A "space unicorn" on display at the ISIS (Innovative Solutions in Space) exhibit at the Small Satellite Conference at Utah State University in Logan, Utah Aug. 7, 2018. Credit: Keith Johnson for SpaceNews

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 10, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

In an exhibit hall filled with metal spacecraft components, it was hard to miss the pink unicorn perched on a cubesat at the Innovative Solutions in Space booth. The stuffed unicorn, wearing a gold flight jacket, added a bit of levity to the Small Satellite Conference and the serious work of startups seeking billion-dollar valuations, the firms known in Silicon Valley as unicorns.

Many of those companies turn to ISIS Space, a spinoff from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, for research and development, testing and launch services. When ISIS Space was established in 2006, only two other companies, Pumpkin and Clyde Space, were focused exclusively on cubesats. Now, although the field is crowded, ISIS Space continues to expand revenues and employees at a rate of 30 to 40 percent a year, said Jeroen Rotteveel, ISIS Space chief executive and co-founder.

ISIS Space works has a wide roster of clients, including: Hiber, a Dutch Internet-of-Things startup preparing to launch its first satellite; Kubos, a satellite software company; and Planet, an 8-year-old company with hundreds of cubesats in orbit.

Rotteveel and Abe Bonnema, ISIS Space marketing director and co-founder, spoke with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner in Logan, Utah, where cubesat and small satellite aficionados gather every August.

What is unique about ISIS Space?

Rotteveel: We are fully self-funded. We don’t have any external investors behind us. We’ve managed to go from zero to the first $1 million in revenue, then to $10 million, and now on our way to the next step without venture capital or strategic investors. That’s quite unique.

Why no investors?

Rotteveel: It was impossible to raise money 12 years ago. Then, we managed to get some revenue early on. In the first couple of years, we funded our internal research and development with revenues from the parts we sold.

Jeroen Rotteveel, ISIS Space CEO and co-founder, speaks with attendees at the 32nd annual Conference on Small Satellites in Utah in August. Credit: Keith Johnson for SpaceNews
Jeroen Rotteveel, ISIS Space CEO and co-founder, speaks with attendees at the 32nd annual Conference on Small Satellites in Utah in August. Credit: Keith Johnson for SpaceNews

Now, we are really stubborn. Abe and I own 50 percent of the company. We like our independence. It gives us great freedom. We are stubborn space engineers. We can do many different projects. We don’t have to go after the $100 million revenue to satisfy the shareholders. We can do this long term. We have fun doing this and no plans to retire in the near future.

There is another reason we didn’t have to attract large amounts of internal investment. We are a first-tier supplier for all the startups. We provide them with the infrastructure they need to make their business a success. Our customers raise the money and pay us to do the work.

What do you supply?

Rotteveel: We are pivoting to a full-service model. Quite a few of our missions that we have under contract now include an in-orbit delivery clause. Just like in the geostationary satellite market, it becomes normal that the integrator do the commissioning and handover responsibility only when the satellite is fully working. We want to take it a step further to have cubesats as a service: mission control, licensing, data, warehousing. We want to be that partner. We’ll implement and manage the infrastructure for the customers so they can focus on selling their products and their customers and not have to worry about the infrastructure.

Is this a sign of the changing business? Years ago, startups wanted to build their own satellites.

Bonnema: Yes. Take Planet as an example. They went for the full-integration model in-house at first, which is perfectly fine because they had a plan to build so many. That’s the only way to optimize that part. There was no role for any of us in delivering parts or buses for them. They could do that themselves and have proven to do that very efficiently. But at the same time, we launch their satellites. As soon as we know how many satellites they would like to have on a particular mission, we take care of the rest. Compare that to the startups now. I don’t think there are any Internet-of-Things startups really considering building everything in-house.

Rotteveel: The first suppliers of smallsat applications were engineers. Now, it’s more business people who have drank the smallsat Kool-Aid and want to operate a lean startup. They want to know the satellite works but don’t want to invest the time and manpower to build it. Hiber does it like that. They focus on finding the customers and generating the revenue. They leave the space infrastructure to us.

How many satellites have you built?

Rotteveel: Around 30 different satellites.

Bonnema: And a whole lot more in terms of platforms and parts.

Rotteveel: At any point in time, we have 10 to 15 satellites in various stages from definition to manufacturing, testing or operations.

