Why Hedge Funds, Militaries, and NGOs All Want This Company’s Satellites

If you thought you could keep certain things hidden from the world, think again. Thanks to new, more cost-effective technology, soon there will be satellites that can track every cargo transfer or hedge fund trade, listen in on various government agencies and so much more. Say hello to a new Big Brother. We work closely with our clients, including Watson’s Partner of the Year, to stay up-to-date on the newest API technology that can help protect our clients and innovate as we move towards the future.

You might think one of the coolest perks of being in the space business would be watching blastoffs from the VIP viewing pavilion. Peter Platzer doesn’t think so. He’s the founder and CEO of Spire, a pioneer in the booming commercial universe known as new space, and he has never witnessed a Spire launch in person.

“It’s exciting from a physics perspective,” he allows. “But for me, from a company perspective, that’s where we have the least control.”

Rockets, you see, are not Platzer’s business. Satellites are. Very small satellites, about the size and shape of a whiskey-bottle box. Each costs less than $1 million to build and deploy, versus half a billion dollars for the latest government-grade spy satellites. They’re assembled largely with off-the-shelf components, the same as what’s in your smartphone, and, like your phone, Spire’s satellites don’t last forever–two years, maybe three, before they tumble out of orbit and vaporize during reentry. That’s not a liability; it’s an asset. Regular turnover ensures that the technology is always fresh. (Who wants a four-year-old phone?) They have onboard cameras, though not amazing ones; they can’t spot your backpack from outer space. But that’s OK. They’re not up there to watch. They’re there to listen: to radio signals from objects equipped with transmitters, and to light waves that can measure temperature and humidity in the atmosphere with astonishing accuracy.

Spire is all about that data. New data, plucked from outer space, the market for which includes passenger and cargo conveyors of all kinds (especially ships; 90 percent of global trade is seafaring), hedge funds, commodities traders, secretive anti-pirate security companies (seen the movie Captain Phillips?), various government agencies (civil and military), and NGOs. Anybody, that is, who regularly sends human or hard assets into the still vast, digitally dark regions of the planet, and anybody else who wants to know where those assets are. That part of Spire’s business is akin to Google’s business organizing the world’s bits and bytes. It’s what investment banker Jim Murray of PJT Partners calls “the audacious vision of new space: a global, searchable database of where stuff is. Every car, every truck, every container, every ship, every airplane.” It’s coming, says Murray. When it arrives, he adds, mysteries like “the dis­appearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 will never happen again.”

Geolocation accounts for about three-quarters of Spire’s projected $20 million of revenue in 2016, but it’s not what excites Platzer most. He’s more interested in a technology called GPS radio occultation–or GPSRO–which uses satellites to take precise beads on temperature and humidity the world over, calculate wind speeds, and deliver troves of hitherto unavailable atmo­spheric data to meteorologists and climate scientists eager to plug them into their models.

“I can’t think of anything more valuable for seeing how Earth is affected by greenhouse gases,” says GPSRO pioneer Sandy MacDonald, former director of the Earth System Research Laboratory, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “This should give us a much clearer understanding of how the planet’s climate is changing.”

Platzer is on board with that mission. It’s one of the reasons he lured Mac­Donald to Spire in April, and set him up with his own research team in Boulder, Colorado. “But I wouldn’t have started a company based only on that, because I don’t know how to sell it,” Platzer says. Rather, his eye is on the estimated one-third of the $18 trillion U.S. economy that he thinks might pay a premium for game-changing forecasts. “Weather forecasting as accurate as Swiss train schedules,” he says. “That is the goal.”

Platzer, who’s 47, is built like a small bull–barrel chest, round shoulders, bright eyes, shaved head. He’s a native Austrian who read Einstein as a teenager, studied physics at the Technical University of Vienna, and did research for his master’s thesis at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany. He’s long been fascinated by all things space, but when he began his career in the 1990s, space was still a lousy business. So he signed on with the business consultancy BCG, traveled throughout Europe and Asia, went on to earn his MBA at Harvard, and spent a decade on Wall Street building quantitative investment models for emerging markets. While living in New York, he shed all but the faintest trace of his Austrian accent and met his future wife, Theresa Condor, a former Citi banker who’s now Spire’s head of sales. Condor says she was attracted to Platzer’s geeky brilliance, but claims he has many “interesting artistic angles as well.” He’s a skilled ballroom dancer, an accomplished tenor who courted Condor by inviting her to hear him perform at Carnegie Hall, and a bit of a dandy who enjoys taking his wife shopping and choosing her dresses, jewelry, and shoes.

