Now in its fifth year at the SATELLITE conference and exhibition, the Startup Space entrepreneur pitch contest has become both a must-win for the aerospace industry’s new entrants and a must-attend for its most active investors. Just look at the list of past competitors and winners and you’ll see why –LeoLabs, Orbit Fab, Ursa Space, Satellite Vu, Akash Systems, SWISSto12, Astrapi, TimeTag, Optisys, and Astroscale are just 10 of the nearly 100 companies that have competed in Startup Space since its inaugural event in 2017.
Designed like “Shark Tank” for the aerospace industry, Startup Space competitors deliver quick pitches to a panel of investor judges, who then ask questions and evaluate the companies based on the potential value of the business, its products, and the preparedness of its founders.
Unfortunately, Startup Space hasn’t had a “normal” competition event since 2019 due to complications created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Several international participants weren’t able to travel to the United States for the 2020 competition, and most of the Startup Space 2021 activities will take place over video conference platforms.
Despite the challenging environment, the Startup Space class of 2021 is the most geographically and technologically diverse group the competition has hosted to date. Only two of the competing organizations are based in the United States. In this feature, we introduce you to the seven companies looking to make a splash at Startup Space 2021, with representatives ranging from experienced tech industry professionals to college students starting their first business — all eager for investor guidance and hungry for industry attention.
Startup Space 2021 will host its first new entrants from the island of Taiwan – and two were selected for the final group of competitors.
TMY Technology (TMYTEK) describes itself as a total millimeter-wave solutions provider. It is developing three products: a phased array antenna-in-package module for 5G RAN OEM (5G Radio Access Network Original Equipment Manufacturer) and satellite terminal markets; XBeam, which aims to speed up millimeter-wave over-the-air testing; and a BBox/UD Box to solve the lack of millimeter-wave developer tools in the manufacturing, R&D, and educational markets.
“We position ourselves as a high-performance RU [Radio Unit] innovator,” says Ethan Lin, vice president and co-founder of TMYTEK. “We’re dedicated to solving all the millimeter-wave challenges of the 5G era, and there are a lot of them. We built this business based on the many unmet demands of the market.”
Lin is a serial entrepreneur who has founded three companies in 13 years. After obtaining his master's degree in electronics engineering from Taiwan’s National Chiao-Tung University, he immediately went to work building the world's largest infrared telescope for CFHT in Hawaii. He later worked for smartphone maker HTC and worked on software and wireless communication projects with Microsoft and Qualcomm.
Now, he leads TMYTEK’s software technology and marketing teams and helps the company raise funds. The company closed two rounds of fundraising in 2018 and 2019 and received a valuation of $13 million.
Lin is excited to share the results of his company’s rapid progress with Startup Space attendees. “We built millimeter wave tools and quickly focused on making revenues on top of it,” says Lim. “Our Xbeam product is now in mass production and we can now resolve the issue of slow OTA [Over-the-Air] testing for hundreds of millions of modules, smartphones, and base stations that need to be tested before shipping.
Also representing Taiwan’s growing space industry is Thomas Yen, CEO and co-founder of Tensor Tech, which has been developing a patented spherical motor technology for satellite attitude control systems called “Reaction Sphere.”
“Costs remain the most significant obstacle the space industry faces in trying to innovate,” explains Yen. “While miniaturization of components can keep costs down for a satellite, the Attitude Determination and Control System [ADCS] is the one system that continues to take up the most volume of costs. So, we invented a spherical motor technology that can replace traditional satellite attitude control systems based on three or four single-axis reaction wheels with a system that is one-third of the weight, volume, and power consumption. With Reaction Sphere, people can replace three motors with only one and spacecraft can conduct more power-intensive operations and carry more payloads.”
Yen is a member of the Taiwan National Cheng-Kung University’s electrical engineering machine lab and an entrepreneur-in-residence at Infinio Capital.
Tensor Tech is his new venture, for which he is currently seeking seed funding. While Yen knows that his company will compete in the market with other more established companies like Hyperion, Blue Canyon, and Gomspace, he believes customers will value the unique full-stack ADCS service Tensor provides. “From mission design, the delivery of components or systems, to integration support, we are not only a key subsystem supplier but also a consulting team for our customers along their space journey,” he says.
