“You're trying to pick up enough data to predict the future.” — A few words with Alpha Insights CEO Scott Larson
Inside the serial entrepreneur’s latest space (ad)venture.
For the third time in ten years, Scott Larson finds himself at the helm of a space tech-related startup. More than a decade ago he co-founded and led a company called UrtheCast, a company that signed agreements with governments around the world, the UN, and brands like Pepsi.
UrtheCast specialized in satellite imagery and data, installed two cameras on the International Space Station and took the first colour HD video of earth from space. The company grew to about 250 people and seven offices and went public through an RTO. “We truly were part of the New space movement when it was just beginning,” according to Larson. He left the company in 2015.
His second journey into space was as the captain of Helios Wire, a startup building a space-enabled IoT network. “What we were doing was democratizing the Internet of Things and connecting remote places across the world,” Larson writes of the experience on his LinkedIn. “We were at the forefront of the integration between blockchain and IoT, the economy of things.” According to Larson, the startup raised around $12 million and launched 2 satellites, before selling to EchoStar, a strategic investor, in the fall of 2019.
After Helios, Larson helped launch Vancouver’s first (and controversial) ride-hailing solution, Kater Technologies.
Although the service initially had a controversial head start, its application to the Passenger Transportation Board (PTB) was rejected in early 2020, forcing the company to shut down.
Fast-forward seven months to December 2020 and what would become Larson’s third space venture is linked to his very first. Last fall, UrtheCast was struggling to pay back millions in debt it had rackd up. “A Vancouver satellite-imaging company has erected figurative for-sale signs in space and on the International Space Station by filing for creditor protection,” wrote The Logic’s Aleksandra Sagan. At that time, the company reached out to Larson and others to provide financial support which would enable it to get into the bankruptcy protection process.
During this type of procedure, companies typically follow one of two paths, Larson explained to me over a recent Zoom call. “You restructure, and you come out of the leaner, meaner, smaller, tighter and stronger,” he said, “or you sell off assets.”
UrtheCast sold off its assets into three parts. There was asset one, EarthDaily (optical imagery tech), which was sold to a private equity firm and recently re-emerged. Larson estimates it was doing $12 million a year in revenue in its day. There was asset two, a group of Spanish satellites that were sold for a nominal amount, he believes. And finally, asset number three, the company’s synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technologies. “In my opinion, it’s the gem,” Larson says. “It’s the real crown of the assets.” It was put up for auction, Larson and partners bid for and won it, and they’ve turned it into his new business Alpha Insights.
In the following conversation, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, I speak with Larson about the value of data, the size of the space-tech market, and what he believes people misunderstand most about the space industry.
Tell me how you describe SAR to regular people.
Synthetic aperture radar is a little bit like sonar underwater. It's a large flap antenna in space that sends down an electrical pulse. The pulse hits the ground, is reflected, and the antenna then converts that reflection into an image that you can see.
It takes it an electrical signal and converts that into an image that we can see with our eyes. And because it's an electrical signal, it can see through clouds at night, kind of underground, and so that’s different than optical. With optical, if it's cloudy, you can't take a picture. If it's nighttime, you can't see. But with this, you can image 24-7 and pick up things that you could never hope to with a camera.
What would you say are its key applications?
Ship monitoring, infrastructure, pipelines, power lines, and other uses. There are environmental use cases, which would include forestry, farming, agriculture––so crop health, forest health, pollution levels, and elevation mapping, down to the millimetre. There’s also defence, surveillance and government applications.
Can you also talk about how it may integrate with other systems and software?
It’s about leveraging data. Let’s take agriculture as an example. Picture a farmer walking through a field; they get very localize data. Then with a drone, you can get even more, and with aerial planes that fly over a province, you get even more. With space, of course, we can collect data over entire countries, so from an agricultural––and really, from any standpoint––you're trying to pick up enough data to predict the future.
You’re trying to answer questions like what is the price of crops going to be based on how well X-factor is doing this year? Is the price of grain going up or down? How about on a global scale? Can we count oil tankers in the ocean? Can we determine how full they are based on how low they are sitting in the water?
So, if we're imaging the Gulf of New Mexico, and we determine that there are 60% more oil tankers in the ocean than there were two months ago, and these tankers are full, it means there's an awful lot of oil sitting in the ocean. The price of oil is going to go down because there's an awful lot of supply.
So first you just survey—you’re just looking at things, and then you're trying to classify and identify things, and then finally, you're trying to come up with information and insights.
Insights will get better with more data. Combine it with industrial data or economic data, for example. You match different data sets to get smarter, better information.
What are the component technologies or innovations that make SAR viable?
What we’re building right now is “the payload.” It is a large flat antenna about the size of a couple of parking lots. Imagine two parking spots put together, perhaps six feet by 12 feet as an example. It can be a little bigger, it can be a little smaller, but imagine something that size.
It has software built onto it—electronics, firmware, some AI and processing on it. But that's it. So what do we do with this? We need to attach this to a satellite, which we call a “bus,” and it has electronic controls and location equipment on it, so you know where it is and it knows where it is. It's got power solar panels to generate power, as well as electronics, avionics, and satellite-related stuff.
And then you take these two things, and then you have to launch it.
Then you get the thing into space with a rocket. How does the rocket get to space? Companies like SpaceX are an example. There are other rocket providers, but SpaceX is a good one, and it's a cheap one and has helped bring the price of a launch down. There are other technologies that have enabled and will continue to enable the space economy, but certainly, the lowering of the cost of launches is a big one.
How big is the space economy or the market you’re in?
It's broad, it's in the hundreds of billions. It includes everything from large government satellites and includes things like the International Space Station. It includes any number of new companies that are building rockets to get stuff to space like SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Astra, Blue Origin, and Virgin. These are all companies that are building different types of rockets to get stuff to space.
And then you have the satellites, as well. Really, people view space as being good for two things. One, to get to space and keep going. Explore more, get to the moon, get to Mars, and just, you know, keep going up.
The other part of the space economy is really to improve or benefit life here on earth. You've got things like GPS satellites and satellite TVs, and all kinds of sensors up in space that are cameras looking down at Earth. 95% of the space economy is geared towards improving life on Earth, impacting Earth, and about 5% is geared towards that first category of going further into space.
Both UrtheCast, as well as Alpha, are about impacting things, so we can get smarter about the planet, get better data, get better information, make better decisions about life here on Earth.
What’s COVID’s impact been on your business?
I would say long term the impact will be nominal. Maybe, you know, short term, it might have had some impact as it's been a little harder to function from an operational standpoint and from an engineering standpoint. But that’ll get solved.
How big is the team right now?
We acquired a team of engineers from UrtheCast, and within the next few months, we'll get to 30 people, some corporate, some administrative like me, and then more technical engineers, as well.
What do you think the most misunderstood thing about space or space tech is?
I don't think people realize how big of an impact space and space technology have on everyday lives. You know, things like GPS, making the phones work, getting from point A to point B, that's all space technology. And at one point, people were thinking this is never going to be relevant. And then next, you know, here we are, and you can't get from point A to point B without your navigation system, your Google Maps on your phone. The impact of what we're doing, or what space has on earth is massive.