Today’s space startup landscape is arguably the most difficult and competitive it has been in several years. Space investors, now much more cautious following a string of big bank failures and SPAC burnout, are switching to a “quality over quantity” mindset and moving more money toward entrepreneurs with stable, long-term business models. Persuasive pitch decks no longer cut it. Startups seeking seed funding are now expected to have working prototypes and a two-year path to launch and/or orbit. Any smallsat startup that survives long enough for a Series A funding round in today’s market is worth watching.
In this article, Via Satellite identifies 10 noteworthy smallsat startups that hit significant milestones with technologies that top investors’ wish lists. These 10 Smallsat Startups to Watch in 2023 illustrate the broadening, global market for both private investment and disruptive small satellite solutions, with companies on the list representing multiple regions around the world.
If Amini is successful over the next few years, it could genuinely be transformative in Africa, where it aims to provide environmental data solutions to help people make the most of the continent’s natural resources. An early-stage company, Amini recently raised $2 million in a pre-seed funding round led by the European climate-focused venture capital firm Pale Blue Dot. It is developing a plan to build a constellation of IoT-integrated nanosatellites.
Led by CEO Kate Kallot and based in Nairobi, Kenya, the company is developing what it calls a ‘holistic’ solution, where it uses a combination of AI and space technologies to drive systemic change and promote economic inclusivity for farmers and supply chain resilience in Africa and beyond. If it is able to bridge the environmental data gap in Africa, its influence could extend well beyond the satellite sector.
Kallot has a vision to help Africa create and sustain a new economy, using the most advanced technologies, and she hopes that Amini can help facilitate that. The company already hosts satellite data, weather data, and historical data on many different aspects of environmental and climate challenges, and already has paying customers. Amini also wants to expand into markets such as monitoring the last-mile of the supply chain. The young, Africa-based startup is already generating buzz for its climate mission.
Founded in Bulgaria in 2015, EnduroSat is part of an exciting wave of space service startups that are trying to simplify the process of both acquiring satellite data and transforming that data into action. It offers a space-as-a-service package designed to make space data accessible to a wider, more global audience by booking and hosting customized satellite missions. Led by Founder and CEO Raycho Raychev, EnduroSat is driven by its mission to serve small and medium-size enterprises, nonprofits, research organizations, and developing nations impacted by climate change, natural disasters, and frequent connectivity outages.
The company is coming off of a streak of successes. In April, EnduroSat and its partners SayariLabs and the Kenyan Space Agency, launched the Taifa-1 nanosatellite on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rideshare flight. Taifa-1 is equipped with a hyperspectral camera to provide space data to Kenya’s agricultural industry. In early May, EnduroSat raised $10 million in a Series A investment round led by Luxembourg’s Ceecat Capital and Germany’s Freigeist Capital, which the company plans to use to scale its operations and add on to its rapidly expanding workforce.
The company is also developing its CubeSat Constellation for Climate Change (CC4CC), which aims to prove that cubesats can provide regular daily measurements for changing environmental characteristics such as sea-level rise. With its rapid rise, its business operations expanding across Europe and Africa, and its mission-driven focus attracting investment in a competitive environment, EnduroSat is one of the space-as-a-service companies to watch.
Epsilon3 is designing software geared toward engineering space missions, calling itself the operating system for spacecraft and complex operations. Company founders thought that available mission planning tools were not adequate and led to inefficiency, errors, and added costs. In response, Epsilon3 designed project management tools specifically for fast-moving startups in complex operations like space, aviation, nuclear power, and mining. Its software supports the life cycle of a project from integration and testing through operations to help customers streamline their documentation and testing.
The company is founded by CEO Laura Crabtree, a SpaceX alum who was part of the early recovery programs for the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon Crew capsule and Dragon operations. The Epsilon3 team has worked firsthand on over 100 launches, giving them the experience to build a tool that matches the needs of space companies.
Founded in 2021, Epsilon3 already has a deep rolodex of space heavy-hitters like Blue Origin, Terran Orbital, Astro Forge, SSL, Impulse Space, and Vaya Space using its product. The company estimated that its software supported 20 percent of launch activity in 2021. Epsilon3 has investor support as well, the company closed a $15 million Series A funding round led by Lux Capital in June of 2022. Epsilon3 is building enabling technology to support mission innovation across the industry.
