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Space Start-Ups: Where Do They Go Next?

With the influx of new companies and new ideas coming into the satellite industry, the panel titled “How Satellite Startups are Capturing New B2C Enterprise Verticals” at the SATELLITE 2018 Conference & Exhibition bought together a diverse range of speakers to talk about the issues facing satellite start-ups and where the go next. The panel was moderated by Craig Mullett, president of the Branison Group, an investor in start-ups. He interestingly spoke about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how this could be a key influence to start-ups going forward. “I haven’t heard a lot about AI at SATELLITE. We haven’t seen enough of this in the satellite sector. We are really at the early days of AI. At MIT, 50 percent of the students are doing a course in AI,” he said.

One of the main speakers on the panel was Jeff Matthews, a specialist leader at Deloitte, who said that, while it was “nothing new” to have start-ups in this sector, the industry had reached a point where a number of trends have come together. “Funding rounds are being closed. New entrants are exiting stealth mode. For us, we see one of the big drivers is the democratization of data. I think where we see the most value is still probably imaging. It allows for that access to data that people are hungry for,” he said.

When analyzing new verticals where new space start-ups could make an impact in the long-term, Matthews pointed to medical technologies as a vertical to watch, and he believes this one holds a lot of promise for the satellite sector.

Deloitte, of course, is involved in many industries and not just space. Matthews admitted that the space industry has a unique set of dynamics. He said start-ups have to do a lot more sales pitches about the industry as a whole compared to other industries. He also said that, while there will be failures, these should not dampen the appetite for space-based businesses. “I don’t think we should afraid to see consolidation and failure. Failures will happen. I would say to the investment community that this this market is here to stay and will grow. There will be opportunities to make money. In two years, the outlook has changed. Whether that will drive a lot more investors in over the next year, that remains to be seen,” he said.

Matthews, like Mullett, also spoke about AI saying it could be “very transformative” to the space industry. However, he ended on a note of caution by talking about cybersecurity issues, a more prevalent theme at SATELLITE compared to years past. “An area we don’t talk about enough is the cyber implications [on space-based start-ups]. We, as an industry, aren’t addressing cyber in the way we should,” he said.

David Shaw, Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) of Astrapi, one of the new start-ups creating waves in the space industry, said the industry must take advantage of the current interest in space start-ups. “When your children are sending pictures of the Falcon Heavy, it is like the Apollo days. However, satellites are a very small part of the overall structure. Two thirds of the world’s population does not have broadband. There is a massive opportunity for satellite operators,” he added.

Shaw also spoke about how a lot of work is being done in sensors right now, as well as saying the industry should not always be preoccupied with High Throughput Satellite (HTS) business cases. “Everyone is speaking about high throughput, but there are a lot of low throughput uses as well. To put up these low-cost satellites, the key is to capture data. Things are happening now. There will be new use cases for this data,” he said.

Naomi Kurahara, the CEO of Infostellar, gave an interesting insight into the mentality and culture of start-ups. The company is developing a cloud-based satellite antenna sharing platform, and recently closed a $7.3 million Series A investment late last year. It has also hired many engineers from Google as it looks to make good in its ambitious business plans. “As a new space start-up, if we can’t change the world in five to 10 years, we will die. We will definitely see new innovation. In Japan, there are five start-ups. What we have to do is show the vision and plans to make revenue. We have to get revenues. We need to reach the service phase as soon as possible,” she said. VS