The satellite industry’s transition to a new economy has created vast opportunities for young entrepreneurs, executives, and engineers around the world. In order to solve big challenges such as launching and maintaining a constellation ecosystem, rolling out fifth generation wireless services, bridging the digital divide, and lowering manufacturing costs, the aerospace community needs disruptive thinkers and new ideas. Via Satellite has compiled a list of young professionals who, during the past year, have either been influencing the future direction of our industry through community leadership, researching and/or developing disruptive technologies, or taking on a central role in tackling our industry’s most critical challenges.
Naomi Kurahara, Co-Founder and CEO, Infostellar
In 2016, Naomi Kurahara co-founded Infostellar with a vision to bring modern-day Internet services into space — creating the largest space communications infrastructure in history — while pushing ground services to the next stage. The new communications technology firm based in Tokyo, Japan has been described as the “AirBnB for Satellites.” Kurahara and company are currently developing and offering a satellite antenna sharing platform called StellarStation. The platform is designed as a quick, flexible ground station aggregator for satellite services. After one-time setup, satellite operators will be able use StellarStation to access any ground station across the company’s global network.
Kurahara previously worked as a system engineer at Integral Systems Japan and received her Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the Kyushu Institute of Technology. She was also a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Tokyo. She was also the ground system team manager for Hodoyoshi project, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at University of Tokyo, and the ground system engineer for Integral Systems Japan. Since founding Infostellar, she has secured more than $7 million in funding from an investment team led by Airbus Ventures, and closed the beta release and public release of StellarStation.
Daniel Ceperley, Founder and CEO, LeoLabs
Dan Ceperley earned his doctorate in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from UC Berkeley in 2008 with a thesis on computer simulation of advanced optical systems. Later that year, he was program director at SRI International, where he led a team of more than 20 engineers and scientists and, for the next eight years, developed SRI’s commercial satellite tracking business.
In 2016, Ceperley went out on his own and formed LeoLabs — a Menlo Park, California-based company with a mission to secure commercial operations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). As the LEO ecosystem around Earth gets more congested, the risk of collisions rises, and the need to map the orbits of spacecraft, satellites and space debris grows with every launch. Meanwhile, new generations of commercial spacecraft, such as smallsats and cubesats, are causing a dramatic increase in imaging, communications, and human spaceflight prospects. LeoLabs was founded to address these risks.
In March 2018, Ceperley was named the grand prize winner at the SATELLITE 2018 Startup Space competition, where he pitched his business in front a group of the industry’s most active private investors. In July, LeoLabs announced it had closed a $13 million Series A financing round led by global investors WERU Investment and Airbus Ventures. Other investors participating in the round included Space Angels and Horizons Ventures. With this funding, LeoLabs will expand its network of next-generation radars for tracking small debris and satellites in LEO, and accelerate development of its ground-breaking LEO mapping and SSA platform.
“LeoLabs is stepping up to address both the opportunities and risks in LEO,” Ceperley says in the financing announcement. “Our mission is clear: inform, serve and protect LEO. We do this on two fronts, by providing the foundational data for tracking and characterizing objects in LEO, including small debris, and by making this commercial data accessible to the LEO community through our published API and platform. Our funding announcement today is a tangible endorsement of this approach. With LeoLabs, developers and operations professionals can rest assured they have chosen a capable and sustainable platform that is generating the best data available. This is a huge step forward.” LeoLabs looks to be a central focus as the need for SSA solutions increases in the age of smallsat constellations.
Natalya Bailey, Co-Founder and CEO, Accion Systems
On November 12, Rocket Lab successfully launched its first commercial rocket, carrying seven payloads into orbit. One of those payloads was Irvine 01, the first satellite powered by Charlestown-based start-up Accion Systems’ electric propulsion engines. The satellite, built by high school students, will head to Venus to take pictures of the planet and surrounding objects. Natalya Bailey, Accion Systems co-founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), considers the moment both a milestone for the business and a personal victory.
Bailey is shaping scalable electric propulsion technology into a commercialized system designed for the booming small satellite market. Accion removed the heavy tanks, pumps, valves, toxic propellants, external cathodes, and ionization chambers found in conventional electric propulsion systems and created a lighter, more efficient, more powerful ion engine that can be manufactured in batches of hundreds of units.
Accion Systems was born out of Bailey’s graduate research. During her doctoral work, Bailey helped invent a working prototype for a small engine (about the size of a deck of cards) for small satellites using liquid ion propulsion — or electrospray propulsion — technology. Since officially establishing Accion Systems as a company in 2014, Bailey has been awarded a $3 million Rapid Innovation Fund contract through the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and has raised $7.5 million in Series A funding led by Shasta Ventures. In October, Boeing, which unveiled its own revolutionary 702SP small satellite electric propulsion system in 2012, announced it was investing $3 million in an Accion Systems-led project to develop satellite propulsion for LEO, Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), and deep space.