With a population of over 1 billion people, and a natural need for space-based solutions, India is a commercial space market on the rise. With the likes of Pixxel already blazing a trail, another company to keep an eye on is GalaxEye Space. The startup plans to build one of the world’s first multi-sensor imaging satellite constellations which can take images in visible and microwave spectrums. It has already secured seed funding of $3.5 million from Speciale Invest, as it aims to target sectors such as utilities and insurance. The company launched in May 2021 and is led by CEO Suyash Singh. GalaxEye is working to build its constellation of satellites and launch them to orbit by 2028. The startup believes its satellites can revolutionize the way we capture and provide high-resolution images of any location on Earth, ensuring the best image quality possible through its advanced fused dataset.
GalaxEye is targeting a range of customers for its services, primarily focused on insurance and defense and intelligence. It sees the insurance industry, which has to face the challenges of dealing with more natural catastrophes as a result of climate change, as a key target market. GalaxEye believes its satellite data could prove invaluable in formulating risk assessment and insurance policies related to environmental disasters. It hopes to start announcing partnerships with insurance companies, to make an impact with government clients in the defense sector, and to be profitable within the next two years.
Kayhan Space is on a mission to prevent satellite collisions and deliver autonomous safety-of-flight alerts, analysis, and courses of action directly to satellite operators with its Pathfinder software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform. Though a startup just exiting its seed phase, the company has already launched the first version of its Pathfinder platform and already provides services to more than 500 commercial satellites owned by more than a dozen operators, including Capella Space, Lynk Global, and Globalstar. These services include end-to-end operational services for conjunction risk assessment, maneuver planning, and operator coordination and maneuver verification.
After competing in SATELLITE 2023’s Startup Space pitch contest, Kayhan Space released Pathfinder 2.0, an upgrade built around coordinated optimal avoidance maneuvers — or COAMs — a concept in which two satellite operators using the platform can pre-coordinate their own preferences for decision criteria before conjunction events arise.
The company is led by co-founders Dr. Siamak Hesar and Araz Feyzi. Hesar previously led several software development efforts focused on SSA, collision risk assessment, and mitigation. He also served as principal investigator for the NASA Tipping Point program focused on autonomous onboard navigation software for cubesats. Kayhan Space recently made a significant addition to the executive team by hiring LeoLabs’ Matthew Shouppe as its CCO. The company e has raised $4.4 million in pre-seed and seed funding, co-led by Garry Tan, incoming president and CEO of Y-Combinator and Root VC. The company is currently raising Series A funding.
Leanspace is a startup to keep an eye on amid the developing space market in Europe. The French company aims to build the digital infrastructure for the space industry. Leanspace says many companies in the industry still rely on software tools developed decades ago, and on heavily manual processes to move and share data. With its cloud platform, Leanspace aims to enable space organizations to leverage state-of-the-art digital technologies to manage their space missions. The company’s software is designed to enable customers to adopt new approaches like regaining full in-house control over their software ecosystem, implementing digital continuity across tools and teams, and finding ways to abstract their engineers from the complexity of space software. The result could lead to a more agile approach, and reduced costs.
One of its most interesting deals so far saw the company selected by the French government, CNES, and Bpifrance, for project ‘Hammaguir,’ which aims to address the lack of digitalization within the launch industry. Leanspace, and its partners Latitude, Clemessy, and Spacedreams will work on creating new digital technologies to address the specific needs of the launcher market; to enable a high frequency of launches, manage different payloads and launch from various launch sites.
Silicon Valley’s climate-focused satellite constellation startup Muon Space was founded by a remote sensing team with experience from JPL, Skybox Imaging, Loft Orbital, Ball Aerospace, and Apple and is led by CEO Johnny Dyer, a former chief engineer for Terra Bella, Google, and Lyft. Muon Space designs, builds, and operates small satellites and scientific instruments to better understand and react to environmental changes on Earth. It describes its system as the Earth’s first scientific, software-defined remote sensing constellation platform, but sets itself apart from competitors by promising to build customer space systems from the ground up, based on needs. An example of this business model is its contractor relationship with Tomorrow.io, supporting the development of its radar-equipped weather satellite constellation architecture.
Muon Space has a contract with Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLMC) to collect ionospheric data on the MuSat-2 satellite mission, for the Department of Defense (DoD) to evaluate the data for use in weather forecasting, ionospheric modeling, and climate change assessments. Earlier that year, it was selected by Microsoft to expand and enhance the services of its two-year-old space platform, Azure Space. Its fundraising total jumped to $25 million following a successful Series A round last summer led by Radical Ventures, which included returning investors Costanoa Ventures, Congruent Ventures, Space Capital and Ubiquity Ventures.
