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All for Earth and Earth for All: Robbie Schingler’s Quest to Bring Satellite Imagery to the Public Domain

One company intends to shake things up by making images of our world’s surface available to all.

With the advent of the space race, Earth-observing satellites became one of the first major applications for spaceflight and remain in demand to this day. (Please see “SmallCap Review” in the March 2013 issue of Thruster.) The data captured from these craft have an impact on everything from disaster relief to agricultural planning. With space agencies around the world under a budget crunch, however, the demand for NewSpace providers to fill this need is greater than ever, forming a relatively small but rapidly growing slice of the 1st Vertical.

The opportunity presented by this emerging industry is represented by the second of the NSG 4 Screens and continues to attract new entrants. Indeed, several NSG 100 companies such as SkyBox Imaging, NanoRacks, and Dauria Aerospace (who recently secured a $20Mln B round) seek to capitalize on it through the use of efficient, inexpensive small satellites (SmallSats). (Please see “NewSpace Timeline” in this issue of Thruster.) While the data gathered by these craft, manufactured by companies such as Orbital Sciences, can often command a high price from governments and private entities (such as former 1st Tier NSG 100 The Climate Corporation, recently acquired for $930Mln by Monsanto) alike, one company intends to shake things up by making images of our world’s surface available to all.

Robbie Schingler, along with two fellow former NASA scientists, started San Francisco-based Planet Labs in 2010 to provide universal access to high-quality Earth imaging. The company has already launched the first two of its “Dove” line of demonstration SmallSats, which they hope will lay the foundation for what will be the world’s largest constellation of Earth-observing satellites. COS believes that the images they capture will help improve crop yields in developing nations, track natural disasters to inform humanitarian relief, as well as many other applications. Having recently closed a $13Mln investment round, some notable investors include Eric Schmidt, Jerry Yang, and Steve Jurvetson speculate that the 1st Tier NSG 100 can succeed in solving large problems while simultaneously producing large ROIs.

NSG recently spoke with Schingler, who shared his thoughts and experiences on management (the first of the NSG 4 Screens) in the NewSpace industry.

1. Please tell us a little about yourself.

Prior to Planet Labs, I worked at NASA off and on, between undergrad and grad schools, for about nine years. I also oscillated between work in Washington, D.C. that was more policy-oriented, like program development (being a “bureaucratic warrior”), and being a “performer” on the ground at the NASA Ames Research Center out in California. At Ames, I’ve had a number of different jobs, from being a scientist, to a technologist, to helping start new projects. I helped incubate the Small Spacecraft Office and design center there, including working on a number of different satellite projects, including the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). At NASA headquarters in D.C., most recently, I was the Open Government Representative, which eventually turned into helping Bobby Braun start the Space Technology Program. We got that authorized and appropriated in a couple of years to bring cutting-edge technology and R&D focus back to the agency.

2. How would you describe your company’s management style? What are the strengths and weaknesses of that approach?

COS founders (left to right) Chris Boshuizen, Will Marshall, and Schingler

At Planet Labs, we started with a team of five; we’re now at about 32 after a year and a half. We hire the right people. We hire smart people, we hire people with aptitude, with integrity. We’re able to be a very high-performing team, where the individuals involved are very passionate about what they’re doing, but also experts in their field and in their domain. It’s served us very well.

Our management philosophy is one that’s fairly consultative. We have a really good group of advisors and a really great board of directors. We actually meet as a board every month, since so much is happening so quickly. It allows for us to not spend so much time preparing that board of directors. We wind up really just having a three-sheet piece of collateral: the state of the company, and there are always two strategic items of discussion in each board meeting. That is the way that we’re using all the resources at our disposal in order to build this company.

3. What excited you most about joining Planet Labs’ executive management team?

A different posture towards risk. NASA builds exquisite, one-of-a-kind, perfect technical implementations that work, and that don’t take risk. These things take 10 years to do and they cost fractions of billions of dollars.

What excited me most about starting Planet Labs was to take risk in the correct elements of the satellite segment, to then enable missions that were not possible before. That was it, more or less: to not architect it from NASA headquarters – which we attempted to do with the Space Technology Program, which is a $650Mln advanced technology program – but instead, just say, “Let’s just build it, and let’s do it.” Now, of course, in thinking about how we would implement these new types of missions, we chose to do it commercially. Then, we dug in deep and came up with a really good business model around it, and identified a benefit to the commercial market. That has enabled us to seek funding and be successful. So, that was the primary motivation: to enable new capabilities in space, to actually take risk in a bit of a different way, use modern methodologies, and borrow technologies and methodologies from other sectors that have a lot more commercial activity and a lot more market forces involved that propel innovation forward.

4. One of the reasons why Management is the 1st Screen is that NSG Analysts often look at how leaders overcome the challenges of running a business. What has been your biggest obstacle in starting and running a NewSpace company and how have you addressed it?

COS receiving the first images from the Dove satellites

There were some unknowns, of course: building satellites outside of government and getting commercial licenses, it was unknown how difficult that was going to be. We focused a lot on the relationship with our regulators and my spending five of the last 10 years in Washington, D.C. to understand how things work there. We’ve been successful in attracting fantastic mentors, fantastic investors, and fantastic employees.

Our entry into the market has been in secondary payloads, so you kind of have to do a bit of a dance between your internal technology development roadmap, coupled with a parallel process of when you think your launches really are going to go, coupled with the third parallel process, which is applying for the license for it. You have to guess when the launch is going to go, and guess where your technology is going to get to, and that’s the license you apply for. We’ve learned a lot through the years, but I think we’re in a pretty good spot.

