By, Josh Lattuca
Want to learn the habits, philosophies, and business practices of leaders in the space industry? Check out our interview series, where we’ve distilled the paths and ideas that those leaders have explored to become pioneers in the world’s current frontier.
By 2025, it’s estimated that 21 billion devices will be connected to the Internet of Things (IoT). From steel factories to bee farms, every industry will have the opportunity to monitor their processes in real-time and eliminate inefficiencies and unnecessary destruction. Every one of these micro-changes allows each business to save money, eliminate waste of their product, and use less natural resources. Less production-waste means lower consumer prices and more room for process improvement. This improvement creates a positive-feedback loop, which holds the potential to add up exponentially. The problem, however, is that the places where such improvements could have the highest impact are often remote or rural. Currently, ground-based networks only reach a small fraction of the planet, leaving millions of businesses unable to access these possibilities.
This week I interviewed Sara Spangelo, the CEO and Co-founder of Swarm, a microsatellite company founded in 2016. Swarm’s mission is to provide global connectivity that is affordable. Their solution to accomplish this is simple; launch significantly smaller satellites to have significantly less launch costs, then charge approximately one-tenth current market prices for connectivity. They plan to accomplish this within the next year using a constellation of around 150 microsatellites. They currently have nine experimental satellites in space now, with the first batch of commercially-rated ‘1/4U SpaceBEEs’ launching in September. Swarm’s initial goal is to provide a fast (but relatively low bandwidth) global network that can connect devices to the IoT and allow basic text messaging anywhere on the planet at an affordable rate.
1/4U SpaceBEEs are approximately 10cm X 10cm
In the interview, Spangelo described starting a company in the space industry, the origins of Swarm, and her vision for the company’s future.
Some of what Spangelo has accomplished:
- Lead systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
- Lead systems engineer at Google X
- Worked on Google’s Project Wing (Autonomous delivery drones)
- Co-Founded Swarm with Ben Longmier
Some of what Swarm has accomplished:
- Created an operational two-way satellite that fits in one hand (the smallest 2-way communication satellites ever launched)
- Raised enough money in their Series A funding to launch a constellation capable of global coverage ($25 million)
- Launched nine experimental satellites that they now monitor
- Developed a postage-stamp-sized transmitter for IoT devices (called a Tile)
- Installed multiple Swarm-built ground stations in remote areas (like, Antarctica-remote)
The (short-term) vision for Swarm
- 150 satellites launched into LEO in the next year (allowing for global coverage)
- A low cost and simple subscription service to global connectivity
Founding a Company in the Space Industry
Spangelo says her interest in space and flight started young. She attended space camp in eighth grade and set about telling everyone she was going to be an astronaut (she ended up top 32 in Canada’s astronaut program in 2017 and is currently an instrument-rated pilot). Her interest and abilities in science and math made the road to a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering a natural one, but the transition from scientist to business leader was less expected.
Swarm Founders Ben Longmier and Sara Spangelo
GoogleX has a program called Rapid Evaluation (Rapid Eval) where innovators within Google pitch project ideas that may one day make the world a radically better place. Spangelo created and brought one such project to Rapid Eval. In the interview, she explained that gathering support and learning to pitch ideas in a compelling manner was an integral step to becoming an entrepreneur. In 2016, Spangelo and Longmier recognized the need for an affordable global network. There were several companies launching or planning to launch satellite networks, but the cost of these projects was going to be in the billions. Such projects often have a high rate of failure (since that time, two of the four companies attempting it have halted progress).
“With some back-of-the-envelope math, we realized that if we could make the technology ten to twelve times smaller than what was currently being used, we could afford to launch a global network with the amount of money from one series of funding in the Bay Area”
Swarm is in the midst of accomplishing that goal. They build all their technology in-house, allowing them to keep costs low and the quality high. Once in orbit, the satellites have an expected use-life of three to five years, and Spangelo expects they’ll be continuously improving their product in the meantime.
What Impact Could Swarm Have?
Their satellites aren’t much bigger than a klondike bar, but they have almost unlimited potential to affect the world. That isn’t meant to be an empty statement. Currently, the agricultural industry creates enough food to feed 120% of the population, then loses about 30% of it either in production, storage, shipment, or consumer waste. This excess production, while currently necessary, drives food prices higher, creates massive amounts of greenhouse gases (the agricultural sector accounts for 10% of greenhouse gases), and uses billions of tons of excess water. Meanwhile, simple sensors can allow farmers, technicians, transportation companies, and anyone else involved in the agricultural industry to recognize and correct problems (such as inadequate storage temperatures, inefficient irrigation methods, traffic jams that lead to product loss, etc.). A global network that people and businesses can afford is the missing link to gather and integrate this data.
Swarm provides that same solution to maritime transportation, the energy market, water-quality monitoring in developing areas, monitoring bee-hive health, and anywhere else that waste can be eliminated and data-driven solutions can be implemented to improve quality.
You can find out more about Swarm here.