Mike Safyan, Vice President of Launch, Planet
Planet operates the largest fleet of Earth-imaging satellites in orbit, and in order to maintain that status and promote itself as an agile, adaptive, and disruptive business, it needs to get its spacecraft into orbit. That task falls on the shoulders of Planet’s Vice President (VP) of launch, Mike Safyan. Like Planet’s co-founders, Safyan came to Planet in 2011 from a stint as an aerospace engineer at NASA Ames Research Center, where he worked on the smartphone-powered CubeSat platform, PhoneSat. He also worked as a research and development intern at the Aerospace Research and Technology Center. In this role, he worked on the mission design for the Barcelona Moon Team’s Google Lunar X-Prize rover, defined detailed mission requirements, and conducted preliminary design recommendations for the mobility, power, and communications subsystems. He also assisted with the development of a tracking antenna control system for a UAV platform.
At some point in time, Safyan seems to have taken on all of the most difficult jobs at Planet. During his career, he has overseen export regulatory licensing and compliance, as well as the company’s global ground station network. Now, he manages the company’s complex launch strategy, which aims to send large numbers of spacecraft through a tightening launch bottleneck. Despite the challenges, Safyan is delivering the goods. In 2017, Safyan oversaw Planet’s record-breaking launch of 88 Dove satellites on India’s PSLV. The launch allowed Planet to achieve its Mission One: imaging the entire Earth every day from space. In 2018, Safyan sent seven satellites into orbit as part of “SSO-A: SmallSat Express,” a fully dedicated rideshare mission on the SpaceX Falcon 9, procured by Spaceflight Industries. Overall, he has been involved in the launch of more than 300 satellites across more than 20 launch attempts.
In addition to his work at Planet, Safyan helped establish the Commercial Small Satellite Spectrum Management Association (CSSSMA), an industry organization that advocates for smallsat spectrum sharing. He also works with the Brooke Owens Fellowship selling Aerospace t-shirts to raise money, and volunteers with Meals on Wheels and Glide Church to help feed the needy in San Francisco.
Adam Maher, Founder and CEO, Ursa Space Systems
Adam Maher serves as founder and president of Ursa Space Systems, which he founded in 2014 to develop his driving vision of connecting people to information rich data derived from synthetic aperture radar, seeing an obvious frustration and disconnect between the technology and those who could take full advantage of the capabilities. Maher says he established Ursa to provide a solution to the demand for intuitive and easily accessible data and analytics relating to many of the world’s biggest questions and problems that can be solved using satellite technology.
Maher has been identified as a leading visionary in the space-based enterprise data field, especially in the energy vertical, where he is backed by respected financial investor and analyst Colin Fenton of Blacklight Research. In 2017, Maher was named a group winner at the very first Startup Space entrepreneur pitch contest. Last summer, Maher and his company received $5.7 million in new venture funding, led by RRE Ventures, with participation from S&P Global and Paladin Capital Group. The funding follows the global expansion of Ursa’s oil storage product and the launch of a new commercial partnership with S&P Global Platts, a division of S&P Global. Maher said he would use the funds to develop new products in response to strong customer demand, as well as expand current offerings.
Prior to founding Ursa, Maher worked at Space Systems Loral, where he was lead systems engineer for two complete satellite builds and satellite lead for four successful commercial satellite proposals. He also helped establish a new subsidiary of the parent company and as new business lead, worked closely with both venture capital backed start-ups and established satellite communication companies. Heholds a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering and Master of Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, from Cornell University.
Tanya Harrison, Director of Tesearch, Arizona State University NewSpace Initiative
As part of Arizona State University's Space Technology and Science NewSpace Initiative, Tanya Harrison works on commercial-academic space partnerships and geomorphology research related to the exploration of Mars. She is also a Science Team Collaborator on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Opportunity and the upcoming Mars 2020 sample caching rover. Harrison received her Ph.D. in Geology with a specialization in Planetary Science and Exploration from the University of Western Ontario's Centre for Planetary Science and Space Exploration (CPSX). During her time there she received the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, Canada’s most prestigious doctoral fellowship. She was also twice award the Amelia Earhart Fellowship for women in aerospace.
From 2008 until 2012, she was on the science operations team for NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) Context Camera (CTX) and Mars Color Imager (MARCI) at Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS). She was also a science team collaborator for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover Mast Cameras (Mastcam), Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), and Mars Descent Imager (MARDI). Her undergraduate degree is in astronomy and physics from the University of Washington, and her masters is in Earth and Environmental Sciences from Wesleyan University.
In addition to her professional work, Harrison is also an active science communicator on social media, giving talks around the world about Mars and space exploration. She will be delivering a presentation titled “The Emerging Role of Commercial Spaceflight in Earth Remote Sensing Science,” on Wed., May 8 at the SATELLITE 2019 conference in Washington, D.C. VS