A crane at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida lifts a pressurized cargo module containing, among other items, Spire satellites. The module will be loaded onto a rocket that will also deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station. CREDIT: Courtesy NASA/Bill White

A crane at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida lifts a pressurized cargo module containing, among other items, Spire satellites. The module will be loaded onto a rocket that will also deliver hardware and supplies to the International Space Station.
CREDIT: Courtesy NASA/Bill White

The turning point in Platzer’s career came in 2009, at an eight-day executive program hosted by Singularity University, the Silicon Valley think tank founded by futurists Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil (both friends of cover subject Tony Robbins). Singularity U. is all about leveraging rapidly developing “exponential technologies” to achieve great things. Platzer arrived there hoping to learn about broad trends driving global markets and become a smarter investor. By the time he left, all he could think about was space.

From the dawn of the Space Age in the 1950s until quite recently, space was the exclusive domain of wealthy nations and a handful of giant, well-capitalized companies, like Intelsat and SES. It was risky, time-consuming, and expensive, too rich for venture capitalists and out of reach for most entrepreneurs. But during his brief time at Singularity U., Platzer says, he began to perceive what he calls “the trifecta of forces” that were reshaping the industry: cash-strapped governments slashing space budgets; wealthy, legacy-minded entrepreneurs (Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Paul Allen) stepping up to build private-sector alternatives; and, most crucially, the commercialization of nanotechnology, beginning with the smartphone.

“Pretty much every satellite put up in the first 50 years was people building on NASA’s Apollo program,” says Dave Cowan of Bessemer Venture Partners, which is among the investors that have put $66.5 million into Spire. “They were basically taking old platforms and making them bigger so they would last longer, with more redundant systems and more radiation hardening.”

That technology brought us the first live Olympic broadcasts, international phone calls, satellite radio and TV, high-def TV–and ultimately a wave of bankruptcies. Those satellites, as big as school buses, took so long to develop and cost so much to build and launch that the trick to making them pay off was keeping them up there for years, even decades. Meanwhile, technological advances back on Earth were rendering them obsolete, sometimes before they even took off. “Most every satellite in orbit is a floating dinosaur,” Cowan wrote in a 2014 white paper outlining his investment strategy, “a bloated, one-off, expensive, often militarized, monolithic relic of the mainframe era.” He called for a new generation of space entrepreneurs “to launch modern computer networks into space” and disrupt “our aging infrastructure.”

The platform for that modern network has been around since 1999, when a team of college students from Cal Poly and Stanford created the CubeSat–a stackable case, about four inches square, that accepts standard electronic components and slots easily into the cargo compartment of most rockets. The rocket blasts off and sheds boosters stage by stage until nothing’s left but the cone, where the payload resides. Then a hatch opens, a cocked spring explodes, and the satellite flies free.

Suddenly anyone could build and design a satellite, just by going online and ordering the parts. And launching was easy to outsource–to government space programs around the world, or to startups like SpaceX. Rockets that were taking off anyway were happy to balance their primary payloads with a secondary load of CubeSats (rather than bags of sand), for short money.

A Spire satellite in orbit, approximately 250 miles above Earth. CREDIT: Courtesy Spire

A Spire satellite in orbit, approximately 250 miles above Earth.
CREDIT: Courtesy Spire

Once CubeSats became the industry standard, they quickly accomplished for satellites what the IBM motherboard did for personal computing, spawning a whole new industry of commodity parts suppliers. The linear, as the concept is understood at Singularity U., became exponential, harvesting in one fell swoop the neglected bounty of Moore’s law and applying the gains to space.

In 2010, Platzer’s employer, Deutsche Bank, shut down the trading desk where he worked and sent him away with a generous severance. His first thought was: Great–I’ll invest my windfall in a master’s degree from International Space University in Strasbourg, France. But by then, he and Condor were an item, though not yet married, and Condor wasn’t ready to make that kind of commitment. Platzer was patient. He stifled his reborn obsession, found another job on Wall Street, and stuck it out for one more year until Condor softened, on one condition: no grad-student housing. Platzer found a nice apartment and sold two museum-quality pieces from his collection of vintage HP calculators to cover the rent.

