The last decade has seen huge equity investments in space startups fueled by the Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) and broadband connectivity revolution. Space equity investments totaled $5.8 billion last year alone, making 2019 the largest year on record for space investment, according to Space Angels.
SATELLITE conference planners have recognized that space startups wanted to reach investors at the show, but they didn’t necessarily have the funds to exhibit or be show sponsors.
“We created Startup Space as a platform for innovative companies to talk directly to investors,” says Jeffrey Hill, conference chairman and Via Satellite executive editor.
Now in its fourth year, nearly 60 startups have pitched their innovations since 2017. Below, we caught up with previous honorees.
Astrapi, the inaugural Startup Space winner, licenses its patented spiral modulation solution to help U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and commercial customers address spectral efficiency challenges. Networks are increasingly capacity- and signal-power constrained, making them prone to increased signal interference. Defense customers have the added burdens of operating in harsh, contested environments.
Astrapi’s patented Spiral Modulation technology is designed to improve communication efficiency by exploiting the capabilities of a continuously non-stationary spectrum.
“We have now raised just over $2.8 million in funding and closed over $1.1 million in R&D grants and contracts,” says David Shaw, co-founder and CCO of the Dallas-based startup.
“The [Startup Space] award has enabled us to continue to build credibility with investors, program managers and industry leaders,” Shaw adds.
Astrapi was recently named one of five Most Promising Startups at FinSpace, the Summit for Satellite Finance. It now has a prototyping pipeline that exceeds $40 million.
Astrapi’s signal power efficiency results have been validated by Space Strategies Consulting Ltd (SSCL). In addition, the company won a contract and was in the inaugural U.S. Air Force AFWERX Phase I cohort as well as being invited to the inaugural AF Pitch Day.
“We were in both of their first cohorts. Both programs are lynchpins to the Department of Defense efforts to streamline contracting and find innovative companies,” Shaw says.
The firm’s hardware-based occupied bandwidth measurement methodology and results were reviewed by the U.S. Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) prior to entering a Special Purpose Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), which was executed in early February.
Astrapi now is looking to mature and close its pipeline, close $5 million in Series A funding and continue to develop its second-generation prototype. The company also plans to open a laboratory in North Texas in 2020.
Since winning the 2018 Startup Space top prize, Menlo Park, California-based LeoLabs completed its Series A round of funding that enabled it to roll out Kiwi Space Radar, the third radar in its global ground-based network that will track debris and satellites in LEO. The newest radar is the first to detect small space debris that pose a threat to satellite operators in LEO.
“Start-Up Space raised LeoLabs’ visibility among decision makers in Washington, D. C., the heads of space agencies, and with satellite operators,” says Daniel Ceperley, CEO and co-founder.
Avoiding space debris collisions is more critical today as mega LEO constellations come online. LeoLabs can track a piece of debris so that its trajectory and the probability of it colliding with a satellite are more quickly understood.
LEO is getting crowded and a new generation of tracking infrastructure is required to manage it,” Ceperley says. “There are thousands of new satellites heading to LEO, thousands of derelict satellites already there, and hundreds of thousands of pieces of small debris that are not tracked today."
He adds that 2020 is the tipping point for a new era of commerce in LEO. The industry is seeing the first two mega-constellations, Starlink and OneWeb, launch hundreds of satellites and there are many other constellations taking flight this year as well.
"Whether it's avoiding small debris or coordinating safety of flight between satellites, LeoLabs will be ready with a network of advanced radars and a new generation of analytical services to provide the foundation for these activities,” Ceperley says.
Pavel Razmajev, COO of Latvia-based TimeTag.Space, was a first-time SATELLITE conference attendee when he pitched and won the 2019 Startup Space competition, which he says led to greater awareness of the company and its technology.
“Much more people, experts and companies from the space industry know about us and our technology. It fostered the growth of the company in the best way,” he says.
TimeTag.Space aims to bring time tagging and timing in space to the next level.
“Today, there is no space standard timing solution used by everybody in the world,” Razmajev says, noting that the space industry uses GPS for synchronization, atomic clock for absolute time and custom Time-of-Flight (TOF) and time-tagging systems for Light Detection and Ranging (LiDARS). “Usually all the solutions are very expensive and not always radiation tolerant.”
The company’s parent, Eventech, is a leader in Satellite Laser Ranging (SLR) – providing a standard way to measure how fast light goes to the satellite and back to see where the satellite is located. TimeTag.Space says it is the first company worldwide to have a radiation tolerant unified picosecond timing solution for space applications.
“The European Space Agency (ESA) recommends all current consortiums who take part in missions with space LiDAR, altimetry and similar tasks to contact us, because there’s no similar solution on the market and we are on our way to proving our technology in space with current partners,” he says.
Since winning at SATELLITE 2019, TimeTag.Space is developing its own Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) chip to decrease the size of the event time to fit to every satellite. It also is building a timing module in the altimetry system that will be used in an ESA asteroid study mission.
Currently when a satellite runs out of fuel, it becomes debris. But, 2019 Startup Space winner Orbit Fab hopes to address this challenge by serving as an in-orbit gas station. “We are building a propellant supply chain in space that will allow satellites and spacecraft to move when and where they need to,” explains Daniel Faber, CEO.
The San Francisco-based startup will operate a disaggregated network of tankers in various orbits that will allow operators to extend the operational lifespan of satellites.
“For our customers, this translates to significantly reduced capital expenditures and increased revenues per asset. No longer restricted by a finite amount of fuel, new business models are enabled across the industry, including mission extension, deorbit tugs, and satellite transportation services,” says Faber, who credits winning the Startup Space Award with helping highlight the company’s value to partners, who it needs to develop a common refueling architecture.
The company launched the commercial release of its robotic Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI) port over the summer, which was developed in collaboration with over 20 companies.
“Since release we’ve locked in six design wins, five fuel port sales and nine requests for quotation representing up to 300-unit orders each,” Faber says.
To further strengthen its market entry, Orbit Fab engaged with the Air Force to win the AFWERX Phase I award while in the inaugural Techstars Starburst space accelerator.
"Through this contract, Orbit Fab identified multiple DOD stakeholders that could benefit from a refueling service in space,” says Jeremy Schiel, Orbit Fab CMO. “It will enable an entirely new capability for the military.”
To date, Orbit Fab has raised $3 million seed funding. This year the startup’s goals include ramping up sales of its port, doubling its team size and launching its first propellant tanker to orbit, Faber says. VS