The software technology sector has been shifting from an upfront customer purchase to a service model – Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) — for years now. Using the cloud and a baseline subscription service model, the sector achieves steady recurring revenue, high customer renewal, and scalability. In turn, customers access the exact solutions they need, avoiding upfront costs and risks.
The SaaS business model has become the gold standard for investors and has become essential to getting funded. McKinsey estimates that SaaS providers command about 75 percent of all enterprise-software revenue — up from just 6 percent in 2010. The global SaaS market was worth $192 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow to $253 billion in 2023. There are lessons here for the space sector, as the industry still strives to demonstrate its ability to translate $26 billion in investments over the past decade into sustainable businesses that solve real problems for a large number of customers.
One of the most successful variants in the SaaS market is called “vertical software,” which focuses offerings on very specific industry segments such as healthcare or construction. These businesses tend to dominate a market segment as an early entrant without significant competition, and then pursue cross-sell and product expansion with better exit prospects than their more general-purpose peers. The space sector is beginning to catch up to some of these trends in the wider technology arena, beginning with the purchase of subscription services (OpEx) rather than the purchase of hardware (CapEx).
However, there are a few unique structural aspects to space businesses. Terrestrial-based businesses can deploy an application to the cloud with relatively small upfront investments. This allows them to quickly reach first revenue. Driving growth beyond that requires significant ongoing capital investment for scaling of sales and marketing resources. Space businesses, on the other hand, require high amounts of early capital to deploy the satellites and other technologies on the ground before the network is in place to allow first revenue. They are then able to scale quickly with high margins and decreasing capital requirements.
This is because there has been no space equivalent of the cloud. Newer companies have not been able to deploy their business early as low-cost, low-risk tests. It has been either “all-in” or “go home,” which has limited the range of applications available to customers for services from space.
This is beginning to change, with exciting portents for the space sector as well as other industries that are beginning to consider the ways that space can serve their operational needs. The categorization Space-as-a-Service has been increasingly used over the last three years by a wide swath of companies to denote the provision of services instead of purchases related to satellites, ground stations, and ultimately specific, proprietary data delivery.
The opportunity, though, is more than just the growth of a vertical SaaS business for the space sector. It is an entirely new category. The opportunity is actually analogous to the creation of the cloud for space, which is linked to the cloud on Earth for seamless deployment of new applications.
Amazon created its own server infrastructure for its core business and then launched Amazon Web Services (AWS) in 2006. By doing so, it created a multibillion-dollar industry and made cloud computing available to anyone with an internet connection. Today, AWS customers include diverse global corporations like Netflix, General Electric, and McDonald’s. Similarly, any company that has deployed a sustainable process and infrastructure in space for a core data business, including my organization, Spire, is now able to make that data available to companies across verticals to deploy applications to space just as they deploy them to the cloud. It is a new maturity for the sector.
A crucial ingredient of making space services work for the customer is removing complexity, risk, and even visibility from the space component. Subscribers won't care about launch dates and sensor specs as much as they will about receiving their data on time and in a very simple way.
This is done by having existing infrastructure, process, and R&D that continues to hum along as part of a core business (actual vertical SaaS subscriptions), as well as by creating new business models for the infrastructure component that mirrors service-based monthly pricing. Providers who have already honed space operations to run their core businesses will be better suited to support their customers' subscriptions. This also reflects learnings from the cloud computing sector. Building cloud services to handle the demands of Amazon's operations ensured AWS could manage its customers' needs.
Ultimately, this kind of offering needs to reach the point where a non-expert customer receives an API key to control their space application through software, and then pays a monthly fee for the access. It should be nothing more onerous than that. While the industry is not quite there yet, it is moving towards a mature backbone service.
There are also a host of up-sell software features that can be available, such as automated application optimization and direct deployment of Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AI/ML) analytics on-orbit. At Spire, we are seeing strong interest in what we call “Software in Space,” which lets customers take over a certain duty cycle of our existing payloads in orbit and then repurpose it for their own needs using software. This provides an extremely cost-effective way to test early applications and can be deployed rapidly. As an example, it can take six months from contract signing to deploy new hardware solutions in space. But, a Software in Space solution can be deployed to space in as little as a month.
Multiple companies are now working to deploy infrastructure and undertake R&D to operate constellations in an attempt to become a leader in this new category of service. However, despite the hype that anyone can now launch a satellite, creating space technology and operations that are at scale, de-risked, and on-demand remains a hugely difficult undertaking. Companies wanting to own this category and stretch their customer-base into traditionally non-space verticals must demonstrate consistent, reliable, deployed technology. They must also develop ongoing product enhancements and unique business models that borrow from the SaaS pricing philosophy.
The prize is to become the dominant provider of application deployments to space, along with the high margins, revenue repeatability, and scalability in a multi-billion dollar segment. VS
Theresa Condor is the general manager of Spire Space Services.