October 15, 2018 | Investment Themes

Bringing connectivity to space with Kepler Communications

John Cowgill

Written by

John Cowgill

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Kepler’s first satellite, KIPP, a 3U CubeSat

The space industry is undergoing fundamental transformation. Billions of dollars have poured into New Space companies — for earth observation (Planet Labs, Spire), internet connectivity (SpaceX, OneWeb), or data analytics (Orbital Insight, Descartes Labs).

Small satellites are replacing big ones. Agile development processes are enabling space companies to iterate like software companies. Constellations of satellites operating in low earth orbit are opening up new data collection and transmission capabilities.

The need for connectivity

But despite this massive rate of change, one of the gaps that remains is data connectivity — both on planet Earth and in low earth orbit. There are still places on the planet — the poles, large swaths of ocean bodies, remote mining and energy outposts, and places where major transportation and industrial work takes place — where a fundamental lack of connectivity still exists, or the only options for transmitting data are slow and expensive last-generation satellite networks.

Connectivity in space is much worse. Satellites cannot pass information to each other, and can only downlink data to Earth if they are orbiting above a receiving ground station. Crucial information (be it images, weather measurements, videos) is often hours or days old.

That’s where our newest investment, Kepler Communications, steps in. The plan itself is relatively simple: to provide real-time connectivity for Earth and space assets alike by building the world’s first in-space continuous telecommunications network.

In plain English: Kepler is launching a giant network of satellites into orbit that can talk to each other and to devices & ground stations on Earth to deliver real-time, unbounded connectivity.

More than a big vision — a pragmatic plan to get there

This vision is as challenging as it is exciting, with significant investment in satellite launches needed before a real-time network is operational. Many similar network and telecomm plays assume the need to build an expensive and expansive infrastructure first, then turn on services and revenue. This can be both costly and risky, as the learning only happens when a lot of time and resource has been spent.

But Kepler kept it pragmatic. They launch their nano-satellites one by one but immediately turn customer services on as soon as each satellite is in space, with a phase-1 business providing a high-latency, low-cost connectivity service for data backhaul to areas with limited connectivity (e.g. maritime operators in the poles). This allows customers and partners to immediately take advantage of the Kepler network and enables the company to generate revenue and test technology immediately. Indeed, Kepler is already in market today with this service, having secured spectrum and launched the first satellite in the Kepler communications network this year.

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KIPP satellite

As Kepler launches more satellites, the latency of its service will decrease to near real-time, and the network can support connectivity for hundreds of thousands of IoT devices. The market opportunity here is already huge ($1.7B annually) and will continue to grow at double digit percentages for years to come as the number of internet connected devices continues to explode.

As Kepler keeps launching satellites, their big vision to build an in-space network and provide connectivity to other space assets is ultimately realized.

A team with an ability to execute

Kepler didn’t just show us a plan — they showed an ability to execute essential for a company operating on the technical edge. The Kepler team has already secured rights to fought-over Ku-band spectrum. They’ve built a proprietary radio that can can turn most hardware connectivity problems into a software problem — bringing software defined networking to space. They’ve even built many of their own antennas that address challenges in Ku-band (and other frequency bands to be announced). They’re based in Canada, which gives them access to more launch opportunities, and have shown the power of defining and leveraging space as a global problem via launch and business development partnerships with foreign governments.

All of this is possible due to the team behind Kepler. Cofounders Mina Mitry (CEO), Wen Cheng Chong (CTO), Mark Michael (VP of Engineering), and Jeff Osborne (VP of Biz Dev) are world-class technologists who have attracted A+ technical talent in Toronto. But as important as their technical aptitude are their commercial and business instincts. They’ve signed customers and business partners across industries, and have developed an integrated strategy and approach to achieve their big vision.

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Kepler team

Our unique perspective

Synthesizing the data we collected across the nanosatellite communications sector and the myriad of companies entering the category ultimately led us to get behind the team at Kepler. This wouldn’t have been possible without the support of our Entrepreneur-in-Residence Chris Wake, who was the first business hire at Spire and went on to lead Spire’s business operations. He supported our thesis through a unique lens, having been entrenched in the operations of a satellite company facing the problem Kepler is solving and seeing Kepler’s ability to execute firsthand. Chris understood the challenges upcoming nanosatellite communication companies will face, Kepler’s advantages, and the impressive list of Kepler’s accomplishments.

All things considered, we couldn’t be more excited to partner with the team at Kepler to bring persistent connectivity to space.

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