Conversation with Flavia Tata Nardini
Good day everyone and welcome to the Momenta Edge Podcast. Today we have a special guest with us, this is Flavia Tata Nardini who is Co-Founder and CEO of Fleet Space, which is an agile new space company based out of Australia. We’ll be getting into a bit of what they do, it’s a really fascinating story. Again, this is Ed Maguire, Insights Partner at Momenta, and Flavia it’s a pleasure, thank you so much for joining us today.
Thanks for having me Ed.
I’d love to start off with a little bit of background before we start talking about what you’re doing at Fleet Space. Could you share what in your background had attracted you to technology, and particularly what has led you to work in space tech?
It’s a story that starts from the beginning, I always wanted to work in space, it’s just a fascination of mine. I come from a big family, five siblings, and all of them pursued engineering subjects in different forms. I just loved space when I was a little girl, probably every kid loves space, but I was very obsessed. When I was little, I dreamt about building things in space, I was building things when I was little, so I was a little bit of a trouble for my mum.
Then I kept going and I thought, ‘Okay, what else am I going to do?’ I was good in maths, I was playing professional basketball, I was a bit all over the place, but I was very focused on space. I remember at university I told my brothers, ‘I’m going to go for space engineering’, I wasn’t sure what it was, I was just sure that in that way I want to work in space. I did a lot of studying, I went for space engineering and aerospace engineering degrees, I realized I actually like engines, rocket science, I really loved them, they are super-amazing. That was more or less in 2008 when I started working at European Space Agency, and that was the time when most satellites were entering in the market quite aggressively, 10-11 years ago.
I was a bit of a nerd, I wanted to build propulsion engines for small satellites, and that is where it all started, I grew this kind of love for small satellites. I worked in Europe for many years on them, on all sorts of missions, I loved them. I was focusing on the small propulsions that is the engine that allows you to bring them around, but this is where my technology love exploded I guess, I was fascinated about it then. But honestly at that time entrepreneurship was not even an option in my mind, there was just a lot of love for new space technologies.
When we talk about these small satellites, what are they? Just to give you a little bit of an idea, that was a concept that started probably 10 years after that, they’re very small satellites, just to give you a visual image, as big as a shoebox; when you buy your shoes, open the box, throw the box away, that box is more or less how big these satellites are. So, pretty amazing technology at the time.
One question I have to ask, I was very interested you mentioned that you played professional basketball, and there is quite an art to creating the right combination of velocity and arc, to be able to get a ball to fly through the air and land in the… It makes me think that there is the art of basketball, but the science of rocket propulsion and guiding satellites to where they need to go.
You need to shoot that ball, and it has to have a very specific trajectory to get into the net, so you need to do a little bit of maths to do that. Professional sport is something that my family does and its hard work, when I was a teenager, I was like other teenagers but having to play, and having to study, it really helps. I’ve got two daughters and I really hope that they will do things like that, it does give you a lot of elements as a person when you have to compete, and when you have to work hard, and when you have to shoot that ball and it has to get into the net. So, yes, I agree with you, there’s probably some validity in there.
Getting involved in space technology, there’s an enormous range of disciplines, everything from obviously computer science, to propulsion engineering in motion, but also the physical understanding of how to create physical devices and satellites. I’d love to get your view on what you’ve learned in your experiences as you’ve watched the evolution of satellite technologies, through your experience in over the last couple of decades. What are some of the important developments that you’ve observed, which you think are maybe not as widely appreciated by many people, but that also might lead to new use cases and business opportunities.
You’re asking a good question. Space technology, I think a lot of people don’t understand what satellites are really for, it’s hard to understand the business case and how they are used. What is important to understand though is how technology as you ask, impacts. If you look at the past 60- or 50-years satellites, there is a very clear evolution for who is not in the sector. Most of the satellites have been built in the past 50-years, we are talking about quite big satellites. So, imagine the biggest as a small bus, probably out of the room you’re sitting now, so pretty big satellites, usually built by governments, or big organizations, because as you can imagine building a satellite like this costs a lot of money.
Why do we build satellites so big? There is a specific orbit out there around the world that is called geostationary orbit, that is an orbit that allows the satellites to be on top of a specific part of the world constantly. So, I’m in Australia a very big country, some of these big satellites launched in the past year are launched in this orbit, and they literally move themselves with Earth, and always look at Australia. Geo, we call it geo, geostationary orbit, it’s pretty far from Earth, 36,000 kms +/- so you need a rocket to put it there, a lot of fuel, it’s an expensive exercise.
