Getting in on the Ground Floor, Literally
While nearly all entrepreneurs behind new satellite startup companies share a common passion for the commercial development of space, some have invested their creative energies on developing valuable business opportunities on the ground. These entrepreneurs identify a more immediate need for technologies that provide the cornerstones of ambitious space visions, and a more practical product line that can — for the most part — be physically seen and tested in laboratories, investor meetings and on trade show floors.
Entrepreneurs are taking notice that more financiers are looking at the ground segment as fertile soil for investments that launch quickly and produce returns more quickly than space-based products. This is evidenced by the fact that 60 out of the 86 startups that applied to compete in the SATELLITE 2017 Conference & Exhibition’s “Startup Space” pitch contest represented technologies that function completely within Earth’s atmosphere. We caught up to a few of these competitive entrepreneurs on site at the Startup Space event and learned about the unique challenges involved with taking a more “grounded” approach to revolutionizing the space industry.
Ursa Space Systems: Big, Easy-to-Understand Data Analytics, On-Demand
While standing alone on a bright white stage situated on the outskirts of the bustling SATELLITE 2017 exhibit hall floor, Ursa Space Systems President Adam Maher shares a quiet, nerve-racking moment, locked in a stare with Starburst Accelerator Partner Van Espahbodi, one of four judges evaluating Maher’s five-minute pitch. There’s a little more than one minute left on Maher’s clock when Espahbodi leans into a microphone and asks, “What gives you confidence in pitching a product that puts you in competition with some very heavy hitters like BlackSky, DigitalGlobe, and Planet, which just bought Terra Bella from Google?”
Tech-savvy executives typically and instinctively answer questions about business models with technical details, and Maher nearly falls into that trap with his answer. “Those companies use aerial and optical satellites to collect data, while our Ranger service use radar satellites, which can see through clouds and at night,” says Maher. “We can collect data on the Earth, rain or shine.”
Before Espabhodi can repeat his question, Maher realizes that he didn’t answer it and shifts into first person. He continues, “I feel confident in our approach because of our ability to adapt and produce customize data, on demand. That’s what I think makes Ursa stand out. It’s our pace of business, combined with our ability to fill in gaps of information where others fall short and to use resources from our established network of suppliers.”
Maher looks very young, but he’s far from a space industry novice. After spending more than 10 years as a systems integration and technical business development specialist at SSL, Maher and a group of professional peers from satellite and cybersecurity companies began identifying massive opportunities in the burgeoning data analytics industry. They launched Ursa in 2015 with a vision of providing user-friendly data sets derived from radar satellite imagery to customers on a weekly basis, all on demand. “These customers could potentially be anyone,” says Maher. “Right now, we’re targeting enterprise industries and analyst firms with immediate demands for comprehensive imagery data and someone who can organize and explain that data as clearly as possible.”
Maher and 19 other startups entered the Startup Space competition to win guaranteed pitch meetings with active private investors at Space Angels Network and Astia Capital. For Ursa, those meetings could result in funding that would allow the new company to grow its network of partners and develop into a global data analytics provider. “We’re gaining a lot of traction in the financial sector and have signed distribution deals with eight firms, including MorningStar, Quandl and Amass Insights,” says Maher, summarizing his pitch. “We’re now getting more active in the energy industry and looking to expand our service offerings for government. We have the talent and capability and the demand is there. We’re now looking for the resources to adequately service these demands.”
By the organized nature of how Maher conveys information, it’s clear that he’s a perfect fit for the data analytics community. “I like to think that I practice my short pitch more than most people,” says Maher moments after he walks off stage. The practice paid off. Startup Space judges gave Maher the highest marks of his pitch group. While he fell just shy of winning the grand prize, he will automatically be invited back to compete in 2018.
“Data analytics is a big market with lots of room for lots of innovation. I think Ursa’s custom-tailored, on-demand approach to delivering data that you can’t get anywhere else is very special and I’m very excited to see where this business takes us,”says Maher.
SWISSto12: 3D-Printing Advanced RF Components
The branding behind the Lausanne, Switzerland-based startup SWISSto12 is more about its cultural identity than the fact that it 3D prints its entire product line of Radio Frequency (RF) components for satellite telecommunications. SWISS is presented in all-caps as homage to the Switzerland’s renowned watch industry and the way it brands components. The number 12 refers to the fact that 1012 Hertz, or one trillion oscillations per second, equals one terahertz. When combined, the company name is a symbol of its simple mission to revolutionize the way components are manufactured.
SWISSto12 CEO Emile de Rijk created the core concept behind the company 10 years ago as a post-graduate student while he was conducting research for his PhD. But SWISSto12 didn’t officially become its own private company until 2012, when it was spun off from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in order to create a for-profit metal-coated 3D-printed component supplier for customers with complex antennas structures. “We quickly got interest from the market after we split from the Institute,” says de Rijk. “In the beginning, that interest came mostly from those wanting materials to support scientific research applications, which makes sense considering that this technology came from a university project. Over time, however, we quickly realized that there was much more demand for our products in satellite telecommunications and we’ve firmly planted our business in that market.”
Today, SWISSto12 develops waveguide-based RF components, filters and other components mostly for satellite telecommunications terminals on the ground. These advanced components are very expensive to produce and replace. SWISSto12’s ability to replicate polymer components with a 3D printer saves customers a lot of money. “We see 3D print components in different ways depending on the application of the technology,” says de Rijk, stressing that the company is not simply a one-trick pony. “Our most popular capability is producing polymers that can withstand extreme conditions in specific environments like airborne, maritime and space. To make them functional, we developed 3D printing techniques that can produce metal plating for RF conducting. We also print metal materials that can replace individual components of existing systems and apply surface treatments and surface plating technology so we can enable start-of-the-art RF performance of those products.”