Digantara established its startup headquarters right down the street from Tata Auditorium at the Indian Institute of Science’s Innovation Center in Bangalore. There, the company’s CEO and co-founder Anirudh Sharma is developing a space-based surveillance platform powered by a constellation of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) nanosatellites that can track everything from aircraft to space debris with global real-time Earth coverage.
“Each of our satellites will be equipped with twin payloads — an ADS-B [Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast] receiver and a space object detector – for accurate and robust real-time tracking,” Sharma explains. “We’ve also developed an AI and machine learning-based algorithm that will model the future course of objects for conjunction analysis and risk quantification. Allied downstream services combined with a front-end interface, will deliver the information as a service to the end-user.”
Sharma, an EC-Council “certified ethical hacker” and graduate of India’s largest academic institution Lovely Professional University, hopes Digantara can build on the success achieved by former Startup Space grand prize winner LeoLabs, by servicing different customer networks.
“We see demand in two distinct government and commercial categories,” says Sharma. “In the commercial markets, Digantara is targeting satellite launch companies, space agencies, and satellite manufacturers that are dependent on space data for various launch-related, trajectory determination, and satellite operational services. For government, we’re looking to serve the national agencies that are responsible to regulate air traffic and operations in the civil and defense air space. So, key decision-makers in both air and space policy-making.”
Though Digantara is funded by the Indian government grants, Sharma hopes that Startup Space can help establish connections to investors and the seed capital that is much needed to jumpstart large constellation projects.
Walt Anderson is by no means a rookie entrepreneur. Several milestones could compete for the crowning achievement title of his 25-year career. He co-founded the International Space University in 1988, and established the first pan-European telecommunications operator, Espirit Telecom, which went public in the late ’90s before being acquired by Telco Communication Group.
His new venture is Avealto, which is in the final stage of developing a High Altitude Platform (HAP) to provide telecom infrastructure services in under-served areas of the world.
“Our HAP vehicle will use technologies and ground station infrastructure that are similar to Geostationary [GEO] satellites,” says Anderson. “It is an airship which can remain in a stationary position in the stratosphere. This allows focused spot beams to be used and limited frequencies to be re-used efficiently. Our technology can provide an option for existing satellite operators to lower their costs in some concentrated service areas and allow them to use their limited bandwidth for higher profit services.”
Avealto has raised $6.4 million, which was used for initial development activities and to obtain an airworthiness certification for its 28-meter-long test vehicle operating in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The company will conduct the final development of its full-scale commercial HAP vehicle entirely in the United Kingdom.
Once up and running, Anderson says Avealto will target market segment in mobile backhaul and VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) operators, and maritime communications. This is especially attractive in the maritime market, he says, as HAPS can provide lower latency services using existing terminals already installed onboard vessels.
“Many companies are developing high-altitude aircraft, but these fast moving vehicles are not optimized for the provision of telecommunications infrastructure,” says Anderson when asked about competing HAPS solutions under development. “For example, Thales Alenia has a division called Stratobus, which claims it is building a very large airship type vehicle. But, they are projecting a completion date about three years later than Avealto.”
The Space Simulation Services of Ottawa Corp. (SSSOC) is a Canadian satellite services startup that provides turnkey testing environments to satellite manufacturers and component developers. The service is particularly tailored to small satellite clients and includes Thermal Vacuum (TVAC) testing; a remote platform that allows clients to review telemetry including temperature, pressure, and power at a distance; and a strategic consultancy service to help clients develop their products through R&D to market.
Michael Graham, the company’s founder and CEO, says that there is a lot of money to be made in helping small satellite builders streamline their product development and eliminate risk in carrying infrastructure.
“The global testing market between the development and verification phases is approximately $9 billion growing at 8 percent CAGR,” says Graham, noting that the figures come from Morgan Stanley. “Generally, 50 percent of satellite testing expenditures are spent on development and the other 50 percent on verification.”
