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SmallSat Entrepreneurs Eye Commercial Market Over Government

By Caleb Henry | June 30, 2015
      Exelis SkySat ENVI EO

      Skybox Imaging satellites SkySat 1 on the left and SkySat 2 on the right. Photo: Skybox Imaging

      [Via Satellite 06-30-2015] Several leading small satellite entrepreneurs are confident that the success of their businesses does not hinge on whether or not the U.S. government will be an anchor customer. Earth observation and remote sensing companies at the Washington Space Business Roundtable (WSBR) luncheon on June 25, while acknowledging that the U.S. government is a desirable, high-profile customer, said that their business plans are not contingent upon winning this single client.

      “We have already collected a number of not only [letters of] intent, but firm contracts from a wide range of customers, Antoine de Chassy, vice president of Spire said, adding “[The business] has to be sustainable without the government’s money.”

      Spire plans to launch a constellation of 20 satellites to collect weather data through GPS-Radio Occultation measurements (GPS-RO), and maritime data through Automatic Identification System (AIS) sensors. The first launch is scheduled for September this year, and Spire intends to grow the constellation up beyond 100 satellites in 2017. The company is also building a global ground-system receiving network with 20 stations around the world, climbing to 50 stations in two years, de Chassy said.

      For meteorological events de Chassy said the high cost of weather-related damage is incentive enough for many companies desiring more than government-provided predictions to become customers in order to forecast more effectively.

      “That’s a market where the government plays a role, definitely, but we don’t depend on the government’s money to do that, and to grow our business. Otherwise our investors would not come onboard as they do,” he said.

      Since forming in 2012, Spire has launched four satellites and with today’s announcement of a $40 million Series B financing round, has secured more than $80 million from investors. Promus Ventures led the company’s latest funding round, with participation from new investors Bessemer Venture Partners and Jump Capital, as well as existing investors RRE Ventures and Lemnos Labs, among others.

      Skybox Imaging Product Manager Andy Hock expressed a similar mentality, noting that while governments have largely driven remote sensing and Earth observation demand in the past, Skybox’s strategy is to reach new customers by accelerating access to and the usability of satellite imagery in under-addressed markets.

      “Our business model from day one has been focused on the commercial market,” said Hock.

      Skybox, which Google acquired in 2014 for approximately $500 million, does sell to government customers, but Hock said the company’s core market consists of buyers that are “awash in data,” who often lack Geographic Information System (GIS) expertise. The company has launched two satellites to date and partnered with Space Systems Loral (SSL) to build an additional 13 satellites. The newer spacecraft will use the environmentally friendly High Performance Green Propellant (HPGP) from Swedish Space Corporation subsidiary ECAPS, enabling the satellites to reach a mission life of six years or more.

      “That will enable us not only to grow the number of places we are looking at on a repeat basis, but also to increase the cadence from weekly to daily, and even inter-daily in some cases,” said Hock.

      Skybox’s next satellites are scheduled to launch from 2016 to 2017, Hock said. The company has announced contracts so far with Virgin Galactic for LauncherOne and Arianespace for Vega.

      GeoOptics, an environmental services company focusing thus-far on GPS-RO for weather data said its business plan calls for both commercial and government customers. Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., CEO of GeoOptics said that the company’s business plan has changed drastically since 2006, and that the amount of data the company’s satellites will be able to provide is more than the government would even need to buy.

      “Right now there is no end to the amount of radio occultation data for which people see an improvement in forecasting for weather. And that’s just one start. We plan to go into other services as well,” he said.

      Lautenbacher said GeoOptics now intends to have spacecraft in orbit by January or February of 2016.

      For OmniEarth, the government has become a significant starting customer. The company’s first two prototype satellites are not slated to launch until 2018 or 2019, but it has made use of sensors from various other platforms to collect data and measurements that can be turned into products and services. OmniEarth rolled out a product during the fourth quarter of 2014 for government customers in California seeking to measure water usage due to a drought. Frank McKenna, president of OmniEarth satellite services division said this product is now going into 400 districts across the state, providing data on water use by aggregating water meter data, integrating it through the cloud, and then delivering it to customers.

      “Our strategy is not dependent on getting the satellites up in that timeframe. What we are doing is a lot of collection of data through aerial collects now and drones and other third party information to fuel the business. We’re going to put the satellite constellation up when it’s the right timing,” said McKenna.

      Ball Aerospace is building OmniEarth’s constellation of 15 satellites, which include space for hosted payloads. In addition to the government sector, OmniEarth is targeting customers in energy, agriculture, forestry and elsewhere. The company’s goal is to provide data products using a variety of platforms to a variety of customers.