5. A growing number of NSG-tracked companies are developing businesses around the manufacturing and/or operation of small satellites within the 1st Vertical. (Please see “Letter From the Editor” in the March 2013 issue of Thruster.) How does Planet Labs differentiate itself from its competitors in the SmallSat sub-vertical?

We have innovated on the cost-performance curve of spacecraft. We’ve chosen to keep that innovation in-house and get to a point where we are licensing access to information about the changing planet and to have multiple customers – orders and orders of magnitude more people as customers, instead of single groups of people, who would buy spacecraft. The closer you are to the end-user and a value-added service, of course, is where increased rent is available.

Our innovation on the spacecraft side of things, of course, is in spacecraft and our knowledge and our ability to rapidly build very, very capable small satellites. But, as far as a business model, it’s more on the licensing of the pixels and then eventually value-added services on top of those.

6. Part of how NSG evaluates Management is prior business experience and track record. Could you briefly describe how your management’s track record has enabled it to run a successful NewSpace start-up?

Schingler knows that investors can be more than a source of capital.

Personally, I don’t really see anything different between management in NewSpace and management within any start-up company. Within NASA, I was very fortunate to have a number of fantastic numbers, but NASA’s fairly meritocratic. So, if you have an idea, you can pitch it, you can get a little bit of money, you can inspire a team of people to work long hours against all odds, and win “business,” and win proposals and partnerships. I don’t see a whole lot different between what we’ve done to successfully incubate and start satellite projects inside ecosystem of the civil space program to that application in the venture capital world and community.

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NASA’s design review process and phases from pre-phase “A” all the way to launch and operations (phase “E”) is fairly similar and analogous to the venture capital world of seed funding, series “A,” series “B,” etc. Along the way, you build your team, the future comes closer, the risk is mitigated, more money comes in, and you’re able to create the future that you seek. So, if you’re entrepreneurial anywhere in life, whether it’s in government or somewhere else, it’s a very similar type of management style – maybe, it’s just a different set of constraints that you have to optimize in order to create the future that you’re going after.

7. The 3rd Screen that NSG Analysts focus on is Capitalization. Planet Labs closing a $13Mln round recently with some impressive investors pushed it much higher on the NSG 100. Would you mind describing what it was like raising that round? What was the key piece that convinced the investors to capitalize COS?

Again, there’s really nothing different between a start-up in space activities and a start-up that is developing, say, a new software capability. The seed stage is really about the idea, disruption, the team, the market opportunity, but, in general, it’s a bit of a bet that people make on the individuals in front of them to turn their idea into reality. Series A is the next order of magnitude, more meat on the bones with respect to the technology and to mitigate a bunch of the technical, operational, or team-fit risk.

For us, it also falls to us to educate and make our investors aware of this industry and our approach of entering into it. All of our investors from our seed round all kind of doubled down on us, and we brought in a bunch more new investors as well to be part of the team. We’ve always seen investors as an extension of the team, because they influence us: they have a lot of experience, they’ve seen dozens and hundreds of companies before, and they have a great deal of wisdom on how to build a successful team of people to create a new product or capability. We set out and looked for individuals that we wanted, and we ended up getting them all.

The first thing was that we wanted somebody with a bit of sector expertise that people look to in the space sector, and that was Steve Jurvetson. DFJ is an organization that does take some big bets, that has been successful at building very large companies. Secondly, we knew that this company was all about the data and the services, so we are very excited to eventually be able to open up access to this information on a platform, where our developers can get access to it. Tim O’Reilly was the guy we went to for that. The third main thing was we care a lot about the mission behind the company, which is not just a space mission, but it’s also the potential societal impact of democratizing access to information about the changing planet. If you think about the ability to see the state of the world as it is now, that’s extremely useful commercially, but it also has a lot of societal benefit from humanitarian, environmental, scientific and educational activities. So, we went to an organization that understands how to build a hybrid organization that both does good and does well, and that was Jeff Skoll through the Capricorn Investment Management Group. We’ve been pretty fortunate to categorize our investors in a way that we wanted to attract them and then share our vision for the future and invite them to come along with us.

8. Where do you see Planet Labs in the next five years? What about the NewSpace industry in general – where do you see that in the next five years? What about 10?

COS’s Dove series of SmallSats

We’re focused on shipping 28 satellites right now, so we’ve got our plate full to ship them, to build out our operations, to learn how to operate a fleet of these things. There are many “firsts” that we’re doing in this company, so we’re humbly taking one step at a time. As we begin to enter into the market in a complementary way and eventually grow the market of users of [Geographic Information System] data to try to open it up to not just experts, but also developers, then I think that we’ll be in a position to look at other types of things that we could do, both in remote sensing as well as potentially doing other things in the future. The main thing that you need to do in any sort of company that has a big mission is to focus and mitigate risks, so that’s what we’re focused on.

With respect to NewSpace: I’ve been in aerospace for about 15 years, there seems to be some cycles with respect to entrepreneurial activities. We’re about to go through another one right now, as well. I think, in general, the broader “maker” movement, the ability to get access to space, is going to bring a different breed of ideas and projects where individuals and small teams can leap-frog in capability and come up with new and interesting concepts. I think there’s going to be a lot of innovation over the next five years – not necessarily in big, billion-dollar programs, but more in the singles-of-millions-of-dollars programs. That’s going to be pretty interesting for us to contribute to, but also for us to watch and be part of that movement. I’m excited for other groups to really be good entrepreneurs, and to learn from them, as well.

Jeff Cunningham is an Analyst Intern with NewSpace Global and a first-time contributor to Thruster.


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