Space Infrastructure 2.0! Meet Capella Space

Two years ago on a Sunday, I decided which part of the universe I wanted to put a dent in and started Capella Space the following Monday. I spent the next four months at Stanford’s Green Library researching competitors, the market, and the technology before meeting my co-founder Will Woods. Will was receiving his PhD in a very well respected radar remote sensing group at Stanford. We first chatted over lunch at the Tresidder Student Center and immediately connected on a personal and professional level. With our mutually ambitious personalities we agreed that if we are going to work together we should not limit our choices only to what seems possible or reasonble. Our thesis was that by limiting ourselves we would disconnect from what we truly wanted, and all there would be left would be a compromise. Even to this date, compromising on vision at Capella is a big no-no. We compromise on engineering decisions every day but never on big picture stuff.

The concept behind Capella is extremely simple and intuitive. We believe nothing on earth should go undetected. We find it completely unacceptable and frustrating that a 747 plane with hundreds of passengers could go missing and no one, not even the most advanced country in the world, could find the plane. Will and I had one simple question when we started Capella — why don’t we have the capabilities to have “eyes in the sky” when we want to? We thought to ourselves that surely there must be places in the world that deserve to be monitored on a much more persistent and consistent basis. Our hypothesis was that there is value in monitoring busy ports, big cities, important infrastructures, shipping lanes, conflict zones, etc. After thinking through some of the applications we decided to collaborate and build a small satellite that was capable of imaging earth in all weather and light conditions.

To help us answer some of the business and market questions we decided to take a “customer discovery” class taught by the legendary entrepreneur Steve Blank. In the short 10 weeks we interviewed more than 200 enterprises/individuals both within the government as well as in the commercial sector. The result was mind-blowing. We discovered a pattern among all of our interviews. We realized that there is substantial hidden value in understanding the existence, movement, or lack thereof anything that is manmade — such as cars, trains, planes, ships, goods, commodities, infrastructure, etc. We even found that in some cases monitoring non-manmade objects are also of tremendous value.

What we learned in class was so encouraging that we started mapping out a strategy on how to go after these applications. We realized that a capability to monitor important locations around the world every hour of every day and every night would open up applications that were inaccessible with current technologies. Optical imaging, which is the current go-to for earth imaging, is limited to cloud free and perfect lighting conditions. This limitation means 75% of earth remains undetected no matter how many of optical satellites you launch in space.

Our satellites use Synthethic Aperture Radar (SAR) imaging technique with the unique advantage of being able to see through the clouds as well as in any light conditions — including pitch-dark nights or when there is a storm in the area. However, in order to have hourly imagery a constellation of at least 36 of our satellites is required. A traditional SAR satellite is size of a school bus, weights about 1200 kg, and costs around $500M — one of the reasons no one has attempted to put up a constellation of SAR satellites in space yet. We decided that volume and mass of our satellites were going to be critical in our roadmap to build a sizable constellation and as a result we invested heavily in finding ways to pack more into less — literally. We believed that the solution to not having enough volume was not to increase the size of our satellite, it was to re-think how packaging is done in limited volumes. So we invented new technologies that would enable our satellites to pack the performance of a traditional SAR satellite into a satellite with a fraction of its volume and mass. That result is the smallest radar imaging satellite in the world.

Armed with our technology and insight into the customers we started driving around Sand Hill Road (a few blocks away from our dorm rooms on campus) and pitched our idea to investors. Chris Boshuizen (Co-Founder of Planet) & Matt Ocko from DCVC (major investor in Planet) were the first ones to believe in our vision. We received some additional funding from Jerry Yang (Yahoo’s Founder), Canaan Partners (major investor in Skybox) as well as Pear Ventures to prove out that we are not completely insane. In a short few months we built our imaging system, tested it on an aircraft, and most importantly built our dream team by recruiting old colleagues from NASA and industry.

Fast-forward 12 months later: we have 16 full-time stars at Capella Space and growing fast between our two offices in Palo Alto, CA and Boulder, CO. We have truly assembled the brightest and most capable team seen in the aerospace industry. And today I am thrilled to announce that we have closed a $12M Series A round of financing led by Nabeel Hyatt from Spark Capital. Our first satellite is launching later this year and we have been able to book $10M in revenue from a customer who is pre-paying to have access to our data stream — very unusual for an early stage satellite company.

But that is the catch — we are not a satellite company. We are an information provider company that happens to build satellites in order to collect proprietary data from space. We design and build our own satellites at Capella, which means we have full access and control over our data stream and all the little tweaks we will inevitably have to make based on market response.

With our capability we imagine a world where decisions are made based on real-time and independent data instead of assumptions or historical archives. We will change the fundamentals of decision making and operations for many industries including insurance companies, financial traders, hedge funds, asset managers, shipping companies, energy companies, agricultural companies, local and federal governments, NGOs, media, and so many others who will feel the ripple effect of having “eyes in the sky” at their fingertip. But our “eyes in the sky” capability means a lot more than information at our fingertips in real-time — it also means that we can use the massive data archive that we will build to model the world and potentially predict events. “Big data” has been demonstrated to be extremely valuable for businesses of all sorts but the ability to use predictive analytics at the planet Earth level has not been fully exploited. We believe Capella will be an important player in making this giant leap forward.

We’re hiring and speaking to prospective partners, so reach out if you’re interested in exploring this new frontier with us — how do you see the world in five years with Capella data?