Violet Labs is a company to keep an eye on as it looks to bring the best of software capabilities to the satellite industry. Violet Labs aims to develop a full lifecycle software platform that is designed for hardware engineering. Its founder and CEO, Lucy Hoag, has an interesting background having worked at the likes of Lyft, Amazon, and Google. She now brings that expertise to Violet Labs, a startup that is looking to transform how rockets and robots are built.
However, it is also looking beyond aerospace and hopes its software platform can have a strong impact beyond in other industries. Hoag talks with Via Satellite about Violet Labs and the influence it could have on our industry going forward.
VIA SATELLITE: What is the vision behind Violet Labs?
Hoag: Our North Star is to develop the first full-lifecycle software platform that is purpose-built for hardware engineering, which serves as the main product workbench for an engineering team. We envision it being the first tool that a hardware engineer logs onto in the morning, the place where collaboration with your colleagues and peers happens, and the place where your product is managed and tracked throughout its entire lifecycle.
Then there is the more focused near-term vision, which centers around the data that describes your product from cradle to grave. We intend to be the central repository for all data pertaining to the requirements, verification and validation testing, mechanical CAD [computer-aided design], electrical CAD, all the way up through the acronym soup — PLM, MES, ERP systems. We use the term ‘single source of truth’ which is a particularly meaningful term in the aerospace industry, to describe our platform. We are building what is essentially the data backbone for your product and your mission.
VIA SATELLITE: What is the 12- to 24-month technology roadmap for the company? Where do you hope to position the company in that timeframe?
Hoag: In this next year, our primary goal is to build out the foundation of our platform and get to a comprehensive set of integrations that reflect the full lifecycle of a product. So, supporting tools from requirement management, to project management, to more specialized apps like orbit modeling, etc. We want to build up a diverse and holistic base of applications in order to serve the widest set of customers. The foundation of our platform is what connects to these software tools, brings data in, allows us to lightly structure it, and allows us to do engineering logic on that data.
Then there is the customer side. Currently, our product is focused on aerospace customers, companies building small satellites, launch vehicles, aircraft and potentially other space vehicles like lunar rovers. From there, looking into the next 12 months, we intend to branch out into the next few verticals, namely automotive, in particular autonomous vehicles, robotics, agtech, and medical devices.
VIA SATELLITE: Do you see the bigger percentage of your customers still coming from aerospace in a few years’ time?
Hoag: Truthfully, I hope aerospace is not our No. 1 gig in a few years’ time. I hope to see diversity in the industries we support. We have seen that any company building something multidisciplinary, meaning it likely has a mechanical aspect, thermal, structural, embedded software, etc., these engineering teams are grossly underserved by the software that is available to them now.
So, yes, we are starting with aerospace, as it is an excellent use case for our software. The products aerospace engineers build are typically very tightly coupled, highly optimized, have a lot of interdependencies between sub-systems and have a strong regulatory component, namely ITAR/EAR [International Traffic in Arms/Export Administration Regulations] constraints, which historically have made it difficult to use cloud-based tools. It is a really excellent starting point.
What we are trying to avoid is building a product specifically for aerospace engineers, that looks like it was built by aerospace engineers. We have seen them come and go over the years, and the adoption is very poor. We would like to make this broadly appealing to a number of markets, so that it is sustainable and scalable. So, if we don’t ultimately have users who are building electric scooters or medical robots on our platform, I will kind of think we have failed. Even if we are still interesting and valuable to the aerospace folks, we need to be broader than that in order to ensure adoption.
VIA SATELLITE: Are you seeking funding?
Hoag: We are still fairly early, about 12 to 18 months into our journey. We raised our seed round last summer which was a really exciting time. We raised $4 million which was led by Space Capital, and joined by MaC Venture Capital and Felicis. This was a pleasant occurrence given the macroeconomic conditions at the time, and all the scariness that is potentially to come. It gave us a pretty healthy runway of a few years, so we have another year or two, depending on customer traction and how quickly we grow. So, we are pretty well set up and can buckle down over the next year or so before we start another raise.
VIA SATELLITE: When will Violet Labs become profitable?
Hoag: We haven’t mentioned anything publicly on this yet.
VIA SATELLITE: When do you expect to announce new customers?