If you look in geo there are a lot of satellites, geo is a very busy orbit, and to put a satellite up there could cost depending on the satellite, in the order of money of billions to build, and billions to launch. As you can imagine, it’s not an exercise that everyone can do. In the past 60 years these satellites are pretty big, because once you put a satellite up there it stays up there for 60 years, you want to make sure it’s a big solid satellite with many technologies in it. So, this exercise has always been in the hands of governments, of very big organizations, most of the time with a scope of defense, so Defense Departments that are able to spend money on that; or, Earth observation, so taking photos from the top, always for safety, security, and sometimes communication, so giving the chance for a modern era to get safe communication. But again, most of their people work anywhere in the European Space Agency, or NASA, or the US Government, or Boeing or bigger organizations. No startup had the chance to ever put something out there, billions of dollars exercise.
Then we have seen another change in the past 20 years, I think is all driven by other technologies, electronics getting smaller, different ways to 3D print materials, different ways to construct, different understanding of other orbits. And a couple of companies like Iridium and others, this other constellation of satellites, a little bit smaller, still bigger, let’s say we’re talking about a pretty decent size, like a car, but lower orbit so closer to Earth, 1,000 kms, couple of thousand kms, the closer you go to Earth the easier it is to launch, and the costs are less. But then what happens there is everything changes, if you’re not in an orbit where you see Earth all the time constantly, and you go lower so you’re saving costs, you cannot every day see every side of Earth, you’re in an orbit that goes absolutely crazy around Earth, we call it low Earth orbit. What it means is, you’re not just always seeing Australia, in one day you see the whole of Earth, it’s kind of exciting because we want satellites that can see everything.
What it means is you can’t do a lot of things that you can do when you constantly real-time see a place, so what you have to do is launch more satellites. Iridium launched many satellites and 03b launched many satellites. So, the change started, okay let’s go lower in altitude, instead of having a big bird let’s launch little birds that go all around Earth and see if the economics change. The exercise wasn’t that easy, Iridium had to raise money and then raise money again for a new constellation, 03b had successes here and not there, satellites were still very big, and that’s probably 15 years ago. Something else entered in the market, these are very small satellites as I was telling you, CubeSats, nanosatellites are very tiny, we’re talking shoebox, we’re talking $100,000 cost, maximum $2 million, order of monies are completely different. The idea was, ‘Okay guys, these are very tiny, we might have to launch a hundred of them to reach a good understanding of the applications, but at least we can try’, In software you call them MVP, Minimum Viable Product, when you have a billion-dollar satellite, that’s not MVP, that has to work. So, when you’ve got a couple of hundred thousand, you can launch it up there, see how it goes. Super interesting, super interesting, so, completely changing, it’s like little computers in space.
The first commercial company that decided to do that is called Planet. Planet started in 2012 literally putting an iPhone into a cage that was as big as a shoebox, in the sky, with the dream of, ‘Okay, we’re going to launch many satellites, and take photos of the whole of Earth’, this is going to be not a camera as good as the camera they’ve got in GEO, but it’s going to bring a lot more other interesting things. The have ability to launch and understand the market fast, they can be making it easy to improve technologies in time, when you launch a big satellite, technology stays there for 50 years. The capability to try and change when the market changes, and Planet now erased, I don’t know, COD in the valley and operate 330 nanosatellites in space.
Suddenly a company that came in with MVPs in space, and small computers, and small satellites, has got the chance to try things with customers. So, this is a camera, take some photos, what are we using photos for? Suddenly thinking, ‘Okay, let’s use applications layers, and let’s get these photos in the end of markets that had not changed before, to buy photos that are super-expensive. But it’s not just about super-expensive, it’s also Planet for example, understood that a farmer that needs the photo cannot just get a photo. What do you do with a photo, he needs the analytics behind it; so, here we are there’s more technology in space, merge with a software economy creating new applications? That’s amazing, because if you look at all the Earth observation data from NASA, they’re not in the hands of the famers most of the time, what Planet gave is in the hands of everyone, farmers, border control.
Then there was Spire, another nanosatellite company that decided, ‘Okay, we do the same but we check maritime boats, and illegal fishing, and weather’. And now they’re talking with us, that is like the new trend that in lower orbit there’s more satellite you put into the net. These are comms, you put communications, so they allow you to do communications, and we’ll talk about it after about what it means, but it’s a big change going from billion-dollar satellites in which who can build it is just big governments, and who can buy the data, is just big governments. Those small satellites, who can build them in startups? Software startups really. And who can buy the things? Everyone. So, it’s just changing the economy.
