Pixxel raises seed round for hyperspectral satellites

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WASHINGTON — An Indian startup raised $7.3 million to allow the company to continue work on a constellation of hyperspectral imaging satellites, the first step in its much bigger ambitions.

Pixxel announced the seed round March 17 with funding provided by Omnivore VC and Techstars, among other investors. The company earlier raised $700,000 in “pre-seed” funding to start operations.

The Bengaluru, India-based company wants to stand out in a crowded field of Earth imaging companies by focusing on hyperspectral imaging, collecting data over dozens of spectral bands simultaneously. Such imagery can provide a wealth of data with applications in agriculture, energy and natural resources.

However, despite that promise hyperspectral data has struggled to find a foothold in the commercial imaging market. Satellogic, for example, flies hyperspectral imagers on its growing constellation of satellites, but has found much greater interest in the more conventional high-resolution imagery those satellites also provide.

Pixxel believes it can find success with higher quality hyperspectral data. “When you look at Satellogic, it’s 30 bands at 30 meters resolution,” said Awais Ahmed, co-founder and chief executive of Pixxel, in an interview. “We’re looking at five-meter capability and 150 bands to start with.”

That improved data, he said, will be combined with a software platform to allow users easily analyze data, a challenge for hyperspectral imagery. “People have shied away from hyperspectral imagery in favor of optical RGB imaging because it requires more capability in terms of processing,” said Kshitij Khandelwal, co-founder and chief technology officer of Pixxel. “We’re building out the tool kit for someone to be able to work with hyperspectral data and other sources of data.”

Pixxel has built its first satellite, a 15-kilogram spacecraft, and had hoped to have it in space by now. However, the company pulled the satellite from a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle just days before the Feb. 28 launch because of software problems.

Ahmed said that a day before they were scheduled to ship the satellite to the launch site, they found problems with GPS logging and acquisition software. “We decided not to rush it,” he said. The company has worked on that software issue and performed another round of testing, and is looking for launch opportunities “in the next few months” on either an Indian or foreign rocket.

Pixxel is working on a second satellite, weighing about 30 kilograms and targeted for launch in October. Like the first, the satellite will be assembled by the company but using components outsourced from a wide range of other companies. The spacecraft’s camera, for example, is provided by Dragonfly Aerospace, a South Africa developer of spacecraft imaging systems. “We are essentially a satellite integrator, as well as designer,” Khandelwal said.

That second satellite will be similar to the design Pixxel plans to use for its constellation, with a goal of 30 satellites in orbit by the middle of 2023. Ahmed said that the company will start working on raising a Series A round to fund development of that constellation later this year, after the launch of its first satellite.

Pixxel, in its announcement of the funding round and on its website, highlighted partnerships with a number of companies and organizations, including Maxar, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the U.S. Air Force. Ahmed said those stem from Pixxel’s participation in the Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator. JPL has provided advice on hyperspectral imagery, while Maxar has offered guidance on shortwave infrared imagery. Pixxel isn’t actively working with the Air Force at this time, he said.

The company has also benefited from partnerships with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) that are part of the country’s new commercial space initiatives. “In terms of getting access to testing facilities and infrastructure, that has helped us quite a bit,” Ahmed said, such as performing tests of Pixxel’s first satellite at an ISRO center.

As challenging as a hyperspectral imaging constellation is for a startup, it is only the first step on Pixxel’s long-term plans. The company says its vision is to “accelerate humanity’s expansion into space by making in-space resources available on-demand” through later prospecting of asteroids and extracting resources from them, which it illustrates on its website with an image of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return spacecraft.

Other startups, like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, had similar ambitions, and Planetary Resources at one point proposed going after the Earth imaging market with spacecraft technologies that could later be applied to asteroid mining. Both those companies, though, were acquired and either pivoted to other markets or, in the case of Planetary Resources, went out of business entirely.

Pixxel’s founders say they’ve learned the lessons of those failures, and have talked with some of the people who used to work at those companies. Thus, while maintaining that long-term vision of accessing space resources, the company’s near-term focus will be squarely on Earth imaging. “The first thing we realized is to keep the messaging clear,” said Khandelwal. “Our priority is to build remote sensing technologies and use it for the benefit of Earth.”

“In our case, we’ve always been clear that our primary focus for the next three to four years is to do Earth imaging, generate revenue and get to profitability,” Ahmed said. “We’ll use that to then launch deep space missions.”