Hoag: We have a lot of early interest which is really exciting. I think it shows how much our vision resonates with customers and the frustrations that they have. I think the bar is pretty low with a lot of the legacy software that is available to our customers. Our first user is actually a university, specifically their Systems Engineering Department. We didn’t anticipate it, but it is a really interesting use case for the software. Beyond that, the types of customers we are engaging with are primarily small-to-medium sized companies building small satellites and other space vehicles. There are a couple of autonomous vehicle companies we have been chatting with too. While we want to stay hyper-focused on aerospace, it turns out the autonomous vehicles and space sectors have a lot of really similar workflows, tools and problems. Having worked in both in my career I can speak to that personally. We hope to be able to share more on these founding customers soon.
VIA SATELLITE: What do you see as the role of AI in the space industry? Does AI make a difference in terms of what Violet Labs is doing?
Hoag: Absolutely, it is central to a few of the features that we are planning out. There are certain workflows in the aerospace realm that involve a lot of repetitive, rote work. An example is the process of defining the product and mission requirements for your system, and then defining and executing the verification and validation tests for those. It is a lot of repetitive work that tends to be laborious. It is a very clear entry point for AI to come in and assist. We also have some plans around AI and CAD, around modeling the knowledge graph of your system and how that interrelates with the CAD model of your system. There are some interesting ways we are working to leverage AI to assist that. It’s another area that could be quite laborious, creating the knowledge graph between all your different sub-systems and sources of data. This is something that takes a lot of time. Most commercial companies don’t do it as a result. But it can bring a lot of value in being able to model a digital thread of your system.
VIA SATELLITE: How do you see things like AI and Chat GPT having an impact in the satellite industry?
Hoag: You can’t count the number of ways it can and will impact our industry. Even from really simple ways, like we are a small team and growing very fast, and doing a lot of interviews and hiring. We have tested this and it turns out candidates could use ChatGPT to essentially solve most of the take home project that we have developed for our technical screens. As a result, we’ve had to be creative in how we structure our assessment and how we evaluate candidates. It’s also fairly obvious when candidates have used it in parts of their initial applications, which is a bit of a bummer to me. That’s just my view from the startup perspective.
VIA SATELLITE: What impact can software have on a sector like satellite?
Hoag: I would say that the industry has been wildly and inexplicably slow with its adoption of software. My particular lens is on the software tools that are available for collaborative, concurrent engineering and in the design process. For my PHD, now years ago, I built a tool called SPIDR. It leveraged an AI-based decision engine developed by Tatiana Kichkaylo, a computer scientist at USC’s Information Sciences Institute. We applied it to small satellite design and the intent was to reverse the way we look at designing a satellite. It is traditionally this very slow, iterative process. Because it is such a tightly coupled system, any change you make to the propulsion subsystem has ripple effects that propagate to all the other subsystems, etc. There is a lot of iteration before the design can converge.
So, we looked to AI to allow us to take this scenario and express it as a declarative programming problem rather than an imperative programming problem, where you basically specify the rules and constraints about your system and the set of parts and components that are available to satisfy those needs. Then, the decision engine can dynamically find the optimal solution. We were really excited about this when we started it, which is now about15 years ago, and the potential it would have for the satellite industry. It didn’t end up growing much beyond our academic realm, but I’ve found myself wanting something similar in almost every job I’ve had since then.
Yet consistently, we still see companies doing things largely the same way as when I first started that research. I have been very fortunate to work on cutting edge projects for some world-class organizations like Google and Amazon — but you would be shocked to see how archaic most of their software tools are. I decided it was time to stop complaining about them, put my money where my mouth is and be part of the solution, and build the tool I wanted.
VIA SATELLITE: What represents success for Violet Labs for you personally?
Hoag: It would be two things. The first is around different industries. Success would be serving and providing value to a diverse set of engineering verticals. We want our software to grow and be utilized in a number of different ways, hopefully ones we haven’t yet thought of, and to do that it has to be industry agnostic. It cannot be over-engineered to perfectly satisfy an aerospace engineering set of workflows.
The other that is deeply important to me as a founder is the diversity of our team. One of the many reasons I set off on this journey was to create the team that I wanted — to truly build the team of folks that I want to talk to every day and see every day, who I trust and want to collaborate with. For that, it absolutely has to be diverse. This is existentially important to our company. We want to show that we represent and value different ideas, and we want to model to young women and people of color that they belong in these innovative projects, products and teams. If we succeed and are wildly profitable, and we have a fantastic team but it consists mostly of white males, I will not see this as a success at all, to put it bluntly. VS