In this interview, contributing columnist Catherine Burton shares a discussion she had with Vince Deno, president of Millennium Space Systems, on the “small sat” phenomenon and the explosion of companies now entering the commercial remote sensing business.
Small satellites (“sats”) are all the rage right now. Google recently acquired SkyBox for $500M. IEEE published an article on “9 Earth-Imaging Start-ups to Watch” - check out Directions’ interesting podcast on the IEEE article recorded at GEOINT; plus USGIF just launched a SmallSat Working Group. And that’s just a tiny sample of the small sat news. Makes me wanna get in on the action….
Small satellite and space utility production business, Millennium Space Systems (Millennium), located in El Segundo, California, conceptualizes, designs and builds satellites and space system components. In 2013 Millennium was awarded a DARPA contract to build six of the 24 satellites requested for the Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements or “SeeMe” program. Just a few of SeeMe’s design specifications included: access to location-based, remotely sensed data by mobile military personnel in under 90 minutes, high resolution coverage, purchase order to delivery in less than 90 days, and this fun tidbit: a James Bond-like life span of 60 to 90 days “before de-orbiting and completely burning up, leaving no space debris and causing no re-entry hazard.”
Due to the success of its small sat prototype, which it productized as ALTAIR-E1, and an interest in connecting with start-up entrepreneurs, Millennium is introducing a program called Bootstrap. For up to six killer ideas it will produce six ALTAIR-E1s at cost, and provide all the technical and partnership proficiency that a viable start-up would need to help get Angel or Series A funding. Millennium recently began promoting its call for one-page business use case proposals and will close the solicitation on September 30, 2014. The goal is to bring up to six concepts to market by the end of 2015.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Millennium president Vince Deno about Bootstrap. Below is an edited version of our interview:
Catherine Burton (CB): Why are you doing Bootstrap?
Vince Deno (VD): We're supporting the build of the first six spacecraft as part of the business competition because we believe in this product's place in the market. Start-ups play an extremely important role in the big picture and helping them succeed, particularly where space is an enabler, is a good thing.
CB: Tell me more about the ALTAIR-E1.
VD: ALTAIR [see Figures 1 and 2] is our short schedule and low cost series of small spacecraft for constellations. E1 is the entry-level offering in the < 50kg class satellite, ideal for testing market conditions and technical feasibility prior to large scale production/deployment.
Figure 1: Millennium’s ALTAIR-E1 prototype bus, < 50kg, 35cm “cubesat”
Figure 2: Millennium’s graphic rendering of the ALTAIR in orbit
CB: Is Bootstrap an incubator, a business plan competition, or something else? Are you offering in-kind services or financial resources?
VD: Bootstrap has elements of an incubator, accelerator, business competition and investor. It is fundamentally a partnership and an entry point for new ventures; to that end, we will consider in-kind services, infrastructure and other less tangible benefits needed to make it successful.
CB: Are there particular use cases that you think "jive" well with the system design?
VD: Bootstrap embraces entrepreneurs and start-ups who are addressing a problem that hasn't been solved before or [could] change the economics entirely. It's difficult to imagine a compelling pitch that looks exactly like those which have been successful thus far. ALTAIR-E1 would be an ideal platform for large scale and niche markets. It's significantly larger than other platforms at this price, and is designed to support more demanding payloads, has a low deployment cost and can be fielded rapidly. Similar to UAVs, ALTAIR can accommodate varying mission payloads. It's easy to consider a system for high resolution imagery similar to the imagery used for Google Earth. I personally believe the market will move in [a different] direction… such as radar, sounders, mappers and other RF [radio frequency] applications. These applications would serve to provide additional information and compliment visible imagery for environmental monitoring, among other use cases. Automatic identification systems [used to track ships and vessels], privately controlled communication networks and even "in-field" support to service organizations are all possible.
CB: What makes Millennium Space a good business partner? What will happen after you select a winning idea?
VD: Millennium Space has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to deliver on cost, schedule and performance; our first satellite was delivered for the National Reconnaissance Office ahead of schedule and under budget. We have all the infrastructure and resources in place to perform Bootstrap. Technically we have a significantly different approach which unlocks different business solutions. Most importantly, we're unwilling to compromise on execution.