Kepler Communications: a Toronto startup’s quest to connect all things, everywhere

by

WASHINGTON — Mina Mitry is at the helm of a seven-person company that has raised $5.5 million since forming in 2015 to develop a global constellation of cubesats to connect any device on Earth or in orbit. Kepler Communications is the fourth startup on the 27-year-old’s resume, but the first he co-founded — and his first dealing with space.

Before launching Kepler Communications, located in a small office suite above a nail salon and Wild Wing restaurant in downtown Toronto, Mitry put his aerospace engineering degrees to work at a succession of tech-heavy startups, including TeaBot, a company that makes self-serve, loose-leaf tea kiosks, and Brizi, a company that aims to equip the world’s sports arenas with augmented-reality camera systems that fans can control from their smartphones.

In the 22 months since opening its doors, Kepler has completed a $5-million seed round, ordered two demo satellites from Scottish smallsat specialist Clyde Space, and notified the Federal Communications Commission it intends to deploy a network of up to 140 Ku-band nanosatellites in low-Earth orbit to establish an in-space telecommunications network for spaceborne assets. “Put simply, we are building cell phone towers in space,” Kepler says on its website.

Kepler also has its sights set on the lucrative Internet of Things market, aiming to use the constellation to provide data backhaul for an exploding population of network-connected devices.

Kepler was one of 11 companies that met the FCC’s Nov. 15 deadline for disclosing plans to deploy constellations of communications satellites that might operate in the bands that U.S.-based OneWeb has proposed to use for its 900-satellite constellation.

Kepler intends to complete its constellation by 2022, and told the FCC it has the first two satellites manifested for launch this year. “Our core vision is providing ubiquitous connectivity for the devices that gather the world’s information,” Mitry said.

Mitry spoke to SpaceNews about the startup’s plans to build out this space-based network over the next five years.

Kepler has plans for a two-part satellite system to serve as backhaul for the Internet of Things (IoT) and provide communications for other spacecraft. How do you intend to provide each of those services?

Communication with other spacecraft is being done through an intersatellite link. The IoT backhaul will be a main mission antenna pointed towards the ground.

What will be Kepler’s bigger initial focus: Internet of Things applications or in-space communications?

The initial service will be strictly focused on terrestrial device data backhaul. That will be our initial focus for the next few years, following which we will transition toward satellite-to-satellite data relay. The focus of the company in the near term will be devices that gather information on the ground, and in the long term, the devices that gather information from space.

You have two demo satellites ordered from Clyde Space. What do you hope to learn from those spacecraft?

Those will be a key demonstration of our core technologies, which are software-defined radios and antenna arrays. We hope to demonstrate that our core bandwidth expectations and core assumptions about the actual technology that we’ve built in-house hold  true. From there, we will use them to deploy part of our commercial service offering at the end of 2017.

We have a few customers that are signed up that want to use the airtime onboard the demo spacecraft to relay some of their data. 

Will you be using the demo satellites to scale up into the full-fledged constellation, or will they be standalone units? 

That will be decided pending a design review when we start to build the constellation. It’s difficult to say at this point if those can integrate directly with the growing constellation, or if they will have to work in their own right.

What’s the ultimate size of the constellation that you envision having? Will that consist entirely of cubesats?

We envision that the size of the satellites will stay relatively small. Ideally, that would remain a 3U cubesat platform, but it has the potential to grow in size depending on customer demand.  The number of operational satellites in the constellation will vary with time. In a few years, it could range from 75 to 140 operational spacecraft. But that will change as we are growing and serving more customers.

What’s the minimum number you need to achieve global coverage, or at least your first big operational milestone?

It’s not necessarily global coverage. I don’t think that’s a requirement on the initial constellation. For us, it’s the minimum number to operate a commercial service. That starts to look interesting at two satellites, and then from there it scales in terms of services and offerings. With more satellites, we can improve the commercial services. So, to directly answer your question, in my mind it’s the minimum number to meet our commercial milestones: two to 20.

Small-satellite operators, such as Spire and Terra Bella, have complained of a launch bottleneck for smallsats. Is Kepler worried about finding launches? 

That’s obviously a concern every small-satellite operator in the world today has: what will be the availability of launch opportunities, and how will that scale? Who will be the winners in this industry? From our side, we are designing our launch strategy around the fact that we have these constraints to deal with, recognizing some of the things that have gone on with Spire and Planet, and the issues they faced. We are very cognizant of that, and we are making an active effort to comprise our launch strategy so that we don’t run into those issues. Specifically, not only do we look at our launch strategy, but the service the customer expects to receive as a whole, and making sure that is unaffected as a result of our launch plans.

What ground infrastructure are you planning for communication with your own satellites? Is that something Kepler will build, or will you lease that from someone else?

Right now, we are in a number of ongoing discussions. We could either lease, partner, or build something ourselves. The exact decision should be announced in early 2017.

For the Internet of Things application, are you designing terminals for your customers? How will you go about providing that end-user equipment? 

Today, we are developing that in-house because we can leverage a lot of the communications technology and core competencies that we have built up within this company. When we get into the scale of mass production, we’re yet to make a decision on whether we do this in house or partner with a company. We will deliver the terminals directly to our customers.

For the in-space communications application, will operators need hardware from Kepler Communications? 

That depends on the communications frequency that they are using. If they are using the same frequency as the intersatellite link onboard our spacecraft, they should be able to connect to our network with a software upgrade. Otherwise, customers will have to use a compatible communications subsystem on their next launch.

Are most of Kepler’s investors in Canada?

Our investor breakdown is about 60 percent U.S., 40 percent Canadian.

Does being outside the U.S. make it harder to garner investor interest?

Not at all. When investors evaluate an investment opportunity, everyone of our investors has been very sophisticated in understanding the implications of investing in a Canadian company. They also understand the strategic advantages that you can gain from being a Canadian company, specifically in the space industry.

Such as?

One example is access to more launch opportunities. U.S.-domiciled companies have regulations that prevent them from launching with a number of countries that have great launch capabilities.

What does Kepler expect to accomplish in 2017?

One of our key milestones is getting our first two spacecraft up, for which we will be announcing the launch partner in another couple months. That launch will be happening around late 2017 or early 2018. Most other milestones are internal and centered around our business development team’s ability to execute and making sure we demonstrate our technology on the ground as much as possible.