It really parallels the evolution of computing, but three decades after it used to be that if you wanted to compute, you’d have to find a mainframe and share a little bit of time on it, and you’d only have access at bigger universities or institutions.
Now of course your iPhone in your pocket has more power than it took to send the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, people say that. It’s pretty amazing seeing what went into that. We’ve just passed the 50th anniversary of that achievement, and in some respects we haven’t put as many humans in space or walked on the moon, but I think what you’ve just articulated is so important to understand, is this democratization of space technologies, and going beyond just being able to put the satellites in the air. I think most of us are familiar with the ability of if you have a satellite phone, or you have a GPS which we’re all familiar with. I would love to get an understanding of what kind of applications you can do with this cheaper technology.
What can you do!
Or, I guess what can’t you do?
What can we do? What can we not do, that’s the point? I’ll give you three buckets of types of nanosatellites that are up there, and bear in mind we do industrial IoT, we do IoT, that is one bucket. My big vision is that all this data is going to get fused anyway for an end user, so you can get access to a different type of data. We mentioned Planet, Planet is probably one of the most successful in Earth observations with nanosatellites, and there are many other companies that followed. Nanosatellites, bigger satellites, interestingly there was a company called Skybox with a bigger satellite that everyone thought, ‘Ah, it’s going to be better’, but at the end of the day the company was bought by Google and rebought by Planet. So, there’s a lot going on.
But that bucket of Earth observation data allows to take photos. So, when you look at this, just taking photos, what does that mean, if you look at all the companies that works with Planet Data, so that they ingest Planet Data and they give it to their customers, so farming is a big one, deforestation is a big one; so you’re a farmer, you can see your farm from the top, in time what are the changes in the crop from the top? Just a photo of that didn’t do anything, but a lot of analytic companies get the information from the photos, the changes that they see in time, and they’re combining with data on the ground or with historical data, and they can actually help the farmer to decide about the crop.
Or, you have environment, which is a big one, with everyday photos you can check the changes in rivers, and in problematic situations. So, photos are a big-big interesting aspect to funnel inside applications. Spire does weather data, and weather data is one of the applications, weather data views with data off a crop, which gives entire sets of information that a farmer needs for his yearly crop, and that is us, us and another bunch of crazies in the IoT world, in which we believe that the Internet of Things is a different exercise, it’s not taking photos, it’s not measuring the weather, it’s actually giving the opportunity of people to put sensors in their field, and the sensors data goes through a satellite, it’s a communication tool.
IoT; we can talk about Fleet, but what IoT can give you today, Internet of Things is a bit of a buzzword for a lot of people, but not for people that are in the market, so it’s all about application. If you look at what Fleet has done in the past four years, probably I’d separate them in three buckets; one is agriculture, one is energy in general, waste, mining, oil and gas, construction and things like that, and one is environmental. Let me give you a couple of examples from customers, then we can talk about it as well, just recent ideas. Recently we have deployed several sites in the US with a big agricultural company, and our partner Sensoterra they have sensors for soil. We are a big fan of giving the chance for the farmer to deploy a lot of things, so when you’ve got 500, 1,000, 10,000 pounds of soil it’s unbelievable what you can learn.
So, what we do there is a chance for the farmer to get all the soil data. Usually the soil data isn’t historical, so every year they use economies to get data, or once a year they have to get the soil, send it to a lab, do a lot of expensive exercises. So, when you combine soil motion sensors, they actually put the sensors, we collect the data and send it through satellites. This, with existing satellite networks, so the existing comm nets would have cost you thousands of dollars of sensors a month. For a sensor that cost $89 it’s just not worth it, the business model doesn’t stack up.
So, the operation in agriculture is very manual, very manual for everything, like irrigation, so crop check. Another big one I really like in aggrotech, we work with a company called Hostabee that they found this really cheap, that allows you to measure the condition in the beehive, and you would think, ‘Oh wow, what does space have to do with that?’ but beehive farming is enormous. And what people in the operation have to do is, just to give you an insight; they have to go there, open the beehive to see if it’s ready, the bees impact by the fact that we open and close, they are in what area he’s working and now we track. So, this part exercise is complicated.
