Spark, Capella, and a world of information

Nabeel Hyatt
May 9, 2017 · 3 min read

How fast are the polar icecaps actually melting? Where is deforestation happening the fastest? Are people really traveling to retail stores less or just buying less? Where is that massive oil spill spreading to?

Despite it feeling like the world is overwhelmed with information, you’d be surprised by how many of these things cannot actually be directly measured today. We are still too often trying to figure out the ground truth via secondary indicators, indexes, and imprecise measurements.

This lack of actual ground truth certainly surprised Payam Banazadeh and Will Woods when they were graduate students at Stanford, and was the inspiration that led them to found Capella Space. There, they and their team have invented a unique Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) micro-satellite that promises to dramatically increase the information we have about the world around us.

The first time I met Payam was September of last year. We walked around the neighborhoods of Mountain View talking about the journey he had been on. The technology that Capella is developing is not the kind of thing you can invent overnight. It certainly requires some of the deep knowledge of the aerospace and satellite imaging industry that the founders and their team have. But it also requires an entrepreneurial spirit to try and solve a problem that conventional wisdom considered extremely difficult if not impossible.

Payam Banazadeh and Will Woods of Capella Space

The prevailing narrative around startups is often about the “eureka moment,” the proverbial light bulb going off, the “pivot” that leads to a golden opportunity. But dramatic storytelling aside, sometimes founders get to a breakthrough not in a flash, but through working very hard over much of their lives and assembling the right team for the challenge.

For both Payam and Will, working in aerospace was something they had wanted to do since they were children. In Payam’s case, that required immigrating to the U.S. alone during high school to set himself up in the right educational system to be able to get to work at NASA.

From Payam’s perch at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and later with Will at Stanford, they began looking at the innovation happening in micro-satellites. People were just beginning to put cameras on micro-satellites to try and capture information, but that created a problem, how do you capture the world perpetually when a majority of the time it’s too dark or cloudy to get a good image?

The answer historically had been Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). But unfortunately launching a SAR satellite costs upwards of $500m, expensive enough that it was generally the arena of governments, not private enterprise. It had historically been so expensive that there is not a single U.S. commercial company that has launched a SAR satellite.

That first day in Mountain View, Payam spoke of the the technical hurdles of taking a system designed to cost $500m+ and reducing that cost by 100x or more. We talked about the thermal design and antennae breakthroughs it would require. And we talked about the potential to grow the market exponentially if you suddenly could democratize access to information that was previously only available to governments or incredibly wealthy corporations.

Over the next six months, we met frequently, as Payam and his team slowly, methodically, proved out the riskiest aspects of the satellite they were designing. At the same time when we spoke to customers, we heard nothing but a resounding desire for access to this information. Although these enthusiastic conversations with potential customers were often coupled with the cautious optimism of “well if it works...”

As the team continued to prove out the deepest, hardest aspects of the satellite it became clear that there was a pretty good chance it could indeed work. So today we are happy to announce Spark Capital is leading the $12m Series A funding for Capella Space, and to put the first SAR micro-satellite into space. The more knowledge we have about the world around us the better decisions we can make, and Spark is happy to be partnering with Payam and his team to make this a reality.

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