Orbital Insight raises $20 million to wring actionable intelligence from satellite imagery

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SAN FRANCISCO — Investor enthusiasm remains strong for companies that provide information drawn from Earth observation satellites, judging by $20 million in new investments for geospatial data company Orbital Insight.

Orbital Insight announced June 27 that it raised $15 million in Series B funding from venture capital groups and garnered another $5 million in investment and product development work for In-Q-Tel, the non-profit investment arm of the U.S. intelligence community.

With the additional funding, Orbital Insight plans to expand its range of analytic data products. To date, the firm has focused on a relatively small number of observation targets, including counting cars in retail parking lots and gauging the amount of oil stored in tanks by observing the shadows cast by floating lids.

Through conversations with industry and government customers, Orbital Insight has compiled a list of more than 100 additional targets it wants to develop algorithms to measure, including cars, trucks, trains, ships, steel plant activity, refinery activity, imports, exports, oil drilling and deforestation, said James Crawford, Orbital Insight founder and chief executive.

Orbital Insight also plans to expand its sales force. More than 30 people now work for the firm. Crawford said he does not have a specific personnel goal in mind, but the firm is “continuing to make a lot of hires.”

Orbital Insight’s Series B investment round was led by GV (formerly known as Google Ventures). New investor CME Ventures joined Sequoia Capital, Lux Capital and Bloomberg Beta, investment firms that already were backing Palo Alto, California-based Orbital Insight.

Although the Earth observation field is becoming crowded, Orbital Insight is unique because it does not have the high capital expenditures of the other satellite imaging companies, Bill Coughran, Sequoia Capital partner, said by email. Rather than flying its own satellites, Orbital Insight obtains data through contracts with constellation owners, including DigitalGlobe, Airbus, Planet, Rapid Eye and Urthecast. “Orbital Insight is solely focused on building best-in-class software to extract insights from the satellite and aerial imagery,” Coughran added.

Orbital Insight also differs from its competitors by gathering data on a grander scale, Crawford said. “When we count cars, we count them in parking lots of every major U.S. retailer, in a million parking lots. When we look at oil in China, we ingest imagery of the whole country,” he said.

Crawford, who earned a PhD in Artificial Intelligence from the University of Texas at Austin, expects the Earth observation market to move away from surveys as customers seek objective measurements of various targets. He also expects additional types of geospatial information to be folded into the mix, including synthetic aperture radar data.

Lux Capital partner Shahin Farshchi agrees. “We are very excited about the Earth observation space as a whole,” he said. “We view satellite imagery as not being the only data source that can generate insights.”

Bloomberg Beta’s confidence in Orbital Insight stems from its belief that the Earth observation market will continue to grow and faith in the firm’s leadership. “When machine intelligence meets new, enormous sources of data, many people see an opportunity,” Roy Bahat, head of the venture capital firm Bloomberg Beta, said by email.

CME Ventures began investing in Orbital Insight because the company “determined its technology has the potential to impact the financial services vertical, which is a key focus for us,” a CME Ventures spokewoman said by email. CME Ventures invests in early stage companies in the domains of next generation data technologies, enterprise-focused financial technology and security, she added.

Orbital Insight is working to go beyond counting and measurement to provide its partners with more complex analyses. For instance, the firm is working with the World Bank to test how its observations of Sri Lanka compare with the World Bank’s data. Orbital Insight also is working with the World Resources Institute on an effort to track signs of impending deforestation.