Flying Under the Radar: Space and Satellite Industry Leaders to Watch in 2021

It’s safe to say that most people are done with the year 2020 – a seemingly never-ending nightmare of health crisis, economic recession, and political upheaval converging in a perfect storm. It was a year when satellite business was mostly conducted over video conferencing from home offices and when engineering team members stood six feet apart from each other on alternating work days. Despite these conditions, the year produced a steady flow of memorable and often surprising satellite industry news headlines that established the tone for another decade of rapid innovation. The people behind those headlines made their way to the Via Satellite “People to Watch” list.

Do not confuse this list with Via Satellite’s extremely popular “Hottest Companies” annual feature, or our Executive of the Year award. In this feature, we focus on the industry leaders we expect to wield significant direct and indirect influence on the space and satellite industry and produce unexpected surprises for the market in 2021.

FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has recently been announced the winner of the 2020 United States presidential election, and President-elect Biden will soon begin reshaping the administrative branch of the U.S. government, including the leadership of the FCC. While not guaranteed, the two Democrats who have served in the minority role on the commission throughout the Trump administration are likely to be considered for the position of FCC chair.

There’s no denying that current FCC Chair Ajit Pai has been one of the most active and public-facing policy leaders of the Trump presidency, regardless of one’s stance on his policy. From his immediate repeal of net neutrality to his wide-ranging and massive plans for 5G infrastructure and rural broadband connectivity, Pai has single-handedly elevated the FCC’s prominence in the public consciousness, and transformed the commission from an often misunderstood and ignored regulatory body into a powerful socioeconomic investment bank.

It’s hard to say how things will change under the incoming Biden administration. Though Pai was originally appointed to the FCC by former President Barack Obama, some argue that his stance on net neutrality, combined with his deference to President Donald Trump’s interference in FCC social media censorship policy (which some also believe led to tossing Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly under the proverbial bus), politicized the role just enough to guarantee that he will not remain on the commission.

This turns all eyes to Commissioners Rosenworcel and Starks. The commercial satellite industry will certainly be watching new leadership, considering the Democrats’ vocal disapproval of Chairman Pai’s payouts to operators to clear C-band spectrum for 5G rollout. The FCC has also allocated billions of dollars to rural broadband connectivity and named Hughes, Viasat, and SpaceX Starlink as contenders for subsidies.

President-elect Biden’s nominee for FCC chair could arguably determine which U.S. satellite operators thrive and/or survive throughout the remainder of the COVID-19 crisis.

NanoAvionics CEO Vytenis J. Buzas

NanoAvionics’ Vytenis Buzas was one of the first startup executives Via Satellite interviewed for the On Orbit podcast back in the summer of 2019. At the time, the Lithuanian entrepreneur was beginning an aggressive expansion campaign into the U.S. small satellite market that would include establishing two manufacturing facilities in Midland, Texas, and Columbia, Illinois and hiring former Surrey Satellite Technology and AAC/Clyde Space executive Franklin Brent Abbott as the CEO of the company’s U.S. subsidiary.

NanoAvionics’ M6P preconfigured nanosatellite bus uses a modular software approach designed to serve commercial clients with flexible needs. Buzas has acknowledged flexibility as NanoAvionics’ defining feature — derived from integrating manufacturing processes from what he views as the most efficient industries.

The approach has paid off. Under Buzas’ leadership, the small satellite manufacturer has, in a very short period of time, completed more 75 satellite missions and commercial projects and generated massive growth during what will most likely end as the most challenging year for space startups. NanoAvionics reported Year-Over-Year revenue increased 300 percent between 2019 and 2020, thanks to high-value contract awards from NASA, European Space Agency (ESA), Exolaunch, MIT, and Thales Alenia Space for the Omnispace constellation. NanoAvionics also recently entered the notoriously elusive Indian market, after signing an agreement with Ananth Technologies to distribute NanoAvionics products and services.

The commercial space industry is saturated with small satellite startups, but Buzas seems to be one of a handful of start CEOs focused on what matters in the long run — closing business deals and identifying new customers. With its current trajectory, NanoAvionics could soon find itself landing roles as a prime contractor on some very lucrative government and commercial contracts.

Retired US Air Force Maj. Gen. Clint Crosier, director of AWS Aerospace and Satellite Solutions

What’s going on with Amazon’s Kuiper constellation? With SpaceX Starlink soaking up most of the media attention, Amazon’s space ventures have remained mostly behind a curtain of secrecy. One notable exception to the silence was a June 2020 announcement from Amazon Web Services (AWS) that it was launching a new business segment dedicated to serving the aerospace and satellite industry led by retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Clint Crosier, former director of Space Force Planning at the U.S. Space Force.

Under Crosier, AWS Aerospace and Satellite Solutions aims to “re-imagine space system architectures; transform space enterprises; launch new services that process space data on Earth and in orbit; and provide cloud solutions to support government and commercial space missions.” Among its offerings is AWS Ground Station, a managed network of virtual ground station antennas launched in 2019.

Following the FCC’s approval of the Amazon Kuiper constellation in July, AWS went on a space business hiring spree, focused on its D.C.-based operations. In September, AWS hired Peter Marquez — former director of space policy on the National Security Council under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama — as director of space policy.