If we look at our other customers in energy, we are working with the biggest hydroelectric plant in Australia, just starting the journey with them. IoT is a business transformation, so for a farmer who’s changing the way he manages his business, imagine a hydroelectric plant, usually in the middle of nowhere, usually not 3G, usually 150 kms of pipes and land, and water management. How do you do it? You do it manually. So, these people have been doing manual checkups of valves for 50 years, there it’s a lot of water waste there, there is a lot of safety problems, there’s a lot of inefficiency, and these are problems they’ve been having for years, it’s not that Fleet arrive and finally ha! It’s all solved. No, they have been having this problem for years, as a business in terms of safety and efficiency has been going on like this for many years.
But now technologies are coming. Now low-plant technologies are coming, and nanosatellites technologies are coming to solve that. It’s a very sweet spot in the economy in which enterprises can start deploying technologies they could not deploy ten years ago, for many reasons that we can discuss. The hydroelectric plant now is working on soil and automating many other things. We went to this hydroelectric plant, it’s in the middle of nowhere, there are snakes, the safety issues are enormous.
Then you look at mining which is a big topic in Australia for example, and our customers have got an enormity of issues that satellites can solve, that goes from how to make a drain lane, to explorations, to how do you track all your assets. We work with a company here called Keena which is the biggest rental type company of assets, like hundreds of thousands of pieces of assets they want to track. Why do they want to track them? It’s because if they track their assets there are millions of dollars they can save here, for people that have lost things, a business model that they can change, because if the truck does predictive maintenance, they can charge their customers in a different way based on usage. This is a company that has been operating for 60 years, that suddenly is changing an entire business model, because sensors and LOPAM, and nanosatellites succeed. So, that’s amazing.
It’s remarkable too that you’ve found a lot of use cases in Australia. I’d love to understand a bit of the origin of Fleet Space, after I heard a bit of your work at the European Space Agency, I would love to hear a little bit of the back story of the company. But also what it was about Australia that had attracted you to set up there, because as I think about it, this opportunity for being able to test these very wide area communications, and information intelligence applications, it would seem you have some of the toughest environments on Earth, where you really need to be able to make this technology work. So, yes, I would love to hear a bit about what drew you there, when you talk about testing something in the field, you really are.
The first answer is little bit less technical than expected, the reason I came to Australia is a love story, a bit of romance there. I met my husband in Europe and he was from Adelaide, he was there to work, and he said to me, ‘Just come to Adelaide and you will meet the family’, and so we did. So, I didn’t choose Australia, Australia chose me, but when I came here six years ago, I got my little one, my big one now is six, I really wanted to keep working in what I was doing, and this is a little parenthesis, maybe it’s interesting for you to know; when I came here there were no space startups, there was one space startup in the entire country, there were no space agencies, and if you were not Australian you could not have the chance to work in the space industry unless working in university, it was very much defense and you need a passport.
When I came here, I could not keep doing what I was doing, that was very frustrating, and I was having these little key issues. A lot of people that know the story, they laugh about it when I say I was an over-qualified housewife, and it was hard. Then I met my business partner, Matt Pearson, and then we founded a startup before Fleet that got traction. What is interesting though, the previous startup was an educational startup, we were launching 3D printed satellites for schools, they gave us enough cashflow to just look for the next opportunity. A lot of things happened, and then I’ll answer why Australia is so good for Fleet, but a lot of things happened in part because we were doing well as a startup, we really wanted to have an ecosystem, and ecosystem started growing, Fleet was born, Fleet raised money. There are 50+, maybe more now, 50+ millions of local VC money that had been invested in a few years in space startups in the country; so, we went from two space startups to a hundred, because when we started Fleet everyone told us you will never raise this money in Australia, ever; and we did.
Our biggest VC is the first one investing in space, and so did the other one, and so did the other one, so it’s a big change. The change was massive, so in three years’ time we went from one to a hundred startups, four-five now they’re going through series A, series B, Fleet raised money abroad. Then seeing this big change, a space agency was formed, a space agency! I was part of the expert driver to build the space agency, space agency was built two years ago, it’s kicking goals. The idea of the space agents was like Australia is going to be a space agency, it’s going to bring space technology into our downstream, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to help Aggrotech, and mining, and this and that to really improve the way they operate.
So, that happened, and the space agency is in Adelaide where I’m based, there has been such a momentum. When I did a startup before Fleet we were going around and we were using the money that we were making to understand other problems in the ecosystem, and this is where here that it is known, as you said is a gigantic continent with 25 million people, so you have the access to a lot of people, and a lot of problems, a lot of problems of communication, connectivity. In that space we managed to speak with a lot of end users like in the mining, and the energy, and the Aggrotech, and the transport, and understood that there were so many programs to be sold. Then we founded Fleet, and the good things that did this at first were the economy, based the economy on import/exports, mining, and energy, and architect, so it’s an economy that needs to solve the problems.
