Loft Orbital Solutions Co-founder Pierre-Damien Vaujour On Changing How Emerging Space Nations Access Space

Co-founder & Head of Product

Loft Orbital Solutions Co-founder Pierre-Damien Vaujour On Changing How Emerging Space Nations Access Space

Leadership Monthly: Tell me about the mission at Loft Orbital

Pierre-Damien Vaujour: Our mission is to make it simple to fly stuff in space, to make it simple for any organisation to deploy their assets in space, and in that sense, we are not a company building satellites or collecting data, we are an infrastructure as a service provider in space, and our end goal is to make it as simple to deploy assets in space as it is to procure a cloud server on Amazon Web Services.

That's the vision for our company, and it came from two observations in the market. The first is that cubesat technology has shown the value of a constellation of smaller satellites, with a standardised form factor, as opposed to a single large satellite. The second is that it's becoming more and more apparent that a large number of proposed missions cannot be supplied by these cubesats because of their performance limitations. In other words, it's really hard to meet commercial or government needs based on cubesats, unless you deploy hundreds of them, and that takes a lot of upfront capital. Therefore, we have seen the industry moving into larger satellite platforms, like the 200kg class, albeit this is still a small standardised satellite platform in comparison to the traditional satellites in space.

Think of OneWeb and how they are already investing in mass manufacturing these small satellites, and what Loft Orbital is doing is to use those investments as leverage, i.e., use standard satellites, and create a standardised plug and play interface between the payload you want to fly and the satellites, and that is the technology that we are building, e.g., the software interface that flies on the satellite or how its sensors operate.

This is a different way of accessing space, and we are going to enable it. For example, right now if you want to deploy something in space you have to procure a satellite system and that means procuring a satellite, a launch, the ground segments, and getting the insurance and licensing, which makes it quite a complex endeavour. We are trying to solve that by saying, we are not selling a satellite, we are selling a subscription, a little bit like your cell phone subscription, where you don't have to go to Apple and ask them to build a phone for you, but that's really the state of the industry today. You go to Airbus and say, can you build a satellite for me, but if you want a phone you go to the shop and they have four or five different options, and you pick one, and that's it. It might not be exactly the phone you want but it does pretty much the job, and we are kind of the same.

Although, this analogy to the phone was more like the model where you buy a subscription for two years, but you don't necessarily pay for the phone itself. We have a similar subscription model as we don't sell a satellite, we actually lease space on it. This removes all the liability and complexity of actually procuring the satellite, because everything is offered as a service. You pay a subscription fee only when the satellite is in orbit, and that fee includes everything that it needs like the AIT, the launch, the ground segment, and its operation. All of this is one operating expense.

For us, this is the thing that we wanted to achieve, to remove the barrier of entry into space, making it simple and affordable, i.e., offering a similar price range to a cubesat mission because that is the price point where everybody can come in and do great things.

So, in the order of $1m per year you can actually spur innovation and allow for new things. The issue is that even with the small satellite platform they are still significantly more expensive than cubesats, even where there are standards, and significantly more expensive to fly because they are bigger and the launch is more expensive.

The way we solve that is by doing rideshares on the same satellite, kind of like a rideshare on the Falcon 9, i.e., you have a few small satellites on a big rocket, but we push that model down to the level of sensor, with multiple sensors on the same satellite.

Leadership Monthly: So, it's a rideshare of a rideshare

Pierre-Damien Vaujour: Yes, except if we end up using, for example, Rocket Lab with a 150kg capability, then we would have our own dedicated launch. But, you're right, most likely it's going to be a rideshare.

Now, if you think about a cubesat mission, it will last you on average one year and will cost, all in, around $1m. Now think about our model, you pay for a service that is simple and gets you all the benefits of putting your asset in space and just requires an annual subscription fee equivalent to the price you would pay for a cubesat mission, but you don't need to spend all your time ordering and launching a new cubesat each year, as you will be flying with us for much longer than that.

Leadership Monthly: So, customers just need to think about their assets and leave the flying to you

Pierre-Damien Vaujour: Exactly, if you want to fly your own payloads just give them to us and focus on developing the payloads.

Leadership Monthly: What's the market for this?

Pierre-Damien Vaujour: We are targeting three segments, government, commercial companies including startups, and finally science, academics and research.

For governments the need is really coming from two things, the desire to go commercial as opposed to doing everything in-house and the desire to have resiliency in one's assets. We see this across Europe, in Japan, the US, the UAE, and in Southeast Asia. Over and over again, we see the same story, governments want to go commercial and they want to have resiliency through the leverage of their own constellations.

The thing is that they usually also have high-performance needs and cubesats do not meet this need. If they were to have a constellation of small satellites the cost would be prohibitive because 10 such satellites would cost you tens of millions.