Not much is known about how AWS will ultimately structure its aerospace and satellite division. Via Satellite requested an interview with Crosier earlier this past fall, but was told that the new executive was not ready to give interviews or discuss his plans in detail. Several sources close to AWS have told Via Satellite to expect a series of major developments and announcements in 2021. That level of intrigue makes it easy to include Crosier on this list.

Eutelsat CEO Rodolphe Belmer

While other satellite operator CEOs made headlines with new partnerships, a few bankruptcies, and rural broadband Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation plans, Eutelsat CEO Rodolphe Belmer captured our attention in a September Via Satellite interview when he said that he expected “meaningful consolidation” among satellite communications companies to happen in 2021. It was hard to ignore Belmer’s subtle reference to how this trend could help operators like Eutelsat grow in size and influence in a way that would make them more attractive to potential telco customers and partners. This is a remarkably strong statement coming from the CEO of one of the world’s largest global operators and we expect actions to follow these words in 2021.

Belmer makes this list for several reasons — the most prominent of which is the unique path he is taking Eutelsat along toward its future. Unlike his global operator peers, Belmer believes in the long-term stability of the satellite video market. Despite analyst projections of a shrinking global video market, Belmer continues to invest in the business segment that still makes up more than 60 percent of Eutelsat’s revenue stream. This stubbornness has arguably (and probably unexpectedly) paid off in the short-term by providing financial stability throughout the first year of the COVID-19 crisis. There are still video markets that are emerging and accelerating in the Middle East, Asia-Pacific, Africa, and South American regions, and Eutelsat has scored some very impressive broadcast contracts in 2020.

Eutelsat’s investments in satellite broadband, data, and mobility services also come into focus in 2021. They expect their new KONNECT broadband service (offering 100 megabits per second, per terminal) to reach full commercial capacity in the first half of the year. This will allow the company to report revenues from the service by the end of the year. Belmer also confirmed that the company will officially kick off a nanosatellite program in 2021, with the intent of generating new Internet of Things (IoT) revenue streams soon after.

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell

Despite the larger news media’s obsessive celebrity-like coverage of Elon Musk, space industry experts know full well that Gwynne Shotwell is the established executive leader of SpaceX’s Starlink LEO constellation business. While Musk goes to work as Starlink’s leading spokesperson, Shotwell pushes pins into a map, sets global market expectations, and, according to several sources within and partnered with SpaceX, plays a central role in gaming out Starlink’s future as a potential independent spin-off company, or a subsidiary of the massively successful launch service (for which she also leads the day-to-day business operations).

Even in its infancy, SpaceX Starlink is reshaping the commercial satellite industry and forcing legacy players to respond to its moves. At the time this article is being writer, Starlink’s "Better Than Nothing Beta" test is underway, utilizing 900 active LEO satellites delivering target speeds of between 50 megabits per second and 150 megabits per second to remote, un-, and underserved end users. Shotwell will likely be working to boost Starlink’s performance while cutting the service’s initial buy-in cost of $600 ($500 for hardware and $99 per month for service).

Shotwell, a recent recipient of Via Satellite’s Satellite Executive of the Year award, also appears in the driver’s seat of SpaceX’s most consequential partnerships. In October, she solidified a deal with Microsoft to provide its customers access to Starlink satellite connectivity in exchange for access to Microsoft Azure and the new Modular Datacenter (MDC) cloud computing service. “Where it makes sense, we will work with you, co-selling to our mutual customers, co-selling to new enterprise and future customers, and bring the power of Starlink connectivity to the Azure infrastructure,” Shotwell said to Microsoft customers in an October video announcement.

The buzz over Starlink nearly overshadows Shotwell’s success with SpaceX’s commercial launch business, which is remarkable considering that it is arguably the global leader in its market, and, that the company successfully launched the United States’ first crewed mission since the retirement of the Space Shuttle into space this past May. Considering SpaceX’s explosive rise during the past decade, calling Shotwell the most powerful and influential executive in our industry in 2021 is a rather safe argument to make.

The Honorable (More Obvious) Mentions

This is a list of some of the obvious names we’ll be watching in 2021. Again, we are not ranking the leaders and companies listed in the main feature above or below the following people. These are simply the leaders that most outside observers are following for more obvious reasons.

Telesat CEO Dan Goldberg – The CEO recently said Telesat may be be issuing contracts for its long-awaited LEO constellation by the end of 2020. We’ll have a much clearer idea of where Telesat stands in the competitive LEO market landscape by the end of next year.

Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver – Could Garver replace current NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a Biden administration? Nearly everyone with their ear to the ground has Garver on their shortlist for the job.

Hughes President Pradman Kaul – Kaul makes most top CEO lists for two reasons: his company’s ownership stake in the recently acquired OneWeb constellation; and their recently announced In-Flight Connectivity (IFC) partnership with Inmarsat. It’s wise to remember that Hughes’ parent company EchoStar once tried to acquire Inmarsat and failed. It’s also wise to remember that Hughes now brings in most of EchoStar’s overall revenue.

Relativity Space CEO and Founder Tim Ellis – It’s a big year for all the launch services, but especially for the U.S. startup 3D printing launch provider Relativity Space and with the planned debut of its Terran 1 rocket. Now flying solo after co-founder Jordan Noone left earlier this year, Ellis will have to steer the company through a challenging post-COVID-19 year to deliver on its first contracted commercial launch missions. What can Ellis learn from the setbacks that startup launch industry peers like Rocket Lab endured in 2020 to avoid costly mistakes in 2021. VS

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