Their adoption of technology is very fast, extremely fast. So, last year we put this product when it hit the market, in the hands of the companies I mentioned before, like the biggest hydroelectric plant, the biggest construction company, and you would think like, ‘Oh my god, these guys took the step to bring a product that completely new, inside an organization, because the problems are huge. You know what I’m trying to say? The problem has to be solved. In a very fascinated way we thought, ‘Okay, is this problem going to be as big in other continents?’ And it turns out that its huge in the US, you would think that 3G is all over the US, but its patchy and it doesn’t work. So, we get customers that come from Texas that is all 3G covered, and say, ‘It’s just not working, 3G drops, and IoT system fails, we want satellites.’
And South America, the vastity is the same in Australia, so suddenly having customers trying our things so heavily here, it allows us after three years to have so many customers. I think Fleet is one of the IoT nanosatellite startups with the most customers, just because we’ve been very supported from our customers to try things. And because we are global, we got approached by everyone, so I agree with you, in a sense we got lucky there.
It’s a really terrific confluence of factors, everything from personal to professional, to the rise of private space tech, which I think really is one of the great stories of our era, this emergence of privates… a lot of people know SpaceX here in the US, but I don’t think there’s as much of an appreciation for how much the market and the use cases are exploding. My background is from the investment area, and I knew of a company called Orbital Insights that was using satellite data to help track, and you’re probably familiar with them, that’s just the tip of the iceberg of applications. So, that’s why it’s so fascinating for me to hear the industries that you’re working on, which have all very high value business problems that to your point are sustainable and also replicable across different regions.
If you could share some of the products that you’re working on, the product and services that Fleet Space is offering, could you talk about your technology and your current offerings?
Yes, that is when it gets very interesting because we can discuss about all these high-level things, but what is the technology that is propelling all this momentum.
So, for people in the sector, IoT, there are probably three technologies that I see; I mentioned before to you that these companies and these enterprises always have the same problems for many years, so why now? I think there are three main technologies that have been happening in the past 10-years that are coming together to solve problems that were existing. Of course, we discussed about nano-satellites that allows a local back hoe and a more agile back-haul to solve problems, and too is super interesting that Fleet decided to bring on board.
The first one is this LoRaWAN protocol. For us not in the sector, when we think about Wi-Fi or wireless technology… maybe we think about Wi-Fi, so, the Wi-Fi that connects to our phone, amazing technology, 3G-4G, fantastic, and this technology that’s helped us for the past 20 years to connect all of us. Now is the time for a new revolution, that the Internet of Things revolution, and the Internet of Things revolution is the idea of all the billion devices, everythingconnected, in Smart Cities and in the Smart industry. Fleet does Smart Industry, but the protocols are very similar. Wi-Fi cannot support that, Wi-Fi is a short-range protocol, Wi-Fi is intensive in terms of risk and consumption. So, when you think about thousands of sensors in a farm, you don’t want to change batteries every day, you don’t. You don’t want to change batteries for years, and what about the distances like Wi-Fi you walk out of your room and your Wi-Fi on the phone has gone.
So, there were a lot of problems logistically, and also this had an impact on the type of things you can track. When you want to track every day you need small sensors, a small device, inexpensive device, and the wider business model doesn’t stack-up. The absence of protocols that could allow things to connect was holding the entire thing back, and in the past five to six years we have seen some protocols coming up, LoRa is one of them they really like, it’s a long-range wireless, you can reach tens of kilometers from the point of measuring, and allows battery life to last for years. LoRa was an alliance of many-many interesting companies around the world that build these protocols for everyone to use, very similar to the change we have seen on G many years ago.
We have seen Sigfox like a product company building private protocols, very similar. In Geo we have seen in the IoT, so we saw this trend and we thought, ‘Wow, this is fascinating’, these protocols are going to allow long-range, long battery life, then will allow Internet of Things to happen, and people will build new sensors around it, and we will be able to measure everything. We were fascinated about that, but we also realized that all these protocols need 3G, 4G, or 5G to be back into the cloud. They need the G system to enter the data into the cloud for the network, we thought how are we going to do it when you actually want to connect a mine, or you want to connect an oil and gas field, or you want to connect a farm where there is no 3G, how are you going to back all these protocols? What are you going to do? So, then we realized there was a little bit of a gap.
