Apr 2 2014, 5:11pm CDT | by Forbes
The excerpt below comes from Forbes/Wolfe Emerging Technology Report’s recent full-length interview with Will Marshall, Chris Boshuizen and Robbie Schingler, the co-founders of Planet Labs. (Full disclosure: my venture firm Lux Capital is an equity investor.) Planet Labs is a San Francisco-based startup that is using the world’s largest fleet of imaging satellites to continuously monitor Earth. The three founders are physicists who previously worked at NASA, and founded Planet Labs to provide universal access to information about the changing planet.
Give us a high-level overview of what Planet Labs is working on.
Will: We’re launching a large number of ultra-compact satellites so we can image the earth on a much more frequent basis. This is something that’s never been possible before. We believe that there is tremendous humanitarian and commercial value from that data and we care about pursuing both. We launched four demo satellites last year on three different launch vehicles testing our technology and this year we just launched our first fleet of 28 satellites. This is already the largest constellation of earth imaging satellites in human history and it’s going to be producing an unprecedented data circuit that enables us to image the whole earth on a much more rapid basis than has ever been possible before.
How did the three of you meet?
Robbie: Will and I met in 2001 at a conference in Vienna, Austria sponsored by the United Nations that brought together young space professionals to give recommendations on space activities. Out of that conference, we started a non-profit and organized a series of workshops. The first workshop that we did was in Houston the next year and that’s where we met Chris. Chris was a delegate coming in from Australia, and he came out a few days early and wanted to know how he could help organize the workshop. He came into our hotel room, sat down, opened up his laptop and he hasn’t closed it since. Over the years we did a lot of side projects together, and ultimately we all found ourselves at NASA Ames building teams and technology from the bottom up.
What was your inspiration for starting Planet Lab?
Robbie: The three of us were pioneering small, compact satellites at NASA, primarily for lunar missions, exoplanet missions and Mars missions. NASA builds exquisite, beautiful spacecraft that work. These are exquisite instruments and they cost hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. We realized that we had the opportunity and the skillset to build satellites that there were radically cheaper and more compact. What we wanted to do was to do space very quickly and to iterate on technology. Understanding the physics of the aerospace environment and how we like to build technology today, we wanted to operate just like a software company. We also realized that there was a tremendous amount of humanitarian and commercial potential. Since NASA’s mandate is to do science, not commercial or humanitarian work, we started a new company for those purposes.
Robbie: We’re launching a lot more satellites than anyone else by a long way and this enables us to get a very different data set. In our eyes, it’s the data that matters, not the satellites. The satellites are just tools, but the data that we can provide is equally differentiated. It is much greater in both coverage and in frequency. The current players are point-and-shoot models. What that means is a high paying customer says, “Hey, I want to take a picture of this ‘X’, ‘Y’ coordinate on the ground,” and the companies go and take it for them. A few weeks later they get the image and they pay a massive amount of money. Our model is completely different. We’re imaging the whole earth on a regular basis.
How does the Planet Labs team balance humanitarian goals with commercial viability?
Robbie: We plan to offer a tiered pricing system as well as a freemium model. If you are a small farmer in Mozambique and you’re only looking at a hectare of data, take it. If you are a commodity trader looking at the Kenyan crop and you’re looking at millions of hectares, we have a different pricing structure. This allows us to ensure the democratization of data. The tools that we develop on top of the data are easy to use and can be utilized by a variety of actors whether they are individuals, researchers, non-profit organizations or hardcore GIS cryptographers.
What is the team doing to mitigate space debris?
Chris: We’re very concerned about space debris. In fact, we have three people on the team that were part of NASA Ames’s core space debris mitigation team and have done a lot of work on refining orbital tracking models of debris and predicting debris collisions. We believe that it’s very important that Planet Labs sets the right example for the entire community on how to do debris responsibly because if we don’t do it right, we’re going to close off access for everybody. We take that responsibility very, very seriously.
What surprised you the most in the process of starting this company?
Chris: We were surprised by how much the obstacles that we face aren’t technology related. The human element is very important. The dynamic nature of our team means that culture changes over time as you add in more people. The relationships that you form with your investors, the relationship that you form with regulators and the relationships that you form with your early customers and your partners are all dynamic. There aren’t many different things between our company and another company. The challenges are the same. You obviously need different experts in different domains and different black boxes, but the system together is exactly the same. The art of creation is all about people.
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