WASHINGTON — A San Francisco startup raised $3.2 million in a seed financing round to create a service around operating a constellation of satellites packed with payloads from different customers.
Loft Orbital says it could have a first mission in orbit by the second half of 2019, and already has three “well advanced leads” that could soon mature into paying customers.
Founders Antoine de Chassy, Alexander Greenberg and Pierre-Damien Vaujour — all of whom once worked for nanosatellite operator Spire — are targeting as customers various companies, academics and government agencies that want to collect data from space — weather, imagery, etc. — but don’t want to own and operate any satellites.
Alex Greenberg, head of operations, described Loft as a leasing company, essentially buying a satellite platform and stocking it with up to five payloads from various customers.
“We are like the landlord of the apartment building, and our tenants are the different payloads paying us an annual fee,” he said. “We take a downpayment from each of the customers, which is really just enough to finance the launch and the initial payments on the satellite — some of the upfront costs — and then every year we charge an annual fee.”
Avoiding an Iridium Prime repeat
Loft Orbital is not the first to seek to commercialize satellites comprised of multiple hosted payloads in a “condominium-satellite,” or “condosat”-type model. Iridium launched a similar project four years ago called Iridium Prime, meant to leverage the manufacturing ramp up of Thales Alenia Space from building the 81 Iridium Next satellites to build additional spacecraft solely for hosted payloads.
Iridium Prime failed to gain traction despite high interest. Greenberg said Loft has Dave Anhalt, the former general manager of Iridium Prime, as a member of the startup’s advisory board for that very reason.
“What we learned is that with the Iridium bus being fairly large, the business case did not close,” Greenberg said. “The cost of the bus plus the launch cost for a satellite of that size was still quite high. With the substantial amount of payload mass available and the challenges of fitting compatible sensors on the same satellite, it was difficult for them to mix and match customer payloads to fill up the entire bus and have a profitable campaign. The result was that the price per customer was often high enough that it actually made sense for the customer to procure their own bus.”
Iridium Next satellites have a launch mass of 860 kilograms. By contrast, Loft spacecraft will fall between 100 and 200 kilograms, Greenberg said, adding that Loft is in discussion with several would-have-been Iridium Prime customers still wanting access to low-Earth orbit. Loft’s target customers are those for whom Iridium Prime was too big and cubesats are too small.
Greenberg said Loft will handle procuring the satellite, the launch, operations and downlinking data for customers. No one customer will have anchor tenant status, he said; pricing is based on payload size and power requirements. Customers will be able to control, or “task,” their own payloads, he said.
Loft will use standardized spacecraft platforms, Greenberg said, and plans to have its own standard interfaces between payloads and satellites, a feature that “dramatically reduces the time to conduct assembly and integration and test,” he said.
“It’s the power and capability of a much larger satellite but at the price of a cubesat mission,” he said.
De Chassy, Loft’s chief executive, said the company is willing to fly missions with a single dedicated customer — a request that could stem from technical or political requirements. He said Loft can also downlink data directly to customer ground stations if desired, such as if they want to collect data over sensitive areas. For other customers, Loft will buy ground communications services from antenna operators.
Loft plans to use the $3.2 million to further software development and grow the company’s presence. De Chassy said the seed round should bring the company all the way to its first launch.
Palo Alto, California-based Uncork Capital (formerly SoftTech VC), backer of companies including Fitbit and Eventbrite, led the seed round. Other investors included, V1.VC, Mercuria Investment Co., the Remote Sensing Technology Center of Japan (RESTEC), Shobunsha, and Telkom Indonesia’s corporate venture arm MDI Ventures. The round also included investors from the U.S., China, Europe and the United Arab Emirates.
De Chassy said about half of the money came from the U.S., with the rest coming from the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Europe. Many investors have “committed to long-term support of Loft,” he said.
In a statement announcing the capital raise, Jeff Clavier, managing partner at Uncork Capital, described Loft as “the equivalent of bringing cloud infrastructure to companies who were forced to build server farms back in the day.” Clavier joined Loft’s board of directors with the seed round.