There are other nano-satellite players in the space, compared to Fleet. Technologies are very different, so Fleet is really doing something that no-one does, and I always say to everyone, either we are super-fast, or it’s the opposite, because we are leveraging existing protocols, and back-hole them through satellites. We haven’t built our own protocol as a lot of people around are doing, and was mine and Matt’s vision, our vision is mainly protocols are an interesting headache when a new revolution happens; you start with a lot of protocols, you never know which one is going to win, so settling what we want is very risky, so the more agnostic you are, the better it is.
Building your own protocol is hard work, if you look at LoRa it’s now got 50 million devices connected, it’s been built by an alliance of people like Vodafone, and Activity, and Cisco, so this is a brain coming together, and as a startup you say, ‘I’m going to have my protocols, it’s going to talk to my satellite’, it’s a very close-loop environment that creates more mess. So, we said, ‘Okay, we’re going to leverage existing protocols, and back-hole them through satellites, and this is going to be a Fleet thing.’ No matter what’s going to happen in the next 20 years in the IoT revolution, if some protocols are going to win, we’re going to be able to back-hole them. If you compare us with other players in the area they all have and achieved their own protocols, so certain is an excise, it’s kind of Microsoft Azure Linux type of dilemma. So, Fleet does leverage these amazing protocols, that the change is happening.
That was the other technology, nanosatellites, LPWAN technology, and the third one is our secret sauce to back-hoe low-plans through satellites you need edge computing, you need edge computing, because when you are in a mining web company, and you are handling a thousand sensors around you, and you need to back-hoe all the data through satellites, it’s going to cost you an enormous amount of money. But the ability to do the vision in the field, this is where another amazing buzzword comes in, edge computing. What is it? It’s the ability to have enough computing power, and enough intelligence in a modem, in a field, to allow you to do automated decisions.
If you are involved in Twitter you don’t need to send that in the cloud, just do it in the field. Increase your security, increase your automation management, you don’t have to use all the boundaries because that is expensive. When you can actually do the intelligence in the field, it allows you to be more accurate about what you measure and do amazing things that you have not been able to do before. So, what does that mean, just to be more precise and give you an example in application; in an agricultural field you’ve got your water station, you’ve got your irrigation system, you’ve got your soil motion sensors, that’s an ecosystem, this is an ecosystem of data that allows you to say, now you irrigate/now you don’t irrigate. The rain is coming, the soil is dry, don’t open the irrigation system. Rain is not coming, soil is dry, open the irrigation system. Why would you send all that data inside the cloud, and spend money on Amazon fees and bandwidth, if you can do it there?
Fleet created an aggregator that we call the portal, that is able to connect in our thousands of sensors and do edge computing, and that is valid for every application. Now I’m talking with a customer about this new amazing camera, videos are expensive if you have to send data, you can buy some data there which will cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, no-one wants to do that. But if you’ve got videos with facial recognition, so with people counting, you don’t have to send so much data, that’s who really does the job. So, that’s the sector of technology that we integrate. Does that make sense?
That’s does, that’s fantastic, and I see the combination of the connectivity, the low-cost, low earth orbit space technology, as well as the edge computing together really allows you to deliver that back plane for this new generation of applications.
Something really caught my eye, which is your Project Galaxy, and I’d love to hear a little bit about what you’re doing with Project Galaxy.
At the end of last year, we launched four satellites last year, one of them we did on Mask, so for people in the US they know Mask very well. We launched our satellites, and bear in mind Fleet uses a lot of satellites, we use our own satellite because we believe that’s going to be the best option, and we also use our edge computing platform for any other satellites in the world, because this allows us to get into the market, fast. So, we use a lot of satellite companies out there. Last year we managed using all this back-haul system to really understand what the customer wanted. IoT is not simple, for everyone who does IoT all the time you do a deployment, you get stuck in a pocket, there are ten centers, they are maybe as many as twenty and they cannot scale-up. It took us a while to understand what the problems were, some problems were technological, and in fact we spent a lot of time doing that. Some problems were different, so it’s go to market and how you enter into an organization.
