8 Satellite Data Startups Doing Geospatial Analysis
The world is hungry for data. It feeds on information like a fat man at a Golden Corral’s all-you-can-eat buffet. It’s how we know whether to grab a coat in the morning before leaving the house. It dictates how we design highways and how we build relationships. Without big data, artificial intelligence would most likely still be largely relegated to Ph.D. theses and parlor tricks on quiz shows. These days you can mine data from many sources for many purposes, from law enforcement using social media to track citizens to predicting which movies you’ll like or spotting fraudulent activity based on a company’s enterprise data. One source of ginormous amounts of data is from satellites.
Regular readers will know that we have been hitting what’s called NewSpace pretty hard in recent months. This commercialization of space is still in its nascent stages. Companies are launching swarms of satellites into orbit, while others are building infrastructure for scientific research. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, then satellite data is worth even more. Satellite data startups are providing insights to everything from business intelligence to forestry health. We’ve seen this business model from companies like Orbital Insight and Descartes Labs. There appears to be no slacking in the thirst for more data, which is good thing for these eight satellite data startups.
Under Cover of Darkness
Smaller is not only better but it’s cheaper. That’s the theory behind a satellite data company from Palo Alto founded only last year—Capella Space. The company raised $12 million in a Series A in May, its first round of disclosed funding. Investors include executives and backers of Planet Labs, one of the biggest private satellite companies in the world. The company plans to deploy a 36-satellite constellation outfitted with synthetic aperture radar (SAR), which can see through clouds and darkness, unlike optical instruments. The real trick is shrinking the existing technology from a school bus-sized satellite that costs a half-billion dollars down to one at a fraction of the size and cost.
In a blog post announcing the round, Capella co-founder Payam Banazadeh emphasizes that while his company builds satellites, it considers itself an information business. He also reveals that despite the fact the company has yet to launch one satellite, it has already booked $10 million in revenue from a customer that wants access to its data stream. The U.S. military is also very interested in the hourly imagery that a satellite constellation like Capella can offer, according to the New York Times. The company also hopes to apply its spy technology to the maritime industry, oil, and energy companies and agriculture, among others.
Another company attempting to commercialize SAR technology is New York-based Ursa Space Systems. The company only has about $350,000 in disclosed funding and relies on existing SAR imagery from satellite now in orbit. Its main products include a weekly time series on oil stocks down to the tank level, a service also provided by companies like the better-funded Orbital Insight.
Update 11/07/19: Ursa has raised $15 million in Series B funding to help support its growing customer base. This brings the company’s total funding to $28.1 million to date.
Parking Lot Economics
One of the “standard” products offered these days by satellite data companies is business intelligence based on imagery from parking lots and other economic indicators of commerce. San Francisco-based Spaceknow is among that breed but offers a range of other products, based on its machine-learning platform. The company closed a $4 million Series A in February, bringing total disclosed funding to $5.2 million. The casual user can go to the website and see various spots on Earth change over time.
The AI part comes in by analyzing imagery from a variety of very different sources, such as DigitalGlobe and Planet Labs. All sorts of analyses become possible with these sorts of historical timelines. For example, you could determine how much traffic might have increased after the construction of that stadium. Or how much farmland was lost during a given time period around a city due to urbanization. Or even how Elon Musk’s hairline has changed over time. Descartes Labs, backed by the likes of DARPA, is a key competitor that we’ve covered previously.
Old MacDonald Had a Farm
Remote sensing to gauge crop yield isn’t as old as Moses’ toes, but it’s becoming a standard technology thanks to satellite data. Relative newcomer TellusLabs, founded in 2016 and based in Somerville, Massachusetts, raised $3.1 million in Seed money back in January. Last year, combining satellite imagery with other data such as local weather and crop conditions, its machine-learning algorithms predicted the final U.S. soy yield with zero error and came within 1 percent of U.S. corn yields. The system, dubbed Kernel, was trained on decades of historical data and all 175 million acres of corn and cropland. The startup aims to provide accurate and actionable analysis to farmers, commodity traders and hedge funds, according to AgFunder News.
Now Starring Planet Earth
A publicly traded company out of Vancouver, UrtheCast (pronounced “EarthCast”) does a little bit of everything in satellite data. Urthecast (UR:CN) had raised $4.5 million before going public about four years ago on the Toronto Stock Exchange. With a market cap of $123 million Canadian dollars ($97 million U.S.), UrtheCast had about $111 million in revenue last year, tripling its revenue from the prior year. The company makes most of its money from selling satellite imagery and even video from its own satellites and space-based cameras, with ambitious plans to launch two separate satellite constellations in the future. The image below of the Calbuco Volcano in the Chilean Lakes District was taken from UrtheCast’s Deimos-2 satellite.
UrtheCast says in filings that business took a hit when a contract for cameras destined to the International Space Station was canceled. However, the company recently entered into a five-year contract for engineering and satellite imagery to the tune of $65 million with an undisclosed client.
Also in Orbit
Based in the self-proclaimed space capital of England in Oxfordshire, Rezatec raised $1.4 million in a Seed round last year. The company’s “landscape intelligence platform” combines satellite data with airborne and ground instruments to monitor, measure and model all sorts of areas, from agriculture to water management. For example, in one case, Rezatec was asked to measure species distribution, health and other attributes of two forests in Scotland. The satellite data not only proved much quicker to gather and distribute compared to land surveys, but also found higher tree species distribution than what was previously thought to exist.
New York-based Skywatch has about $184,000 in disclosed funding. Its main product is the SkyWatch API, which provides a gateway to both commercial and free satellite data imagery for DYI projects, such as projecting crop yield (like TellusLabs) or estimating retailer revenue (like just about every other satellite data company).
Speaking of which: Founded in 2009, Chicago-based RS Metrics sticks to satellite data for business intelligence. No immediate details on funding. The company analyzes satellite data for retail (think of the sort of “parking lot” analytics pioneered by DigitalGlobe, Orbital Insights and others) and other industries such as metals and commodities. For example, its MetalSignals product monitors and tracks the amount of metals stored outside at hundreds of global smelters and storage facilities, and combines data for similar metals to identify periods of significant change that are predictive price and inventory, according to the company. Sounds like a good way to track the movements of Magneto as well.
The famous Pale Blue Dot shot by the Voyager spacecraft nearly 30 years ago showed the Earth as a mere pixel in the cosmos. Today, the voluminous amount of data being generated by NewSpace satellites is equally humbling, showing the complexities of the world in unbelievable detail. The companies that are able to procure, process and provide meaningful perspectives on all that satellite data will emerge as the main sources of not just business intelligence but Earth intelligence. The rest will just spin out of control and burn up in the atmosphere. It remains to be seen which ones will remain in orbit.