Ground station startup Leaf Space plans capital raise

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WASHINGTON — Italian startup Leaf Space wants to triple the number of ground station locations it has by late next year, citing customer demand for providing communications services to small satellites.

Founded in 2014, Milan, Italy-based Leaf Space operates a total of four ground stations in Italy, Spain, Ireland and Lithuania. The uptake of services using those stations has the company preparing to seek funding for another eight locations, including some in the United States and at least one near the equator, Giovanni Pandolfi, Leaf Space’s chief technology officer, said in an interview.

“What we are doing right now is trying to scale up all the infrastructure in a faster way because we have customer demand, more than what we thought,” Pandolfi told SpaceNews. “We need to get there much faster than we originally planned. That is why we will open another round in the coming months.”

Leaf Space counts Astrocast, a Swiss startup with two of a planned 64 cubesats in orbit, as its largest customer, Pandolfi said. Australian cubesat operator Fleet is also a customer, though it contracted Leaf Space to supply a dedicated ground station for a constellation it hopes will one day number 100 satellites.

Astrocast and Fleet are both focused on the Internet of Things market, providing connectivity to sensors and devices often in remote locations where satellite is the only means of communications. Pandolfi said Internet of Things and remote sensing satellites are driving demand for Leaf Space’s services.

Pandolfi said Leaf Space has raised around 2.7 million euros ($3 million) through private investments and public sector grants, including the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 fund. Leaf Space will seek much more than that in its upcoming funding round, he said, without going into specifics.

“The kind of customer requests that we have really needs us to put more investment to use to deliver more stations and to develop new things,” he said. “That’s why we decided to open in the coming months this round to scale up much faster.”

Leaf Space currently employs 18 people and will use the new investment to expand its payroll, he said.

Leaf Space originally planned to have 20 ground stations by 2017, but reexamined that approach after four stations to ensure customer demand would support such a system, Pandolfi said. The company also modified its business plan to offer two services: Leaf Line, a “ground segment as a service” where customers pay for airtime, and Leaf Key, a dedicated service aimed at high-bandwidth customers willing to pay a monthly fee.  

Pandolfi said Leaf Space views having 12 ground station locations as ideal in order to ensure satellites in low Earth orbit can establish contact at least once every time they circle the Earth. Leaf Space envisions building two or three ground stations at some of the same locations to increase the capacity available, he said.

Pandolfi said he was encouraged by the heavyweight entrance of Amazon and Lockheed Martin last November in the ground station business. Big businesses entering the field proves that a market exists, he said, and provides another potential benefit to startups: “these big players could be an exit for us.”