Satellite IoT Startup Plans to Track Everything from Space
If at first you don’t succeed, try again. That’s not just the motto of drunk blokes trying to pick up women at She Soho in an attempt to pull off Gareth Keenan’s ultimate fantasy. It’s also the words by which most entrepreneurs live by, especially if their ultimate fantasy involves building a communications network in the fast-growing and highly competitive Internet of Things (IoT) marketplace. Only about a third of that market caters to enterprise use cases such as tracking and monitoring machines like wind turbines, tracking fleets of trucks or the location of every widget on the planet. A two-year-old satellite IoT startup, Totum Labs, proposes tackling this very tough corner of the market – a feat its fading sister startup Ingenu tried with a different technology.
IoT Communication Systems
A couple of things to get out of the way. We’re MBAs, not telecommunications engineers, so we’ll talk crudely and briefly about some of the different communications systems used. The other thing to keep in mind is that it’s still too early to say there will be one IoT communications network to rule them all. It’s not VHS versus Beta – at least not yet – when it comes to the preferred method for connecting devices into networks.
In part, that’s because it depends on what those devices are, right? Probably the most ubiquitous IoT device on the planet, the smartphone, relies on cellular and WiFi networks to carry all kinds of bandwidth-hungry data. That’s why everyone is salivating and buying stocks in the big 5G upgrade now underway. But if the goal is to get a status report on that hijacked shipment of Moderna Covid-19 vaccine, then there are plenty of options for shuttling smaller bytes of data to and from the estimated 7.6 billion active IoT devices.
Satellites certainly come to mind. Take Orbcomm (ORBC), a small-cap satellite company that already provides industrial IoT connectivity by combining its own low-Earth-orbiting (LEO) satellite network with a geostationary satellite network operated by the British satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat, which delisted a year ago from the London exchange following a private equity buyout.
In fact, there are a number of strategies and platforms to create what are called low-power wide-area networks (LPWANs) between objects. The keywords are right there: The sensors or devices should consume as little power as possible while creating private network connectivity over as great an area as possible – all while doing it as cheaply as possible. For instance, we covered another IoT satellite startup, Skylo, which provides a type of LPWAN called narrowband IoT (NB IoT), a radio technology relegated to a single narrow-band of 200kHz that’s particularly good for tracking stuff indoors. A well-funded startup in the IoT communications space is Sigfox, which has developed its own proprietary wireless communications technology that is software-driven and operates in the ultra-NB.
Before you tune us out over all this talk about frequencies and bandwidth – like riffing on the pros and cons of the LoRa, or long range, LPWAN network from Semtech (SMTC) – we need to introduce you to one more startup before telling you all about Totum Labs.
A Tower-Based IoT Network
Founded in 2008, San Diego-based Ingenu has raised about $123.6 million to stand up what the company calls the Machine Network, which is basically a dedicated IoT wireless network for devices. In its earlier years, the company drew some respectable funding rounds that included industry names like ConocoPhillips (COP) and GE (GE). That was enough money to begin building a tower-based IoT network similar to companies like Verizon but using a proprietary technology platform called Random Phase Multiple Access (RPMA). A description from the company on how it works:
The Machine Network is made up of access points, receivers or modules, and the signal itself. The access points, much like WiFi wireless routers, broadcast a wireless signal. Just like a WiFi network, any device that wants to connect to that network needs to have a card, or module, that can receive that wireless signal. These modules can be placed into all sorts of machines and devices and allow them to then communicate over the RPMA network.
Ingenu claims that it can cover the equivalent of 2,000 square miles with just 17 towers in a major metropolis area like Dallas/Fort Worth, while needing just one tower to provide IoT coverage across 400 square miles of rural Texas oil fields.
However, we read that the company is short on money and tens of millions of dollars from its goal of developing a nationwide network. While the network is reputedly built with long-term success in mind, the business model of outright selling access points to customers rather than getting recurring revenue from subscriptions wasn’t as long term. Last year, the company was still in business but reportedly looking for a buyer of its existing network.
An IoT Satellite Network
Apparently, co-founder and chief technology officer Ted Myers saw the writing on the wall back in 2018 when he quit and founded Totum Labs without changing towns. The San Diego startup has raised $15.5 million, including a $13 million Series A last month with the name of Qualcomm (QCOM) co-founder Dr. Andrew Viterbi on the list of investors.
This time around, Myers’ new company proposes building an IoT wireless network on a fleet of nanosatellites rather than ground-based towers. The so-called Low Power Sensor to Satellite (LP-S2S) concept is based on the company’s patent-pending Doppler Multichannel Spread Spectrum (DMSS) technology that it claims can scale to track and monitor billions of devices. The plan is to launch about two dozen CubeSats in the next couple of years, along with a cheap $4 low-power chip that customers can add to any track-worthy widget.
Viterbi, who has his own algorithm named after him, said in the press release accompanying the Series A announcement, “I’ve closely followed LPWA technologies for more than a decade, and I believe DMSS is the right answer for global connectivity on a massive scale.” Probably not a bad guy to listen to.
Partnerships with Loft Orbital and Orca Systems
If you think of a satellite as a 300-mile-tall communications tower with a coverage footprint the size of the United States, then you can start to understand the promise that Viterbi sees in Totum Labs, which is working with partners like NewSpace startup Loft Orbital out of San Francisco. Founded in 2017, the company has raised $16.2 million with a business model centered on buying satellite buses and then selling payload space to a variety of customers who don’t need their own mission-specific satellite. Loft Orbital’s partnership with Totum Labs reportedly involves using the former’s gateways and ground network, in addition to the fleet of CubeSats. Each satellite will be able to handle a half-million devices at a time.
Another San Diego startup, Orca Systems, is developing the DMSS LEO Satellite Endpoint System On Chip for connecting the IoT devices to the network. Founded in 2006, Orca has only ever raised $5 million, according to Crunchbase. The company focuses on low-power digital radio frequency transceivers for the IoT market. The chip will enable Totum to track an asset anywhere, including indoors. Samples are expected to be available early next year.
Transforma Insights, a market research company that focuses on the IoT industry, claims LPWAN connections will hit four billion in the next decade, up from 220 million at the end of 2019. About a third of those connections will be in unlicensed spectrums like those operated by Sigfox and potentially Totum Labs. In terms of actual revenue, Transforma predicts the IoT market will more than triple in that timeframe, from about $465 billion to $1.5 trillion in 2030. While we’re always skeptical of these sorts of forecasts, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that the future of IoT communications is still up for grabs.
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