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Start-ups in space: Six out-of-this-world business opportunities

Start-ups are not known for playing it safe, but some fledgling businesses are even playing in space.

Start-ups are not known for playing it safe, but some fledgling businesses are even playing in space.

Does space present a business opportunity for the everyday entrepreneur? You might not be such a ‘space cadet’ if it’s your dream to set up in space tech. Reaching for the stars is no longer the preserve of business giants with staggering budgets.

Start-ups are noticing novel ways to serve the space industry and use space data, even finding out-of-this-world solutions to some of Earth’s most complex problems.

Here are six areas where space tech entrepreneurs have seen a business, environmental or humanitarian opportunity, and set about filling the gap.

1.   Understanding the developing world needs accurate data

Swedish start-up Ignitia uses satellite data to solve a problem that affects farmers in tropical countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Mali. Weather forecasting techniques designed for northern latitudes don’t work so well here because there are fewer ground observation stations, and tropical weather behaves differently.

Ignitia runs simulations of tropical convective patterns on a cluster of supercomputers, using satellite data to pinpoint farmers’ locations. They send each farmer a 48-hour forecast by SMS, accurate to within 3 km. A study found farmers who used Ignitia reported a 65 percent increase in yields.

Climate Edge is a social enterprise with similar aims but different methods. They realized farmers in areas hard hit by climate change found it hard to adapt without digitized data. Climate Edge uses a small weather station to collect data about farm conditions, like soil temperature and humidity, and transmits it through the 2G cellular network. With the ability to log and monitor conditions that determine farms’ yield and produce quality, NGOs could make the right investments to make a difference.

2.   Making tech because you can, then figuring out who needs it

While Climate Edge and Ignitia were inspired to do something about environmental problems, successful businesses sometimes come out of developing technology without knowing who needs it.

A group of ex-military and space program scientists, CyStellar first created a platform that combined satellite, airborne and ground sensor data. Later, they developed a series of products that applied the information in useful ways for industries from wine to shipping.

One of their products, InsurTech, detects and monitors objects and geographic features over time, reporting even minor changes. It means insurance companies can more accurately determine risk, charge more appropriate rates and detect fraud. For customers, it means they can claim more quickly, as the system provides evidence and information the customer would otherwise need to collect.

3.   Revealing what’s previously been hard to see

Entopy is working to make the supply chain more efficient by using geolocation and GPS. They aim to give logistics managers full visibility of their supply chain, breaking down the silos of different companies involved, such as factory, shipping, warehouse and retailer – all without any party having to change their tracking system.

Supply chain visibility can save time getting goods to market, reduce losses and reduce the administration in communicating between companies.

Finland’s ICEYE has an eye on shipping safety, among a range of other applications. They use small satellite synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) technology to give ship captains detailed information on the sea ahead, which may be hidden by fog or darkness. The technology also tracks icebergs and predicts their future movement.

4.   Helping cities reduce congestion and environmental impact

As cities change and grow, so too must their infrastructure.

Teralytics use mobile signal data to help make transport more reliable, efficient and sustainable. Aggregating (grouping individuals’ data together with others) for privacy, they report on how people are moving around cities and the journeys they’re taking. Organizations that supply public transport, build roads or provide for niche transport needs can buy the data to use in designing and redesigning their networks to reflect better where people go and when.

Teralytics explain how space data helps understand how people travel.

Start-ups are trying to expand mobile, data and GPS coverage too. Swiss start-up Astrocast has designed, built and operates its own constellation of nanosatellites, aiming to bring stronger connectivity between regions and expand coverage. Smarter cities will need secure networks to enable internet of things (IoT) devices – for example, autonomous cars – to communicate so they can behave in better ways, like reducing congestion.

Satellite data can also give cities insights into environmental concerns like air quality. London-based space start-up 4 Earth Intelligence provides data that helps cities plan to reduce pollution.

5.   Realizing what satellite owners need

With so much crucial data coming from satellites, there’s high demand for services that support, maintain and protect the satellite network. The Airbnb of space data, Japan’s Infostellar lets satellite owners sell surplus capacity to others.

In space, no one takes out the trash. Satellites can collide with space junk – pieces of obsolete satellites and other space tech – or with each other.

It’s costly and only makes more space junk to be a hazard to others. Leo Labs specializes in tracking low-earth orbit satellites. They map satellite paths and work out if space debris could collide with satellites. Satellite operators who buy access to the data can adjust their satellites’ flight paths to avoid a damaging crash.

6.   Reducing the environmental impact and cost of getting satellites into space

As demand increases and tech gets cheaper, we’re building and launching more satellites. Someone has to get them into orbit, and start-ups are involved there too. Scottish engineering company Skyrora design rockets especially for launching smaller satellites. Meanwhile, Leo Aerospace aims to reinvent the satellite launch with balloons, planes and other rocket alternatives.

The booming satellite ‘taxi’ market involves companies like Nanoracks (“concierge to the stars”) that gather small satellites from multiple customers to piggyback on a larger launch. Once dropped off from the main vehicle, the taxi takes each small satellite to its orbit slot.

Space tech isn’t just transforming industries the world over. Led by a new breed of innovators and entrepreneurs, it’s an industrial revolution in the stars.

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