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From Silicon Valley to Singapore: Spire’s Ambitious Remote Sensing Strategy

[Via Satellite 09-25-2014] Spire, a fast-paced remote sensing company with roots in Silicon Valley, has leapfrogged from incubation just two years ago at Lemnos Labs into a multi-million dollar startup with four satellites in orbit. Formerly known as Nanosatisfi, the company recently raised $25 million in Series A funding, bringing the total amount raised to $29 million.

The fourth and most recent spacecraft from Spire, Lemur 1, launched aboard a Kosmotras Dnepr rocket this summer. Lemur 1 has validated Spire’s manufacturing process, according to CEO Peter Platzer, paving the way for a constellation that could number 50 or more in the near future.

Spire’s remote sensing satellites range from 1U to 3U and are built with Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) components wherever possible to lower costs. The spacecraft carry multiple sensors for customers in 12 verticals spread across North America, Europe and Asia. Speaking to Via Satellite, Platzer said the company has a strong focus on designing both hardware and software as one. This unified approach helps the company maintain its rapid development pace.

“We look at developing the hardware and developing the software as almost the same thing,” said Platzer. “That’s an approach we have that allows us to build additional sensors very quickly. We have literally gone from having an idea to having it on a spacecraft in four months.”

Spire describes itself as a satellite-powered data company, where satellites are the means to solve problems with unique space-based data. This is similar to the way Skybox Imaging has often described itself, where satellites are an enabler rather than the primary focus of the company. Spire, however, differs from Skybox by being a remote sensing company that is not focused on imagery.

“Spire’s lazy,” Platzer joked. “Imaging is a really, really hard market. I have the utmost respect for those that go into imaging.”

Instead, Spire’s multi-sensor satellites provide a variety of data types such as Automatic Identification System (AIS) service for tracking ships, and weather payloads that measure temperature, pressure and precipitation. With this space-based data collection, the company can then amalgamate different data to solve problems on Earth. Platzer said Spire is focused on oceans and very remote areas that “are generally neglected by remote sensing.” This has opened up some surprising markets such as curbing piracy and illegal overfishing. Previously untraceable behavior can now be identified via satellite.

“That is an area that we found where people can do something with our data that simply wasn’t possible before. [For example:] this vessel is fishing in a legal area, but it’s fishing off an illegal fish species. Because, based on the movement and other information we can derive from it, I’m telling you they are fishing for tuna and not for mackerel. They are telling you the fish are mackerel, but they might put the tuna at the bottom and then put the mackerel on top and that’s why we don’t detect it. But by their movements, we can nail them, and we can stop something illegal that threatens our food supply,” he said.

With the most recent round of funding from RRE Ventures, Moose Capital, Quihoo and Mitsui & Co. Global Investment, Spire has been aggressively hiring to continue scaling up both the size of the company and its future constellation. One of the company’s next steps is to set up an office in Singapore. Platzer said customer demand, human capital, and significant interest from current and future customers influenced the decision.

In preparation for a large constellation, Spire has also contracted with several undisclosed launch providers to carry satellites into orbit. As a mitigation strategy, the company has contracted multiple launch providers in case of a failure, Platzer said. “We have purchased dozens of launch slots for our constellation to deliver our product to our customers in the next 12 months,” he added. These launches distribute between two and eight satellites per rocket.

With a new office, new launch contracts and a new constellation all simultaneously underway, Platzer said the next step is to bring together the right mix of people.

“Approaching the organization from the perspective of an employee, if people ask me where do you see Spire in 10 years my vision is that Spire is the largest organization of collaborative ‘super-stars’ that use data to work on really hard problems that matter. We would probably use satellites still, but we might use a whole bunch of other technologies as well,” he said.