The solution we provide is a rideshare on a constellation. For example, they have their instruments on 10 different small satellites giving them the performance of these larger satellites as well as the resiliency of a constellation.

The next segment is commercial, and commercial is typically either large aerospace companies that want to demonstrate the capability of an instrument, or a smaller version of this instrument, before bidding for large contracts. For example, a company wanting to get some data from some of their instruments so they can show this to government agencies in the bid process and capture a large contract from them.

For these companies it's like making a $5m investment to improve the probability of capturing a $500m contract. This is quite prevalent in the US, where government agencies are asking for commercial data first, i.e., the demonstration of some operational capabilities for the instruments they will procure, and that's where we come in.

The other big market on the commercial side is NewSpace startups, and Chris, you will know this better than me. I'm sure you can name 50 companies off the top of your head that have raised $2m to $3m seed capital and have developed instruments, like methane spectrometers.

These companies want to fly their instruments in LEO, and they typically plan to do this on a cubesat but most of the time they realise a cubesat's flight will not be long enough for their actual technology demonstration. Or, maybe, they fly their first instrument on a cubesat and they have one good data set but it is not enough for commercial use so they need to deploy their sensor in space again but they don't have $10m for a longer LEO flight, and they are stuck.

What we offer these companies is a service that handles everything on the space side so they can be a space company but truly focus on their instruments or on their data services.

Our key value proposition for those startups is the leasing model, that means they have no significant upfront payments. Think about it, if you're a company and you have to put a $10m down payment on your mission. You will need to wait two years to have a satellite in space, then try to see if you have customers that want to buy your data, and you're only going to get revenue from these customers three years down the line after you've paid for the entire mission. It's a big upfront risk and a hard sell to a professional investor. Now, if I say you do not need to raise $10m to have your first proof of concept you just have to raise $1m. With $1m we can get you a satellite in space for five years, you can get your first revenue and use that to pay us on yearly basis and so that changes dramatically the barrier to entry for all those startups to have high-performance access to space and that is something that resonates well with the NewSpace companies.

Leadership Monthly: What guarantees do you make to these startups?

Pierre-Damien Vaujour: Yes, that's important. A lot of people are asking about if I do rideshare do I need to wait until you fill the satellite to capacity, and how long exactly is that going to take.

We see this question differently. We commit to a timeline of delivery of the satellite to the launch site. After that we are not in control but we do commit that the satellite will be delivered to this site at a certain time. Now with our leasing model you're only paying from when the satellite is in space and when it's working so there is no risk if the satellite fails as opposed to regular procurement when you pay for your satellite, even if it fails.

Starting in 2021, we plan to have quarterly launches, and that's really fundamentally different from other companies offering to host you as a secondary payload on a primary mission, which is more of an opportunistic launch model.

When you are hosted as a secondary payload, there are questions like are we going to launch on time, but when you use us there is no primary customer that might fall through. We will get the satellite to the launch site on time even if we only fill 50% of its capacity in order to keep our promise to the customer.

If we can launch closer to 100% capacity, then we will make more profit but if we don't this will be the only issue and not that we are late on delivery. What we do is paid by performance so we give you a launch date, which is when the satellite is ready and delivered to the launch site. If we are late on that then we're basically flying you with a significant discount and if the satellite in space fails after two years you only pay for what you've used, you don't pay for anything else, so it's a dramatically new model in the industry.

I think one of the analogies in the space business is to say that we're bringing the GEO model, the telecom GEO satellite model, to LEO. For example, if you are a TV channel you're not buying a satellite you're just leasing capacity on it. Another company owns and operates the satellite, and that's what we do, but in addition to that, we are leasing capacity on the satellite. Of course, it's a little bit different because we lease the space for the payload, but in terms of a fundamental business model, it's a similar walk through.

Leadership Monthly: You want to change how established customers in the market fly their assets in space, this sounds like a business leadership story rather than a business development one

Pierre-Damien Vaujour: I think that's a really good point and not a lot of people ask this because few people realise, as you said, this is more of a business leadership rather than business development story and I think you've asked the right question.

For us there are two ways that we are achieving this. The first one is in the DNA of the team and company. We are fusing the knowledge of the traditional space industry, if you want, and the innovation and the capability of NewSpace. What I mean is we have a diverse team of graduates mixed with experienced space industry leaders. Take me, I was one of the first employees at Spire. I saw its growth and signed its first contract, I have seen what it means to be really NewSpace. At NASA all of my team members were working on the Phonesat project and started Planet. I've been in Silicon Valley for eight years, and looking at our team, I'd say I'm more toward the recently graduated side.

On the other side our CEO who is our third co-founder, Antoine de Chassy, is the former CEO of an Airbus subsidiary in North America. He is a traditional space person. Or look at our advisors many of whom have sold satellite solutions to governments in Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and in Japan over the past 30 years. I think this is a unique thing for us as I don't think any startups have a team, a founding team, with this mix of experience. So, we have this kind of mix of we're innovative but we also recognise how it was done before, and we know the benefits of that and its drawbacks, and we have the credibility to actually have access to those traditional customers.