How many have you launched?

Bonnema: We’ve launched 271 satellites to date. We take care of the entire launch part. We create launch capacity and launch slots on different vehicles. We perform the integration and launch support. It’s a complete package. We do the contract negotiations, interface documentation, test documentation. People bring their satellites to our facility where we integrate them with deployers. From there, our teams bring everything to the site and mounts it on the vehicle. More and more, we keep supporting them after launch: finding their satellites, commissioning.

Is Internet of Things the new hot area for space startups?

Rotteveel: Yes. IoT, machine-to-machine, narrowband communications — whatever you want to call it. That’s the new gold rush. In the last week, I’ve seen three announcements of new companies that will go after the IoT from space market. And there were already about 25.

It’s the gold rush we saw after Planet started. You see that now in IoT. The next thing will be synthetic aperture radar.

What amazes me is how it seems like everybody has Attention Deficit Disorder. There’s something new. We are all going to do that. There are a lot of highly motivated people who see these cubesats and smallsats as an opportunity to make a real impact in the space sector. When they see an opportunity, they want to jump on it. Especially here in the states, where there is access to capital and job flexibility.

Is it different in Europe?

Rotteveel: Yes. In the states, it’s quite easy to try to take a break and try to start something for half a year. If it doesn’t work, you go back to working for a big aerospace contractor. That’s even more important for all the new ideas you see in the United States than the access to capital. It generates a lot of ideas, as long as it’s not too wasteful in terms of hundreds of millions of dollars wasted. If they can contain that to the idea phase, then it’s a really good way of driving innovation forward.

It’s quite a big step in Europe to say goodbye to your job and try for a half a year to raise some money. You give up a lot of securities: your pension, your guaranteed salary. In the U.S., you can be rehired within a week. It’s not the mentality in Europe to step out for a bit and try something.

Abe Bonnema, ISIS Space marketing director and co-founder, at SmallSat. Credit: Keith Johnson for SpaceNews
Abe Bonnema, ISIS Space marketing director and co-founder, at SmallSat. Credit: Keith Johnson for SpaceNews

What else is happening?

Rotteveel: Scientists are finally getting interested in using cubesats. It’s the last bastion of the space community that is being exposed to them. We built a radio astronomy payload that’s now on the far side of the moon. It’s a precursor to a network of 250 12-unit cubesats that will form the Orbital Low-Frequency Array, a radio telescope in lunar orbit. The first demonstrator launched in April. It’s a bilateral program between the Netherlands and China. We have a very strong radio astronomy community in the Netherlands. We have the Low-Frequency Array, a 10,000-antenna array. That was the inspiration, to lift that above the atmosphere and look into the cosmic dark ages, the first 100 million years of the universe. That can be done with small satellites. You’ve seen it at this conference as well. Astrophysicists are going after black holes with really small satellites. That is quite interesting especially in these times with the $10 billion programs are being criticized quite publicly. You can balance those with fast missions that cost fractions of that but still deliver results.

I’ve heard startups ask for free components or investment, saying they will return when they build their constellation.

Bonnema: We may offer a discount because it’s the precursor to a very big constellation. The Hiber model is a good one. We are willing to give part of our own investment in exchange for an upside later.

Rotteveel: We co-invest if we believe in certain ideas from the customer. We don’t charge the full amount in exchange for shares or revenue splits or profit sharing. It’s a way for the startups to lower their capital expenditure and get to the market faster. And for us, it’s an interesting way to benefit from the downstream part of the space industry without having to set up our own company. Especially if we have a role as a full-service provider, we can monetize our initial investment over the rest of the life of the constellation. It’s OK to lower the price on the front end of that.

What are you trying to say with this unicorn?

Rotteveel: It started out as a joke. We gave one of the sales managers a unicorn. It has been kidnapped by some of our staff and taken on other people’s vacations. Our partner Kubos once abducted it back to Texas. Then it came back with a space jacket on. We wanted to be a little bit different this year. Space company booths are all the same: a black background with a slice of Earth and then some letters and all the components. We tried to be a bit different. It’s not all business. Especially this conference. This is fun.

It’s the next space unicorn. That’s what we’ve been doing. Through our products, services and solutions, we’ve enabled quite a few of these ambitious startups to reach orbit.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...