Alternative spacecraft propulsion systems are attracting the attention of investors due to their potential to reduce costs and risk for the entire commercial space ecosystem. Xenon or Hydrazine spacecraft propulsion systems utilize fuel compounds that are toxic, explosive, highly pressurized and expensive. Japan’s Pale Blue sees an opening to offer alternatives and is developing spacecraft engines that run entirely on water. Pale Blue’s patented electron cyclotron resonance (ECR) ultra-compact thruster uses less than 250 ml of water as a propellant to help cubesats maintain orbit. While the efficiency of water-based propulsion systems is usually too low for space, Pale Blue says its thruster extracts ions of the water when activated, which provides very high propulsion efficiency.
Just this past March – less than two years after the company’s founding from the University of Tokyo — Pale Blue succeeded in operating its water vapor propulsion system, Resistojet, in Low-Earth Orbit onboard the EYE nanosatellite, part of Sony Corporation’s Star Sphere Project. Once the satellite reached space, Pale Blue’s 1.4 kilogram propulsion system operated for approximately 2 minutes and the company confirmed successful thrust. EYE will use Pale Blue’s thruster to enter its target orbit before service launch.
Pale Blue’s leadership team is led by CEO Dr. Jun Asakawa, who designed both the water-based propulsion system that flew on the AQT-D satellite in 2019 and the Xenon-based engines he’s trying to replace for JAXA. The team also includes CTO Dr. Hiroyuki Koizumi, head of the Space Propulsion Laboratory at the University of Tokyo, who has directed the development of satellite engines that have flown on the Hodoyoshi-4, Procyon, AQT-D, and EQUULEUS satellites. Toku Sakai, a former analyst at the U.S. Department of Defense, leads Pale Blue’s business operations. Pale Blue completed its Series A funding round back in 2021 and is now seeking to expand into commercial markets.
Australian startup Skykraft is looking to disrupt air traffic management by developing a satellite constellation to track aircraft. The company wants to address the limitations of ground-based air traffic management infrastructure, which can only extend so far beyond land, making it difficult to accurately track aircraft over oceanic and remote areas. Skykraft is planning to build a constellation of more than 200 satellites to track aircraft in flight, along with communications services. The startup says this constellation will improve communications between air traffic controllers and pilots by providing communications in remote areas, and can lead to more efficient flight routes to save fuel and reduce environmental impact. It also has an important partnership with Airservices Australia, which provides air traffic control on the continent. Airservices Australia supported its proof of concept mission, and is interested in space-based services.
The company was established in 2017 as a spin-off company from the university UNSW Canberra and now it is based in Canberra, with a manufacturing facility that is part of the UNSW Canberra Launch innovation hub. Since its founding, it has made a mark on the Australian space industry and was recently recognized at the 2023 Australian Space Awards as Innovator of the Year. Skykraft recently launched a stack of five satellites on the SpaceX rideshare mission in June, part of proof of concept activities. A January 2023 launch of five satellites set a national milestone — at 300 kilograms, it weighed more than the total mass of all Australian-built space objects ever launched. Skykraft is one to watch for its place in Australia’s developing space economy and the opportunity to make an impact in a niche application.
Xona Space Systems
Society is dependent on GPS for everything from navigation, timekeeping, military defense, and agriculture. Evolving capabilities like autonomous vehicles and aerial mobility will test the limits of GPS technology. Xona Space Systems is thinking critically about positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) capabilities and what will be needed to enable these developing technologies. The company, based in Burlingame, California, is building Xona Pulsar, an independent precision PNT service from satellites in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) to serve as a commercial alternative. Xona says that its future 300-satellite Pulsar system will be able to provide global service with ten times the accuracy of the traditional global navigation satellite systems (GNSS).
Last year, the company launched its first demonstration satellite, Huginn — first-ever commercially funded LEO PNT mission. The company recently announced that the satellite successfully transmitted precision LEO PNT signals from space to ground. The satellite also validated Xona’s ability to provide centimeter-level user positioning with its hardware and software stack. Xona has notable backers — Lockheed Martin Ventures invested in the company in 2022, and other investors include Toyota Ventures and MaC Venture Capital. Xona was also selected for this year’s AWS Space Accelerator program. It's also working with ecosystem partners like Spirent to integrate this capability into existing GNSS user equipment and GNSS simulation tools. This startup is one to watch for how its constellation might enable future connected mobility. VS