At ISU, Platzer met two twentysomething engineers who would become his co-founders–Jeroen Cappaert, from Belgium, and Joel Spark, from Canada. They bonded over Ping-Pong, late-night study sessions, and their shared status as newly minted members of ISU’s elite Space Mafia. Cappaert remembers Platzer then as “a dreamer” but “very data-driven. If someone else were to say, ‘OK, in the next 10 years there will be X amount of satellites in space,’ you’d say, ‘You’re crazy.’ But when Peter says something like that, he has evidence to support his prediction.”

Platzer wrote a research paper at ISU on the emerging business ecosystem of nanosatellites, for which he interviewed about 100 industry experts. His surprise takeaway: There is a direct correlation between the depth of cynicism about nanosatellites and the depth of experience in the space industry. “The more they knew about space, the less they realized about the looming opportunity,” Platzer says. “Knowledge of the field made them more disruptable, not less.”

By the time all three graduated, in May 2012, they had a pretty good idea, based on pure inductive reasoning, of what kind of satellite company they wanted to start: How do we create a sustainable advantage? What is the natural habitat we can occupy? Where is small size not a disadvantage? The answers all led them to the same place: away from imaging, a popular niche already dominated by companies like Planet and Skybox, and toward listening, or signal intelligence. Less sexy, more versatile–and not nearly as crowded.

The clincher for Platzer was the limitless potential he saw in GPSRO. “My thesis in nuclear fusion was based on exactly the same principle,” he says. “I immediately got the physics of it. And the thing about GPSRO is that it has nothing to do with the size of the satellites. It’s all about the number of satellites. To get the most value, you need lots of them. It’s perfect for satellites you can build cheaply and launch easily.”

That spring they started a $100,000 Kickstarter campaign to fund an aca­demic research mission. “If it passes, we’ll know it’s the real deal” is how Spark describes their thinking at the time. “And if not, OK, maybe we’re just space nerds and it’s not really so valuable.” It passed–scoring $40,000 in under a week, and 116 percent of the goal in 40 days. The founders moved to San Francisco and set up shop in hardware incubator Lemnos Labs, which invested another $100,000. Spire had found its launch pad.

As a child growing up outside Vienna in nearby Suedstadt, Platzer once complained to his dad, “It’s annoying that my passport says ‘Austria.’ I want it to say ‘citizen of Earth.'”

It might as well say that now. He’s easiest to track down in Scotland, where he and Condor are raising their 2-year-old daughter in Glasgow. (Platzer preferred Vienna, but the British government offered better incentives.) Spire’s Glasgow office is on the fifth floor of a boxy, aluminum-clad building on the west side of town. A large video monitor by the door carries 24-hour live feeds from Spire’s nominal headquarters in San Francisco, where Platzer also has an apartment, and company outposts in Singapore and Boulder. Total employees in four offices: 105, representing more than a dozen nationalities.

Platzer won’t identify any of Spire’s customers. He’s secretive, and so are they. But it’s known they include the navies and coast guards of friendly countries the world over that keep tabs on activity in their territorial waters (the U.S., for instance, claims an “exclusive economic zone” nearly twice the size of its land mass); NOAA and its foreign equivalents; big companies that operate, like metals corporation Rio Tinto, by producing and shipping commodities all over the world; and hedge funds that can make money trading on oil prices if they know where all the tankers in the world are at any given moment. Platzer says his revenue is “more tilted in the short term to commercial,” but expects that will change: “There are deep pockets with interest in our capabilities that tend to be more on the government side.”

Spire is on track to reach an important goal by year’s end: 20 satellites, 20 ground stations, $20 million in revenue, and its first-ever profit. Spire launched the first four of its current generation of Lemur-2 satellites–Joel, Peter, Jeroen, and Chris, named for Spire’s first four employees–a year ago. Currently it has 13 in orbit, eight in a closet in Glasgow, eight in San Francisco, and four all packed up and ready for liftoff in Texas. A scheduled launch in July was postponed, for reasons beyond Spire’s control. That happens a lot. Not a constraint, Platzer claims, but rather “an immense barrier to entry.” Everyone’s working with the same pipeline and “we have booked every flight,” he says. “It may take me a while to get all my satellites up there, but no one else can do it sooner.”

That’s what it takes to build an organization that, Platzer says, will survive in a world of ever-accelerating change. “Thirty years from now, 40 percent of global GDP is going to be driven by the collection and analysis and use of data. We collect data where no one else can. And that data is relevant for global problems,” he concludes. “It’s not about saving the world. It’s just doing something that matters.”

Source: Inc.com October , 2016