Spacetech startup NSLComm is gearing up to put its first satellite into orbit, aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket launching this Friday at 1:42 AM ET. Not only is the launch a first for the company, but it’s also the first deployment of a new kind of satellite technology, an expandable antenna solution created by NSLComm which is the secret ingredient that will unlock a number of different lines of business for the fledgling Israeli startup.
“Satellite communication is too expensive,” explained NSLComm CEO and co-founder Raz Itzhaki in an interview. “And this is the case, because satellites are expensive. A communication satellite is basically a dish in space, you want more communication, you need a larger dish. But a larger dish requires a larger satellite, and a larger launcher, so everything becomes more expensive. This is why if you launch a geostationary communication satellite you have to launch it for 20 years, because it has an ROI of more than 10 years. It weighs tons because it needs to live for 15-20 years, and when you sell the capacity, you pay hundreds of billions per megabit per second per month, because you need to return the amount of investment in the satellite.”
What Raz and his team saw was that much of the size and weight for these high-powered communication satellites was actually due to the antennas they need to use to ensure they can achieve a good signal from space. These are either large and fixed, requiring a lot of extra launch hardware and protection as they make their way to space (which is not needed once in orbit), or, for unfolding antennas that existed previously, they require a lot of additional hardware to actually do the unfolding antenna deployment in space, adding again a bunch of bulk and weight. All of which translates to higher launch costs, the need for longer productive life spans for the satellites and higher costs for connectivity consumers.
NSLComm’s solution was to develop a new kind of antenna that can deploy on its own, without the help of any additional heavy machinery, and that can extend to the sizes needed to provide truly high-throughput connectivity on a satellite that’s small and much easier to launch, providing about 100 times faster connectivity than the fastest nano-satellites in the same size class today at about one-tenth the launch cost.
“Our approach was to develop an antenna based on SMP — that’s a shape memory polymer,” Itzhaki said. “This antenna is actually a 3D spring; it memorizes its shapes, it needs no opening mechanism, because the antenna itself is its own opening mechanism. So when you open a hatch, it jumps out like a jack-in-the-box. We have an antenna that is compacted to a volume that is so small, that it fits less than 1U [around the space of one rack in a multi-rack server configuration, or about 1.75 inches tall] for a 60 centimeter [about two feet] diameter dish. And the antenna weighs 140 grams. Well, this changes the economics of satellite communication.”
NSLComm intends to launch 30 satellites by 2021 and hundreds in total by 2023, but launching its own network is only one part of its business plan, and there are other ways it intends to generate revenue in the more immediate term. Itzhaki explained that, in fact, the startup has four primary ways of doing business, including first offering cost-effective ways for customer companies to build their constellations using the startup’s technology. Next, there’s a “turnkey” option for customers that can purchase satellite terminals and ground stations for specific use, including one client already who is using this for an IoT application. Itzhaki says there are already “many” of these types of arrangements in the pipeline.
Third, NSLComm intends to offer a “private constellation” offering, where, for example, a cruise ship operator could build, launch and operate its own network constellation for its customers at minimal cost. Finally, there’s a “constellation as a service” model, where NSLCom would launch the constellation itself, partner with an operator and sell the capacity of the network on a subscription basis.
To date, NSLComm has raised $16 million, including $12 million from VCs, including Jerusalem Venture Partners, OurCrowd, Cockpit Innovation and Liberty Technology Venture Capital. It’s also backed by the Israel Space Agency and the Office of the Chief Scientist in Israel, which provided the remaining $4 million in initial funding.