From left to right, Chris Boshuizen, Jason Andrews, Chad Anderson. Credit: Kate Patterson for SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — Small satellite companies will generate impressive returns, but first the industry needs more launch opportunities and help reaching new customers, according to speakers at the Satellite 2017 conference.

“The launch bottleneck is causing issues,” said Craig Clark, Clyde Space chief executive. Many companies were unable to send their satellites into orbit in 2016 due to multiple launch delays. As a result, firms were unable to generate data and revenue. “We would have seen faster growth if launch capacity was there,” he added.

While dozens of companies are developing and testing rockets to serve the small satellite market, it will take time for new launch vehicles to prove their merit.

In the meantime, space companies need to remember “launch is super-hard,” said Jason Andrews, Spaceflight Industries chief executive. “We should all recognize that and educate investors.”

Planet co-founder Chris Boshuizen, who serves as the entrepreneur in residence for Data Collective, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, said the industry also needs to encourage entrepreneurs who possess in-depth knowledge of specific industries.

“The market is saturated with companies that are broad and shallow,” Boshuizen said. “I would like to see more specialization.”

That specialization will lead to products targeted to meet the needs of specific customers, like farmers. In addition, Andrews would like to see Earth imagery become so easy to access that people can pull out their mobile phones, pick a spot on the planet and order a satellite image in 90 minutes for $90.

Many elements of the infrastructure needed to capture and deliver that imagery still need to be developed. Those gaps offer opportunities for investors, said Chad Anderson, Space Angels Network chief executive.

“To get to a mature market with a number of companies that are profitable is going to take some time,” Anderson said. “We are still in the early stage.”

Clyde Space, the Scottish manufacturer of cubesats and small satellites, already profitable. “We’ve been making money for a few years now because we want the business to be sustainable,” Clark said. Now, Clark is looking for ways to take advantage of growing demand for small satellites. “There is lots of opportunity in a market so young,” he said.

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...