We learned a lot last year about that, and we decided to share our understanding with the LoRa community. We went to Amsterdam to talk, I was speaking in Amsterdam in a TTCN Conference, so all the LoRa community was there, particularly the LoRa community that works with industrial applications. We gave our presentation, we said to everyone, ‘Hey, we know our data, just use our satellites and book’, and Matt and I were saying, ‘Okay, we have connected thousands of sensors so far, how good would it be if we can sell or pre-sell over 100,000, or a little bit more’. I gave this presentation and there was a form that people could fill out and say, ‘This is what we can do for you, this is our architecture, we are taking pre-orders on the satellite. This is how it’s going to look; this is what we have learnt, this is how much it’s going to cost and this is what we can provide you’.
We had four million sensors reserved in a week, so it was a bit overwhelming but it was awesome, because it kind of shows you the inspiration they need, and how big and intense and committed is the LoRa community, and the strength when you actually tap into a community that is forming already. So, four million sensors for a satellite company is a big number. I think Oracle is one of the companies that connects more sensors at the moment, and it’s the same order of magnitude. So, it completely shaped the entire system out, and I think it proved the strength of tapping into existing protocols for a satellite solution.
That was exciting, and now we are in a journey in which we are working with these customers to make things happen, and we have learnt how important it is, not just to sell a modem, not to sell a business transformation in their companies. So, ‘Okay we have lowered your cost, we give you this technology, we got tens of partners, but at the end of the day this is a business transformation that goes from the sensors to the cloud, to the investment, so let’s talk to you about this’, and this is what we are doing now. So, Fleet really provides private networks of industrial IoT; you’ve got your privacy, you’ve got your network, you’ve got your analytics in the cloud, you’ve got analytic on edge, and everyone seems to like it, so this is why we booked all those sensors.
Quite fascinating, right?
It is, that’s an amazing acceleration of interest in adoption.
It looked like I was selling an iPad there, but I’m selling an IoT solution! That is not a more sexy thing, but it seems pretty sexy, so it got traction.
As you look forward, do you plan to continue to focus on the industries that you’ve been working with, in agricultural resources and environmental? As you look forward what are you most excited about focusing on?
That’s a good question, because now we have raised our next round of funding, and there’s a beautiful moment in which you raise a lot of money, but you also need to think through what’s going to happen in the next three years. The first couple of years with Fleet was a lot about discovery, we scanned the entire world, many verticals, and many applications. IoT is complicated, so doing it all is just hard. At the moment at Fleet we are looking for where is the biggest opportunity, the good thing is that out of four million sensors booked all around the world from Australia to Canada, from South America to Japan, in all the industries we have enough data to understand where the biggest opportunity is. So, we know the users, we know the application, we know the vertical, and we have scanned through that and understood what we need to focus on.
I think the key in IoT is focus, if you are able to do baby steps and own one application, and then own the other one, and then own the other and then provide a suite of solutions, then you become very powerful. So, we in the past couple of months while we were closing the round in our team, and technical team, we have decided to refocus. We see a lot of interest and a lot of willingness to have business transformation happening in the energy sector, and resource sector, it’s one of ones that is for us in our work, putting more money. The fact that they’re putting in more money is good, we are a startup, we need to survive, even though I do talk for free, or exercises for free, for them it’s not about talk, for them it’s about real deployment. These are companies that have got assets that is worth tracking or a problem that is worth solving.
The energy and resources sector are also very much high tech, you don’t need to explain to them what it means, they get it, so we found that very easy to navigate. So, right now going back to one of the questions you asked before, we have a deployment coming out in one of the mining companies in Australia, that’s a very harsh environment, that’s a very harsh environment, it’s industrial network deployment. So, the quality has to step-up, the dust, the heat, hurricanes, you can just reach it with a helicopter; imagine the remote management system there. So, even if you put machine learning, edge, and understanding, these have to be managed remotely. There are pros and cons when you focus, remote assets of mining and energy has to be a solid investment. It gets me excited because I think we are entering into an area where people are putting real money in it, so you can try real things and make a big impact.
It’s amazing, we really are I guess at the inflection point of a truly explosion of innovation ahead of us in space technology, with all connected devices.
One thing I always like to ask, what do you see as some of the major obstacles or challenges ahead, as you see the vision ahead of you, what are some of the key challenges to realizing broad adoption of your space based IoT network, whether it be…
My space vision.
Yes, whether its regulatory or organizational, or technological.
I can tell you the things that I know I have to focus on in the next two years to make happen, so there’s two buckets; the past couple of years we made very sure that regulatory… the launch of nanosatellite constellation is not a piece of cake, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of regulatory issues and hurdles to overcome. That was a big focus for us that’s not going to finish, but it worries me less because we have done a lot of great things. In a nanosatellite constellation there are a couple of things that are really important to flag, the first one is, it’s not like building a technology and trying it in your shed, every time you build something you need to launch it. So, it’s a satellite programme, the more you can launch the more you can make mistakes, the more you can try the more you can evolve.
