Bringing Space Back to Earth

By Tytus Michalski,
Image credit: NASA

While it’s inspiring to think about becoming an interplanetary species, there’s plenty of opportunity in bringing space back to Earth.

Why bring space to Earth?

The dream of space has always been about leaving Earth. So it seems counterintuitive to focus on the opposite. It’s almost too practical.

And yet it’s already happening. Private sector innovation is leading to improvements in both launchers and satellites which monitor our planet from space — creating exponential growth in data back on Earth. Cost, variety, and most importantly, speed of iteration, have been transformed.

As an example, our portfolio company Spire went from no satellites in 2012 when we first invested to 40 by 2017, with applications in areas including shipping and weather.

The infrastructure is now at critical mass to start opening up to partners for building external applications. Instead of building and launching your own network of satellites, you can get access to the data directly.

There are also many under appreciated applications on Earth which will be critical to successfully becoming an interplanetary species. Take digital healthcare as an example: portable diagnostic devices, telemedicine, and augmented reality are just three of the obvious areas of overlap.

Can space eat the world?

The space ecosystem up until recently has been primarily focused on space infrastructure. The massive opportunity going forward is to connect this amazing group of innovators to other sectors of the economy and society.

20 years ago, the Internet was viewed as a separate industry by most people. Very quickly in the past few years, the consensus has come around to the idea that “software is eating the world”.

The space industry has a similar potential for impact across society. But whether that potential will be realized is still unclear. Whether that impact will be positive or negative is also unclear. It’s up to all of us to figure it out — together.

Start with talent

Our team at Fresco Capital recently held an event in Singapore about expanding the ecosystem, which included a panel about talent.

One of the panel participants was Lynette Tan, Executive Director at Singapore Space and Technology Association. After this panel she wrote an overview about some of the opportunities in the sector. Here is a key takeaway related to building the talent part of the ecosystem:

“The integration of space technology into our daily lives also means new modern disciplines are now required. With the avalanche of data from and flowing through space systems, programmers, computer scientists and big data experts are all likely to find increasing demand for jobs seeking to monetise these assets.”

The talent needs described above are clearly cross-disciplinary.

But that’s not all. If we’re going to build successful applications, there will be a need for design, user experience, and sales, to name a few obvious categories that are not traditionally associated with the space industry.

That’s great news in the current environment of concerns about technology replacing humans in jobs. Space applications are a potential growth driver of new jobs across the entire economy.

Of course, there’s the challenge of aligning our education system with these job opportunities, but that’s worthy of an entirely separate discussion on its own.

Practical public / private

At the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) just held in Adelaide, there were representatives of both the public and private sector from all over the world.

On one of the industry panels, a private sector member was the living embodiment of the entitled capitalist, saying something to the effect of “the only role of government is to get out of the way.” This view has the benefit of clarity, but it has the much larger drawback of being completely impractical.

At this same conference, I had a chance to share a panel with members of both the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, as well as give a presentation to an audience of country representatives from all over the world. Overall, I found these public sector members to be very self-aware of their organizational constraints and refreshingly open minded about finding creative solutions.

Our panel at IAC 2017 — public & private sector together

Here’s the reality: government to government space agreements and negotiations move at a snail’s pace. The private sector can move faster in theory.

Unfortunately, there are several roadblocks. Export restrictions. Import restrictions. Talent restrictions. Mostly because space is considered to be a strategic industry, which is understandable.

This creates an opportunity for private sector companies operating in applications because the regulatory environment is completely different from the traditional space industry. Obviously, there are still regulations and restrictions when it comes to data and applications. But the level of freedom for the private sector is significantly greater when operating in this application layer as compared to space infrastructure.

It’s important to recognize that governments will continue to play a key role in developing the space industry. At the same, the private sector has a unique opportunity to innovate around applications.

Connecting space to applications

It’s no accident that some of the most exciting private sector entrepreneurs in the space sector have an Internet background. But this cross-over shouldn’t be limited to billionaires who have the capital to start investing in space infrastructure.

One of the lessons from the development of the Internet is that eventually infrastructure and applications do get connected.

Sometimes this is through open standards and co-operation. HTTP is everywhere and yet invisible to almost every user.

Conversely, even a single company can dominate a key connection layer with regulators struggling to catch up.

We could all sit back passively and hope that things “just work” in the evolution of connecting space to applications. That when a billionaire decides to set up either a for profit or even a non-profit, they will be mindful of other stakeholders.

Alternatively, we could be proactive and intentional in building these connections with a mix of co-operation and competition. And in the process, just like the Internet, we may discover that the number of applications related to space are infinitely larger than we ever imagined, right here on Earth.

