WHAT IS NEAR SPACE LABS, AND WHAT TO DO YOU?
We are democratizing high-quality earth imagery. We turned the satellite paradigm on its head and set out to build a completely new imaging infrastructure that will provide a combination of the granularity, timeliness, and responsiveness that the ever-changing world requires. This will allow us to build resilience for climate adaptation. You can think about the communities affected by floods and hurricanes and tornadoes, wildfires. Essentially, all across the country there are sweeping and severe events that happen. We are providing data for that, and then also building out this hardware infrastructure that collects the data in a flexible manner that is plug and play. And you can also plug in any remote sensing system, including greenhouse gas sensors to track how we’re progressing in terms of the net zero goals. We currently capture imagery using proprietary, ultra high-resolution optical sensors to capture highly recent and detailed imagery of the earth.
We’re not a satellite company. We’re not a drone company. And we’re not an airplane company flying sensors. We are a fully autonomous stratospheric platform company. So we’re doing something completely new from the hardware perspective, to the way we operate, to the way we capture data and the way we go to market. At the core of our innovation is our autonomous devices called Swiftys. They fly in the stratosphere twice higher than airplanes, much lower than satellites. So none of the meddling with space debris or losing resolution because of being so high.
HOW DID YOU DEVELOP YOUR INTEREST IN SPACE?
I grew up in a very technical family. I saw my mom redefine herself when she was 30. My mom was out of the job market for about 10 years and I saw her become very successful in the field of IT and programming. I got to spend some time when she was teaching people how to use computers and how to code. So I got interested in tech. And then my grandparents: my grandma was a physicist and my grandpa was an electronics engineer. They were also amateur astronomers. An occasional waking up and seeing them stargazing was not an uncommon thing.
I spent a lot of time with my grandma and she made physics and science just super cool. So I wouldn’t realize it actually, but all throughout summer, for example, we would just study the physics program for the next year because she would make everyday stuff relevant to what I was learning. And physics, thankfully, like most of it I guess, is easier to tie to real life. So that was very cool. I guess it also romanticized aerospace for me.
HOW DID NEAR SPACE LABS COME INTO EXISTENCE? WHERE DID THE IDEA COME FROM?
So this brings us back to a little over five years ago, in 2017. My co-founders and I were doing research for our PhD on the satellite engineering space. We were simulating orbital dynamics and satellite constellations all day, every day. We were trying to figure out how the European Commission could expand their satellite network to provide higher quality imaging information.
We were also testing stuff on helium balloons, and it just clicked: we could be addressing all these needs with a much more effective platform that doesn’t require five years of manufacturing time. And so we decided to start a company. I met Stonly Baptiste Blue in at an urban tech conference, and I was like, “Hey, is this crazy? Could this work?” He told us we should apply to URBAN-X. And the rest is history. We applied for the program. After we got accepted, we had two weeks to drop everything and move to New York.
WAIT – YOU MET HIM AND MOVED TWO WEEKS LATER?
No, we met [Stonly] sometime in July and the application was due on July 27th. We were already kind of toying with the idea. And we’d done a lot of research and we’d talked to a few customers. We applied, we interviewed, and we were accepted. When URBAN-X sent the notification email, we started shouting and going crazy in our lab. Ignasi managed to squeeze in his PhD defense, Albert already had his PhD but quit his job and I quit school. Two weeks later, we were in New York City!
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO BE IN THE URBAN-X ACCELERATOR?
We all moved to New York and lived in a three bedroom, two bathroom apartment for five months. I think those months are the highlight of my professional career, actually. Just building this thing from scratch and having the URBAN-X team also around us and cheering us on and helping us, and also being in the trenches and helping us build it.
It was just incredible because we also had free access to all this fabrication stuff and could prototype and test our hardware as much as we wanted for free. And then on the MINI / BMW side, you essentially have free engineering support from top engineers that build incredible cars, which obviously the skillsets are very interchangeable between aerospace and cars.
Something that is a little bit intimidating is breaking into the VC landscape in a successful way. If you haven’t done fundraising before, some of it is really counterintuitive, especially for an engineer or a researcher, essentially for anyone who’s technical. I think getting that coaching and then using it as a launchpad for raising our next round of funding was just incredible. And they were able to help us catalyze interest very, very quickly. It’s going to be very hard to top that type of drive and experience ever. It was really fun.
TALK TO ME ABOUT THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE SWIFTY.
Our research gave us some ideas, but when you start building something and taking it to market, it’s just a completely different experience. Building and productizing a full stack hardware, software operations, data processing approach is a journey.
