Japanese commercial space #startup Infostellar has just closed a series A fundraising worth US$7.3 million. Airbus Ventures led the round, with Weru Investment, D4V, and Sony Innovation Fund also taking part. Additional investment came from existing Infostellar backers 500 Startups Japan and FreakOut Holdings.
“When we first met [co-founders] Kurahara-san and Ishigame-san, all they had was a slide deck and a crazy idea to build an ‘Airbnb for satellite antennas,'” James Riney, head partner at 500 Startups Japan, tells Tech in Asia. “It’s amazing to see how far they’ve come.”
That “crazy idea” was enough to win Tech in Asia‘s Tour of Japan pitch contest for Infostellar co-founders Naomi Kurahara – now the company’s CEO – and Kazuo Ishigame – now COO – last year.
There is a major disconnect between satellite operators on the one hand, and antenna holders on the other.
The space exploration industry is diversifying, with private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX treading into territory that was previously the preserve of government-funded national agencies. More generally, a whole startup scene has sprouted around building satellites, as well as antennae back here on Earth, that can be used by third parties for an increasingly wide range of research and communications purposes.
Tokyo-based Infostellar is riding this wave, though it isn’t building satellites or launch vehicles. In fact, it remains very much Earth-bound – for the time being, at least. But its team of eleven – comprising software developers, radio engineers, and compliance experts navigating a complex web of telecom and airspace regulations – have their eyes turned squarely skyward.
Satellites orbit Earth several times a day, and typically pair with a single antenna located on the planet’s surface to transmit information. This means that there is only a short window during a satellite’s circumnavigation when it is in range of its partner antenna. Often, this is a matter of only about 10 minutes for each orbit a satellite completes – so for one that can do four orbits per day, there’s a maximum of around 40 minutes’ communication possible in a total 24 hour period. For much of the rest of the time, the antenna remains unused.
This is where Infostellar wants to step in. It has developed a cloud-based satellite antenna sharing platform – named StellarStation – which connects satellite operators with antenna operators around the world. This way, free time at idle antennae located at different points on Earth can be shared in order to increase the overall communication period between orbiting satellites and the surface.
“At the moment, there is a major disconnect between satellite operators on the one hand, and antenna holders on the other, because each is working with different protocols and modulation types,” Ishigame tells Tech in Asia. “We provide processing and matching so that satellite operators and antenna holders using different protocols can connect with one another.”
Infostellar charges satellite operators by the hour while communication channels are open. It shares these revenues with the antenna holders. This means that antenna owners open new income streams and increase their revenue overall, while the satellite operators get access to additional communication channels at a substantially lower rate than if they had to sign contracts with multiple antenna holders.
Aerospace, IP expertise
For a space-focused startup like Infostellar, the advantages of having a shareholder like Airbus on board are pretty clear. The aerospace giant has had a hand in designing and building its fair share of satellite and antenna equipment, and can bring that experience to bear for Infostellar. Moreover, it also represents a potential future customer for the Japanese startup.
Ishigame also highlights the strategic opportunities presented by two of the other first-time investors. Weru Investment has provided invaluable networking access to Japanese government agencies, universities, and research institutions, he says. Sony, meanwhile, has longstanding experience in intellectual property (IP) management and strategy. “Sony has a large number of IP assets, and they can help provide us with IP protection and knowhow,” says Ishigame. “Ours is a unique product in this market, and a very global product, so we have to consider IP protection – and Sony is a very good partner on this.”
While StellarStation is certainly a novel product pitch, Infostellar still faces competition. Rivals fall broadly into three categories: larger antenna holders, such as Norway’s KSAT and Sweden’s SSC; antenna-owning startups, including Atlas Space Operations, Leaf Space, and Spaceflight; and the much smaller pool of antenna sharing services similar to Infostellar, such as RBC Signals.
To infinity, and beyond
StellarStation is still in beta, and further development of the platform will be one of the main areas where the series A funds get spent – in addition to growing the team through hiring.
Nevertheless, Infostellar already has five antenna holders signed up to the platform, and Ishigame says that the company is aiming to have at least 20 antennae secured by next year. The target for 2019 is to have built the world’s largest, most geographically diffuse network of satellite antenna.
This will also be a focus for the company’s post-series A growth plan. Ishigame says that most of its potential customers at the moment are earth observation companies located in the US. “But there are some significant satellite operators located in Europe – and on the other hand, we have to secure antenna holders globally,” he says. “We have to consider location diversity, because coverage is so reliant on that.”
Once we can achieve that paradigm shift, we can create new software services for this space – something like AWS.
Infostellar has another product in the pipeline – an ecommerce marketplace for satellite components, called Makesat. Beyond that, the company has even bigger ambitions. “If we can create a new sharing approach through the implementation of our network, we can fundamentally change the way antenna holders have done business up until now,” Ishigame says. “Once we can achieve that paradigm shift, we can create new software services for this space – something like AWS [Amazon Web Services] – which offers so many different services.”
Looking even further ahead – this is a space startup, after all – Infostellar’s roadmap might seem a little “pie in the sky” to the more cynical of Tech in Asia’s readers. But that kind of attitude didn’t get humans into space, did it?
According to Ishigame, the company will continue to focus on servicing the industry around low-Earth-orbit satellites until at least 2022. But the following years will be spent looking towards the farther reaches of our solar system, he says. “Some space startups are aiming to explore the Moon by then, and we want to provide them with that kind of communications connection. After that, we’ll be aiming to connect to farther destinations, like Mars or Saturn.”