During his allotted time on stage at Startup Space, de Rijk sells the judges on SWISSto12’s ability to both integrate RF, mechanical and manufacturing competencies for products and provide all the testing so that customers are confident in their performance. “We’re making good progress and I feel that we have a clear roadmap,” he says. “We’re completing projects that are in the prototype phase with maritime customers and we’ll be getting more feedback from our work on airborne and satellite projects soon, as those will take a little bit more time with typically longer business cycles in those markets.”
SWISSto12 is riding a wave of excitement for 3D printing in the space community, led by new companies like Made In Space, which aims to enable manufacturing in space environments. SWISSto12’s RF components require precision manufacturing techniques that aren’t quite feasible to replicate in space. Instead, the company is focused on producing metal-plated products that can operate normally in aviation and space environments.
Astrapi: Spiral Modulation Mathematics for Spectrum Efficiency
While watching space startups deliver passionate pitches about exciting new rocket and satellite antenna products to tech-hungry investors, David Shaw prepares to follow up by pitching a complicated math equation that even he doesn’t really understand. This is the main product of Astrapi Corp. — a math equation from the 18th century that also functions as a game-changing signal modulation technology that dramatically improves spectral efficiency and systemically alters how telecommunications network operators send and receive signals. They call this transformative spiral-based approach Compound Channel Coding (CCC).
“If anyone tells you that our invention is within the realm of normalcy, they don’t know what they are talking about,” Shaw admitted during his pitch. “This innovation is radical. Even if we continue to wildly exceed expectations in the testing environment, it will remain difficult to grasp and thus, moving an industry will be challenging.”
On paper, this kind of admission in a pitch reads like a disaster. At Startup Space, it was a surprisingly refreshing approach to market awareness that would help Shaw rack up the scores he needed to win the grand prize.
Astrapi’s story began when Shaw met his eventual co-founders, Dr. Jerrold Prothero and his wife Rita Martinez Solon, by accident at a tech conference in Austin, Texas. “I had just got kicked in the shins pretty hard after being an investor during the dot com boom era and was spending my time reading about George Kozmetsky, the founder of Teledyne. My fascination with his research in data analysis, evolutionary economics, telecommunications, network methods, and optimization brought me to this conference where I met Jerrold and Rita, who like me, were originally from Dallas. We all became friends and Jerrold eventually moved out to where I was living D.C. One day, out of the blue, he called me and told me that he had a group of investors out west that had come across a monograph he was working on and wanted to fly him out to spend a full day discussing the technical and business aspects of it.”
What Prothero was working on was the equation at the core of Astrapi’s Spiral Modulation toolkit.“I was researching how new mathematics could solve critical engineering problems and came across Euler’s Formula, the 18th century mathematics formula from which we get sine waves and cosine waves. I started to realize that the formula was, essentially, the underlying mathematics for telecommunications. So, I studied the core conceptual framework and what was built on top of it and realized that there might be a business opportunity in applying these concepts in the world of commercial telecommunications — to show how to open up a path to dramatically higher spectral efficiency while attacking problems such as coherent interference mitigation and securing communications.”
Prothero returned from his West Coast meeting and began working with Shaw to establish Astrapi’s first patent and begin the heavy lifting of running simulations. Shaw’s catalyst moment came when they got some of their first simulation results. “We were showing some really spectacular gains,” says Shaw. “I looked at those results and knew at that point that I was all in. So we got to work testing assumptions, refining, retooling and then, ultimately, building credibility for the solution out in the market.”
Shaw and Prothero became a trio after Rita Martinez Solon joined the company as its policy and regulatory expert. She had served in three presidential administrations, twice as a presidential appointee at the U.S. Department of Energy, where she worked on tech transfer issues at the National Labs. Shaw was the business and market expert and Prothero was the mathematics and technical expert. Shaw said that their chemistry and diversity as a team created enough confidence for them to bring their ideas to the D.C. Innovation Corps (DC I-Corp) program, which is the National Science Foundation’s initiative based out of George Washington University, Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland to develop licensed technologies and successful startups within the research community.
Since their first big steps in I-Corp, Shaw, Prothero and Solon have been taking their concepts to industry conferences, investor gatherings and trade shows to build buzz and momentum. Shaw applied to compete at Startup Space with a very specific mission — to secure an additional $3 million in financing to develop a prototype based on the concept. Shaw’s grasp of the business model, market challenges and Astrapi’s specific financial needs at its stage of growth impressed Rafferty Jackson, an Astia angel investor and advisor for Jack Industries who was on the judge’s panel during David’s pitch. Jackson says that while spiral modulation is a product above her understanding, Astrapi has a well-researched and tested business model and is painfully aware that understanding the product, or “mindshare,” will be their toughest competitor. “Astrapi could be on the right side of science and lose in the commercial world,” she says. “If Astrapi is right and can commercialize their innovation, they change the communications world to a degree similar to the transition from fixed wire phones to cellular. Despite this potential, Astrapi clearly understands that mindshare will always be a competitor even in a ‘one of kind invention’ framework.”
Shaw says his experience with Startup Space was as much fun as it was challenging, forcing him to summarize years of hard work in a matter of minutes. “I was a little nervous about going last,” Shaw says with a smile. “In the end, I’m grateful. Not just because we won, but because we’re working in an industry that is really exciting to be a part of as an entrepreneur. Investors may not understand the math behind what we’re doing, but as long as we can show that our products have been tested over and over again, and show that we’re not willing to move forward on any assumptions, we’ll continue to find supporters out there that can make the dreams happen.” VS