We had exactly the right team to crack the problem. I came in with a controlled and applied math background, which allowed us to code the robot. Albert has a PhD in guidance navigation and control, which means that he can fly and stabilize and use precise systems in very random environments like the stratosphere. And Ignasi, as a systems thinker with a PhD in systems engineering for complex aerospace systems, was able to pull everything together and drive the ideation and the creation of it. He happens to be a very good electronics engineer, too.
We were hacking, coding, soldering, cutting, taping, building very quickly and just iterating on a hardware device unlike anything that the industry has ever seen before, because the pace of our development was incredibly fast.
HOW DID CUSTOMERS RESPOND?
The excitement from customers was palpable and we acted on it. We’re a mature team now with about 50 people, and that growth wouldn’t be possible if customers weren’t excited. I think customer demand was so striking that when we launched our product officially, it increased 7x in the first year. We have very differentiated tech, unlike anything else they’ve seen in this industry, which also has a huge market opportunity in front of it. We work quickly and iterate with customers, which is pretty different from how the market works typically.
THERE ARE LOTS OF DIFFERENT USE CASES FOR THIS KIND OF TECHNOLOGY. WHERE ARE YOU FOCUSED?
Insurance, precision agriculture, real estate infrastructure, logistics supply chain, monitoring ports, big retail. The list is endless. I think we have 53 use cases that we assessed in high detail. Right now, we are focusing on insurance, the first industry to suffer from climate risk. Essentially, we are helping them track their portfolio on a recurring basis for any adjustments they need to make to risk scores or for underwriting and risk engineering. We’re also on the post-disaster side, where we help them assess claims at scale.
WHEN YOU SAY WHAT YOU’VE BUILT IS UNLIKE ANYTHING ELSE IN THE MARKET, WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT?
Traditionally, every single user of imagery data was forced into the trade-off between what they can see and when they can see it. We completely changed that. We are actually providing both very frequent coverage of the things customers want to see at very high granularity.
We can also put together a Swifty in a day with one assembly technician right now, which means that we can grow very fast. We control our launch, we control our operations and our supply chain and our hardware is proprietary. We had to build every single part of an imaging ecosystem from scratch. The lenses and hardware and the payload are different and the way we operate is different. The platform is also zero emissions, which is very important for anything that is trying to be future gazing.
HOW DOES NEAR SPACE LABS COMBAT CLIMATE CHANGE?
We are building the data backbone for mitigation and adaptation. To assess impact and build resilience, you need to be able to see, with enough detail, the state of your cities and built environment. We provide actionable data that supports these efforts.
In addition to assessing the built environment, with the sensors we have under development, we’ll be able to assess emissions of CO2 and methane. These measurements are fundamental to mitigation efforts. It’s measuring what’s happening so that they can correct it.
Our premise is that we are living in a climate disaster, and we need the tools to track and the data to understand what is happening. The ways that we traditionally are gathering data about our planet were built in the previous century. So they’re not built to adapt to the fast change that happens around us right now, or be responsive and timely and granular enough.
WHAT’S A FAVORITE FACT OR STATISTIC?
The average home in the country is $100,000 underinsured. And this is because insurers make decisions on outdated sources of information. A second one: if an insurer is using drones for data collection, we can provide data that 800,000 drones can provide with one single flight.
IN ANOTHER INTERVIEW, YOU DESCRIBED NEAR SPACE LABS AS A “VERY REBELLIOUS EARTH IMAGING COMPANY.” CAN YOU SAY MORE ABOUT THAT?
We changed the paradigm. We were satellite people, we were satellite engineers. We love space and we love satellites, but we as a team had the guts to say, okay, hold on a second. If you would completely reimagine the industry, how would you do it? It doesn’t make sense to fly the plane for two weeks while burning gas and emitting the carbon to capture the data the way they do. Plus, with airplanes the frequency of data capture is 2-3x a year at most. And if you’re trying to provide recent and super high-risk data, it doesn’t make sense to invest three hundred million dollars into a satellite or more to then not be able to provide the resolution. We are providing geospatial data without tradeoffs between resolution, frequency, scale of capture, or sustainability. So I think that’s why we’re rebellious.
WHAT’S HAPPENING WITH NEAR SPACE LABS TODAY?
We’re a series A company. We’re growing very fast. We’re expanding in the insurance business. We attacked the software and proprietary hardware first. Then there were big challenges like how do you operate this at scale and repeatedly, and how do you make sure that you can give this to an operator anywhere in the country and they can fly and collect the data. Productizing and operationalizing the technology, enabling it for mass manufacturing. We can put together a Swifty in a day with one assembly technician right now, which means that we can grow very quickly. That also means we are providing access to high-quality imagery, faster and to more people who need it in order to solve critical challenges the world faces today.
Written and interviewed by Katerina Athanasiou