Smartphones have disrupted transportation, payments and communication. But the underlying technology has tangentially changed a completely different sector: satellites.
The advances made in miniaturizing technologies that put a computer in your pocket — cameras, batteries, processors, radio antennas — have also made it easier and cheaper for entrepreneurs to launch matter into space. And investors are taking notice.
The chart below shows worldwide venture and PE investment in satellite technology companies.
Venture investment into satellite companies has been on a rocket-like trajectory since 2012, following a long fallow period. Although it isn’t pictured here, the last “major” satellite boom peaked in 2006, when there were five venture deals closed with satellite companies worldwide, according to our data set.
Let’s take a look at some of the major players in the satellite sector. Below you can find a chart showing the most-funded private companies currently operating in the industry. We ranked them by total funding, which includes private equity rounds raised after traditional VC rounds (like seed, Series A, etc.).
In general, these satellite companies are clustered around three different themes: broadband internet delivery, hardware development and satellite-enabled services.
On the broadband front, we find a significant concentration of capital. It’s not just because internet connectivity is such a big market (it is), but it also takes a lot of capital to develop and deploy the satellites needed to build a viable service network. That’s part of the reason why SoftBank invested $1 billion in a $1.2 billion private equity round raised by OneWeb back in 2016.
In the world of hardware and sensors, there’s a race toward miniaturization and efficiency both for spacefaring satellites and their terrestrial endpoints. Kymeta, for example, has developed antenna technology that uses a holograph-like approach to acquire, steer and lock a beam to a satellite. This helps objects which move quickly or make sharp turns maintain communication with a satellite.
As with much of the tech industry though, it looks like a lot of money will be made from the services satellite hardware can facilitate. Planet develops and deploys its own array of camera-equipped microsatellites, which regularly capture images of earth. It then sells generalized map and site-specific data feeds to governments, the financial sector, emergency readiness agencies, agriculture companies and others. Planet has some competitors, like Descartes Labs, Orbital Insight, Astro Digital, OmniEarth and others, competing in the earth-imaging market. But because rich geospatial and imaging data is a relatively new market, there is likely plenty of demand to go around.
In reality, modern satellite applications are more than the story of cheap electronics. Satellites (and the applications enabled by them) sit at the intersection of a number of cutting-edge technologies.
Without machine-taught computer vision systems, it would be impossible to sort and classify the firehose of visual data some satellite networks produce. If there wasn’t such a boom in mobile communications and high-bandwidth applications like live-streaming video, there wouldn’t be as much demand for new satellite technology. Without better and smaller sensors, a constellation of eyes in the sky would be limited to the visible light spectrum. If it weren’t for decades of public investment in rocketry and robotics, these little boxes of circuits and antennas would never leave Earth.
But VCs and entrepreneurs don’t look to the past; instead, they want to know what satellites will do for the future and, eventually, returns.
Based on a slightly cleaned-up set of companies in Crunchbase’s satellite communications category and others, which use related keywords like “cubesat” and “nanosatellite,” we charted worldwide venture capital investment in satellite companies between 2012 and 2017. We included angel, seed, convertible note and equity crowdfunding rounds, plus the standard-variety Series A, Series B and Series C financings, as well.