Bringing Space Back to Earth was originally published in Fusion by Fresco Capital on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Behind the Scenes at Nanosatellite Company Spire

By Fusion by Fresco Capital,

I first connected with Peter Platzer in 2012 during the early days of Spire, before any of the company’s nanosatellites were actually in space. We hit it off immediately, and very quickly this led to an investment by us at Fresco Capital. There are many teams with big dreams, but Peter and the Spire team are one of the few teams that consistently execute those big dreams. In addition to launching and managing a constellation of nanosatellites, the satellite-powered data company has built a truly global business with offices across Asia, Europe and North America.

Here’s a recent Q&A I had with Peter.

When most people think of satellites, they think of very large and expensive projects that only governments can afford. What has changed in the past 15 years and why?

Nanosatellites are about the size of a bottle of wine and since 2014, there have been more nanosatellites launches than traditional large ones. With nanosatellite being far more affordable, this has dramatically changed the number of space faring nations, companies, and even individuals!

The two biggest reasons for that is the integration of new technologies from other industries and the creation of the CubeSat standard. Components from smartphones, drones, and robotics have made it possible to build an incredibly powerful satellite in a fraction of the time at a fraction of the price — it is still quite a bit or rocket science, but simply by replacing the need for lots of money with the need for lots of ingenuity and brain, it opened access for innovation from the private sector to space. Secondly, when it comes time to launch, there are now opportunities to share a ride in almost every space-faring country because the standard form factor is now a well-known and accepted by over a dozen launch vehicles.

Image Credit: Spire Global

You are originally from Europe and have lived in both Asia and North America. How does that influence your perspective of which country or countries Spire considers home?

When I was a teenager I came to my father with my passport and said “I’d like it to say ‘Peter Platzer, citizen of earth”. This was the time before the fall of the wall, my home town being just 45’ away from the Iron Curtain. An avid reader of both science and science fiction this separation between me in wealthy Vienna and others just 45’ drive away made no sense. Since then I travelled to over 60 countries and worked extensively in 7 countries on 3 continents. Clearly this has deeply influenced my thinking, curiosity, and appreciation for different cultures, norms, perspectives. And while I don’t think that my background influenced my perspective on Spire’s ‘home country’ it has certainly influenced the type of problem I want to solve and the type of company I would want to start. So from the beginning it was very clear that Spire needed to be a global company, with global customers, global operations, a global talent pool, solving global problems. Its home country is Earth.

Image credit: Spire Global

The transformation of the space industry is likely be a much needed catalyst for job creation in the future. What should governments, schools and parents be doing to make sure that their children are well prepared for these new job opportunities?

The best thing that schools can do is to keep kids engaged with technology. We need people who can code, build electronics, and understand complex systems. Thankfully there are great minds in ed-tech, like, working on this problem. We put an educational payload into every satellite because investing in children’s passion for science and technology is an investment in our future.

Image Credit: Spire Global

Anything related to space has a huge amount of global and national regulations. Recently, startups in other industries have been hurt by not following regulations. How do you approach the challenge of innovating in a highly regulated industry?

It’s always going to be difficult to deal with a highly regulated industry like aerospace but it is worth reminding yourself that the regulations were created for a reason. When we run into a roadblock, we talk with people. It’s often the case that no one even imagined a world with nanosatellites when they wrote the rules. So far we have found regulators to be very keen on understanding and supporting New Space, even though they often have to work with regulations that are anachronistic to today’s rapid pace of space technology development.

Image Credit: Spire Global

Many technology companies struggle with having diversity in the team. Spire, as a space company, is obviously working on some very advanced technology, so how does the company approach the issue of talent diversity?

Our approach to talent is to hire the best people and to build a heterogeneous team. Research has showed that heterogeneous teams consistently outperform homogeneous teams. Our team now consists of people from 18 countries and counting. It is also worth noting that from our perspective, diversity comes far more in the form of different personalities, approaches to problems, situations, desires, and aspirations, that differences visible on the outside. We measure diversity far more by the “content of the book” rather than “the cover of the book”, something that we think is often forgotten in the diversity debate.

Image Credit: Spire Global

What benefits do you think this new technology will be bringing to companies, government, and people in the next 1–3 years?

Nanosatellites are bringing about a sea-change in how much data is available from space to benefit mankind. Its like switching from a 1950 black and white silent movie to a 2015 4k 3D IMAX movie. Many of those benefits are yet to be discovered, but simply imagine a world were no airplane is ever lost again, global shipping is running on half the emissions because of route optimisation, our oceans are replenished in fish stock thanks to eradicating illegal fishing, and weather forecasts are as accurate as swiss train schedules, allowing you to never be late for a date (or miss a shipping to a customer). And those are just the areas that one company, Spire, is working on. We are certain that many more areas will be positively impacted by the wide-spread use of nanosatellites, similarly as the widespread use of the PC instead of the mainframe brought about the internet.

Thank you for reading!

Our portfolio companies including Spire are always on the lookout for top talent and also partnership opportunities. To learn more, get in touch.

Image credit: Spire Global

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