The second answer is actually more important for us and that's something that we recognised from the beginning and that is we need to have investors that reflect a future global customer base. So, instead of being like a Silicon Valley company raising money from VCs around here we actually started raising money from all of those emerging space nations we have targeted as our future customers.

We actually have investors in the UAE, Indonesia, Japan, China, Europe, and that is also unique for a seed company, and all those investors actually invested with the intent of eventually becoming a customer. When you have those investors, who invest $500,000 to be a customer for multi-million-dollar contracts, that gives you the credibility and the leadership position that you need to be able to sell to these nations and have them try this new model.

Once we did that then we got one of the best Silicon Valley investors for seed stage investments, Uncork Capital. Actually, the Managing Partner of the firm, Jeff Clavier, is joining our board so we have all of the Silicon Valley backing behind us and we got one the most powerful ones you can get but this only happened after we had this investment from these six emerging space nations investing in the company, and that's a strategy that we had from day one.

Leadership Monthly: So, you will be changing how emerging space nations access space?

Pierre-Damien Vaujour: That's a fantastic question for Pierre-Damien in 2021! In all seriousness though, that's an important question line, and one that VCs often ask, e.g., how do you maintain a barrier to entry?

I think that the first element is that once an emerging space nation has procured leasing services from us, and they see they actually have assets in space that are as efficient as a neighbouring country with a traditional space programme, it would be hard for them to go back and say okay now let's spend ten times more money to put a programme together that will take ten years just to go back to how things were traditionally done to achieve the same result. There is really little incentive for them to do that once they've used our leasing services and see that they work.

Now how do we keep the leadership position in that new paradigm, we need to build an ecosystem that is captive of our technology. What I mean by this is that it's like getting a phone from Apple from the Apple Store to use its apps. Anybody could write a new OS but because of all the apps on the Apple Store anybody that wants to develop a new app will just develop it using the iOS standard because that's the ecosystem. We see this as how our system will work, i.e., the payloads being the apps and us being the operating system. What that means is we want to create the technology standards that payloads will be developed to. Our partners will manufacture a catalogue of payloads that we will provide for a variety of missions, and it's establishing this need for technology compatibility that will erect a barrier to entry.

For example, already, most people are using the 1U or 3U standards in cubesats. Think of someone who would propose to do a cubesat in a different shape or different form factor. Everybody would say, why would we do that when all of the launchers have the cubesat form factor adaptors, and that makes it just so easy. Why would we use a different form factor?

So, in that situation if a company actually invented, owned, and provided the cubesat form factor as their core technology then it would be hard for anyone else to come in and just choose another form factor. I don't know if the analogy is good but if you have the standard in place that is working it's really hard to just come in with another one if there is no reason for that.

We don't really believe in all the startups mass manufacturing their own satellites but what we saw is if you do want to mass manufacture satellites of that class and that scale you need to put at least $500m into the facility to build the industrial process and at this point you're either Elon Musk or you're not, and I wasn't. I couldn't go there and raise $500m like that, and I don't think that's what I would have wanted to have done anyway I don't think anybody can just do that right so once you work the players and have the standard in place there is no real reason to just do something else.

Leadership Monthly: Finally, what drives you as a leader?

Pierre-Damien Vaujour: Let me give you three points. Some directly related to what we are achieving and some not.

I think that the first one is more about climate change. We need more datasets as it's hard to enforce regulations that not monitored. I do absolutely believe there is need for humanity to have more assets in space and more data about the Earth. I don't really know which data is most important and that's why we don't go for a company that collects one type of data, we just enable anyone to collect data about the Earth.

The second element is more of a geopolitical issue in addition to the climate change issue we're facing as we are seeing international relationships come closer together and space has historically been good at having nations peacefully come together for example the ISS that you see that being used for a number of nations as forces for good in regions that are difficult. If you look at the UAE for example they have their vision for 2021 which is the 50th anniversary of the nation they actually use the Mars mission they actually call hope and they use it to develop education for women to develop STEM education in the nation and it is easy to pull out any study that will tell you that education for women and STEM education are the most significant driver to put a nation out of poverty and out of war out of conflict and I'm actually proud of actually working with them. And especially when you look at the UAE and around those nations it's a troubled region around them so they really try to put something for hope and the using space as a vehicle for that.

And the last one is a bit more grandiose and less direct to what we are doing and more a kind of statement about just humanity in general. I want a future where space is just another continent and we do more stuff in space. What we're doing does not directly contribute to that but it does indirectly. If we make it simple for any organisation to fly stuff in space that drives more business for the rockets and more business for the space economy.