So, what you want to do with the satellites, you want to get to a point in which the technology is so attuned that you can mass produce. You launch one, you launch two, you launch three, it works/it doesn’t work, you tune it, you tune it, so it’s all MVP. Then suddenly you feel comfortable and you build 20 at a time. So, getting to that point is where I want to aim in the next three years, and it’s an important point because when you can launch 20 at a time, you’ve really improved latency. So, how many time customers see us a day; they don’t see us once a day, they see us every ten minutes, so if they see us once a day every six hours you kind of miss a lot of real-time application. The real-time application is to be handled by the edge, not by the comms.
So, getting to the point where you can mass produce, is important. Luckily we’ve got edge computing that can do a lot of real-time stuff without being sent to the satellite, but that’s not a worry… not a worry, it’s a work that needs to be done. I’m working a lot with providers to make sure we get to the end point as fast as possible. Its space right, we always need to get to a rocket to go there and try things, but it’s not as straightforward. The other thing is rockets, rockets is a bottleneck of the industry, so last year we waited 9 months for a Fleet Space launch, it’s a long time 9 months of a startup of two years runway that needs to launch satellites. So, that has to be a lot, and if you know the industry there’s a lot of rockets being financed to help nanosatellites go into space. All that satellite programme have got these two things which need to be handled.
Now you get into IoT. I’ve worked in IoT for 24 years with the boots in the field, and it’s so much different now. The other things I’ve learnt last year, is a lot of people are really good if they focus on one thing, and they master it. When you have a network like us, or an edge platform like us, it’s way broader. So, what you really need to understand, this is a business transformation, and you need an army of a group of people to enter into big enterprises, like Shell, and make their IoT change.
So, there is a very specific way of operating, particularly for a startup in which enterprises, sales and business transformation are as low as a rocket going into space. So, there are two elements of working in the right way when you transform an IoT enterprise’s journey that I think we are learning, but it took years to learn, it took years, and it’s not as easy. So, these are the things that I try to unlock, it doesn’t really keep me awake at night, I sleep beautifully, but they potentially could keep me awake at night.
Well you’ve really hit on a lot of essential points there. The IBM term, ‘You can’t boil the Ocean all at once’, you really have to take the problems one at a time and go deep, and go vertical for success, and its sounds that’s the direction you guys are going.
Flavia, it’s been an amazing conversation, it’s just such a pleasure to hear all of the work you’re doing, and of course your passion and enthusiasm for the technology and the business problems. I always like to ask one question of every guest which is, if you have a recommendation or a resource that you might be able to share with our listeners?
It sounds a bit funny, but I’ve got a book that I think I would like to recommend, which I bought in the past year. I think this is probably a message for people that are Co-founders, they are CEOs, that need to capital raise to win enterprise sales, it’s a complicated journey. I bought a book when I was in the airport, I think I was in Denver doing capital raising, and I needed to close a big contract with a customer. I bought a book called ‘Negotiating with Giants’, from Peter Johnson.
What I’ve realized in my journey in the past three years, capital raising particularly for a company like Fleet, that is a different company, so we need to capital raise, or dealing with enterprises, it’s all about negotiation techniques. Literally in your core you need to understand how to build the best value for the person you’ve got in front of you, to reach your goal, and this could be an investor, or this could be a client. The things we are trying to bring inside an investor’s life or an enterprisers journey are complicated, so you need to understand the process of negotiating; and I’m not talking about just negotiating around the table, ‘Are you going to give me $100k, or $2 million?’, we’re talking about building an environment around you that makes the other person’s decision easy to go with you.
It’s a journey that I’ve spent on enterprises to decide to go into innovation with you, and investors to support your journey, it’s all about building an environment, an army, and a lot of little techniques that I didn’t know before. So, I read this book and it helped me! So, I’m the journey.
That’s terrific, and certainly the partners at Momenta see the value. I think you’ll be a part of the Momenta investment portfolio, so congratulations.
Thank you so much.
I know the team is very excited. Well, I think we’ve come to the end of our time here, again this is Ed Maguire Insights Partner at Moment Partners, and our guest has been Flavia Tata Nardini who is the co-founder and CEO of Fleet Space. Your website is Fleet Space. We’re looking forward to hearing many more great things from you and thank you once again for the time.
Thank you, Ed, it was lovely.
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