. The company is specifically targeting remote sensing customers, entities where data handling is important.

Skygate Technologies plans for its first ground station to be in Japan, and then to build sites in North America, Australia, and North Africa. Awatsu said Japan’s geographic location in the far East makes it an ideal for downlink for ground stations, and says U.S. companies are eager to work with Japanese ground station entities. VS

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