Spire Raises $40 Million For Weather Satellite Constellation

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WASHINGTON — Spire, a company developing a constellation of cubesats to provide weather data to commercial and government customers, announced June 30 it has raised $40 million to complete work on the satellites and begin launching them later this year.

Peter Platzer, chief executive of San Francisco-based Spire, said the money raised in its Series B round, which included both new and existing investors, will fund the company through the launch more than 100 satellites by the end of 2017. The company previously raised $25 million in a July 2014 financing round.

“It allows us to be the world’s first commercial weather satellite constellation,” Platzer said in a June 29 interview. Much of the funding will be used to hire additional staff, he said. The company currently has 56 employees working at offices in San Francisco, Singapore, and Glasgow, Scotland.

Spire is developing three-unit cubesats equipped with sensors to collect weather data using a technique called GPS radio occultation. The sensors observe the GPS signals as they pass through the atmosphere, measuring refraction from which temperature and humidity profiles can be derived. This information can be incorporated into weather forecasting models to improve their accuracy.

The satellites are already under construction in Glasgow, where Spire is working with Clyde Space, a a local company experienced in cubesat development. “We are spitting them out as we speak,” Platzer said of the satellites.

Spire plans to start launching the satellites in September as secondary payloads on other missions, with a goal of placing 20 satellites into orbit by the end of 2015. Platzer said the satellites can go into any number of low Earth orbits, rather than having to work in a carefully choreographed constellation, a feature that opens up more launch opportunities.

“That high independence from orbits gives us exceptional access to launches,” he said, allowing Spire to launch satellites on a monthly basis. “It’s eliminated any launch issues.”

Spire Chief Executive Peter Platzer
Spire Chief Executive Peter Platzer. Credit: Spire

Promus Ventures, a Chicago-based fund that primarily invests in early stage software and data analytics companies, led the $40 million Series B round, with contributions from Bessemer Venture Partners and Jump Capital. Two earlier investors in the company, RRE Ventures and Lemnos Labs, also participated.

Platzer said Promus, in addition to its funding, will help Spire build up its commercial sales. Bessemer, meanwhile, has “phenomenal reach” into potential government customers and technology support. “They have experience in building large, billion-dollar companies,” he said.

Spire is not Bessemer’s first investment in space companies. The fund invested in Skybox Imaging prior to its 2014 acquisition by Google, and earlier this year invested in Rocket Labs Ltd., a U.S.-New Zealand company working on a small launch vehicle. “Spire has advanced from startup to deployment faster than any space venture we’ve seen,” David Cowan, a partner at Bessemer, said in a statement.

That progress, and its planned large number of satellites, sets Spire apart from other companies planning satellites for GPS radio occultation data, Platzer said. “What makes our approach quite unique is the ability to deliver an unprecedented number of atmospheric profiles,” he said. “That is driven by the number of satellites.”

Two other companies, GeoOptics and PlanetiQ, are also developing constellations of satellites to provide GPS radio occultation weather data. PlanetiQ announced June 24 it signed a contract with Blue Canyon Technologies to produce 12 satellites, scheduled for launch starting in the fall of 2016. GeoOptics plans to deploy up to 24 satellites over the next few years.

Platzer said Spire will sell data to both government and commercial customers. Spire has stayed out of the debate regarding commercial weather data purchase policies at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but Platzer said the company has had discussions with NOAA officials about potential future data purchases. “Our conversations have been highly positive and very constructive,” he said.