Graham has a decade of experience with testing technologies and methodologies gained from his time at the Canadian Space Agency, where he worked on projects involving space simulation and the development, design and development of real-time embedded systems. He’s hoping that experience will translate to success with his new venture.
SSSOC has raised its seed funding and is currently closing on its post-seed round of funding. With the proper funding in place, Graham hopes SSSOC can come to the rescue of small satellite clients who can’t afford existing test services.
“We’re essentially competing with government facilities that weren’t meant for these types of regular business activities. So, they are often inflexible with their schedule and largely unavailable,” explains Graham. “We are also competing with in-house facilities, which are expensive, often incomplete, and just as inflexible. Independent testing facilities are often inexperienced with the pre-launch process and apply outdated overhead and infrastructure costing due to their business model.”
Sylvia France is a self-proclaimed “space baby,” as her father was integral in early space exploration. After completing her education, she started her career in Silicon Valley working on the earliest GPS mapping systems and has since then developed traditional and digital marketing strategies for Apple, The Home Depot, Verizon, and Bozell.
She has now returned to her space roots as president of OrbitsEdge, a Florida-based startup that is joining the rapidly growing space-as-a-service sector. OrbitsEdge is developing a space-based edge-computing solution with a proprietary “Frame” architecture that allows organizations to harness data grown in space and in other harsh environments.
OrbitsEdge’s proprietary satellite bus is called SatFrame, designed with a 19-inch server rack and available volume for 5U of hardware. The company’s first two SatFrame satellites will support 18-inch deep hardware and further units will grow to support full-sized 36-inch deep hardware. OrbitsEdge satellites will also be able to communicate with other satellites to collect, process, and cleanse their data.
“In the space market, we have targeted companies and organizations that heavily rely on Earth Observation [EO] for time-sensitive decision making,” says French. “We are also approaching other industries, like pharmaceutical and healthcare companies that will leverage microgravity for chemical composition. We have also been approached by the U.S. Department of Defense and oil and gas, mining, and shipping companies that also require edge computing in harsh environments.”
OrbitsEdge has raised approximately $200,000 in an initial seed round and hopes Startup Space will help build its investor network.
The other U.S.-based company competing in this year’s Startup Space is AV SpaceTech, led by CEO and recent Rutgers University graduate, Adisesh Yeragudi. AV SpaceTech is building a Xe-1 ion engine, which is being designed to provide significant improvements in performance, capability, and reliability while reducing costs compared to other ion engine models.
“Our organization's current goal is to commercialize the Annular Ion Engine: a gridded ion thruster that poses significant performance and cost savings benefits over current state of the art offerings,” says Yeragudi. “We believe this engine, in conjunction with our emphasis on lean/agile manufacturing practices, will reduce the costs of manufacturing spacecraft while simultaneously increasing the integrity and reliability of a space mission.”
Yeragudi is targeting the engine to a segmented market that includes organizations manufacturing small satellites starting at 100 kg to 500 kg and up; companies that are attempting to build LEO constellations for remote sensing and telecommunications; larger GEO OEMs; and NASA and U.S. Department of Defense applications.
While Yeragudi knows that this puts AV SpaceTech in competition with companies like Aerojet Rocketdyne, Busek, and L3Harris, he believes that the market for electric propulsion is still relatively new and growing.
“We’re an organization that recognizes the roadblocks in the space industry,” says Yeragudi. “We are about making space more accessible and cheaper. We hope to approach this by building a product line that consists of the Annular Ion Engine at different sizes. Organizations can choose the engine size that best suits their needs based on the size and mission requirements of their satellites.” VS
Startup Space 2021 will take place between two events. Avealto, Tensor Tech, Digantara, and TMYTEK will deliver their presentations virtually during SATELLITE’s Future Space Forum on Thursday, July 29, starting at 11:00 a.m. Eastern U.S. time. OrbitsEdge, AV SpaceTech, and SSSOC will present their pitches live at SATELLITE 2021 at the Gaylord National Convention Center in Maryland on Thursday, Sept. 9 at 9:30 a.m. Eastern U.S. time.