Spire raises $40m to fill the night sky with tiny satellites
Believe it or not, there are huge swaths of the planet where certain types of communication, digital tracking, and data collection are impossible.
Remember Malaysia Airlines Flight 370? No one could tell what happened to that airplane, which took off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing, but seemingly disappeared from all existence -- leading to an endless barrage of Lost references because -- and this might be a big shocker -- satellites can’t track planes or boats that are more than 100 miles or so from shore.
Fortunately, one company is trying to fix that.
On Tuesday, Spire, which uses wine-bottle-size satellites to get data from any point on earth, announced that it has raised $40 million in funding -- from Bessemer Ventures, Jump Capital, Promus Capital, and Lemnos Labs -- to continue to expand its commercial nano-satellite products to more industries and for more use cases, beyond its current focus on weather and maritime intelligence.
The company’s satellites are cheaper, smaller, and easier to deploy than standard satellites. In one interview in 2013, CEO Peter Platzer compared what his company is doing with satellites to what Apple has done to computing, explaining how computers have developed over the past 50 years to the point where you can hold one in your hand. Whereas satellites that are deployed into space are currently the size of trucks and cost millions of dollars, Spire’s satellites cost a few hundred thousand dollars and can also be held in your hand. “It’s like the iPhone-ization of space,” Platzer told me.
The agile nature of the satellites also makes them ideal to deploy on a regular basis.
“We can launch satellites every single month,” Platzer told me. “Actually, we could do it every single week if we wanted to.” The company is currently planning a month by month launch schedule starting in September, and Platzer said that some of the Series B investment -- which brings its total funding to more than $80 million -- will be used to make sure that plan stays on track.
“We focus on the highly-valuable data from the three-quarters of the earth that is generally ignored,” Platzer said, meaning the oceans and other remote areas.
The information that the satellites can gather and relay to the ground stations on 30 minute intervals could potentially save lives as well as the bottom line for companies that are at the mercy of the weather and the seas -- such as shipping and logistics businesses as well as construction, fishing, and weather tracking organizations.
“80 percent of global trade happens on ships,” said Platzer. “Ships emit beacons with valuable information, but we don’t often know where they are because there are not enough satellites covering the oceans.”
If the idea of small commercial satellites sounds familiar, you may be recalling a Kickstarter campaign from a few years ago. The company, then known as Nanosatisfi, raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter and launched its Ardusat satellite in space.
Now, obviously, what Spire is doing is some pretty innovative rocket science -- it has received grants from both NASA and Scotland for its work. So its CEO must be, like, super smart, right?
Well, Platzer was originally a high-energy and fusion physicist from Austria who spent some time at CERN, you know, the European Organization of Nuclear Science -- home to the Large Hadron Collider that has been the focus of doomsday soothsayers and science fiction plotlines for some time now. But that wasn’t exciting enough for Platzer.
“I always was interested in business and the commercial space, which didn’t exist in Austria,” Platzer said. “So I joined the Boston Consulting Group, eventually went to Harvard Business School, and then joined a hedge fund in New York doing quantitative trading.”
From there, Platzer took part in the first executive program at Singularity University, the Silicon Valley think tank and business incubator. If that’s not enough, Platzer then, in his own words, “Did some research and got another degree at Strasbourg France, where I learned rocket science and satellite design, and then started the company in 2012.”
After he rattled off his impressive credentials, I told Platzer he might have more degrees than any single human I’ve ever spoken to before. He agreed.
And, yet, as a businessman, he seems savvy enough to take a measured approach to becoming the next (or first?) space tycoon.
By incrementally advancing the impact of Spire’s technologies, first launching as a weather product then as one for maritime-focused organizations, Platzer seems to be taking baby steps to space rather than moonshots, a la Elon Musk’s SpaceX program.
Spire is positioned to become the largest and potentially only weather satellite operation in the very near future. In what has been described as the “Weather Data Gap,” the estimated 20 or so satellites that currently provide the world's weather data will either be decommissioned or willflat out stop working in the next few years before the next crop of expensive weather satellites are ready to be deployed. The lack of working satellites in space could lead to a period of years without weather data.
Obviously that would be a disaster for many industries and global economies, which is why the timing of Spire’s satellites is so important -- and potentially lucrative. By the end of this year, Spire plans to have 20 satellites in orbit, with plans for close to 100 by 2017.
If Spire’s launch schedule is timely, the company’s funding announcement might be more so, coming on the heels of the recent failed SpaceX mission.
What’s that saying again? Slow and steady wins the race.
With the commercial space race in full swing, Spire, with its seemingly less-than-lofty ambitions, may be behind the big space industry names at the moment, but it is slowly catching up.
In terms of actual viability as a major commercial space operation, the company might even be able to pass the more well-funded space-focused programs, which seem yp face one disaster after another.