In the days before SkyWatch, if you wanted to buy a satellite image, you needed to pick up the phone and make a call to a company that owned a satellite capable of capturing the kind of image you needed. You could expect to shell out, on average, $250-$350.
Today, SkyWatch can do all that for you for 20 cents. And there’s no need to bother with the call. An app will take care of the request.
The spread between those two costs, and the relative ease with which imagery can now be obtained, is why SkyWatch, a Waterloo-based space scale-up, is on a trajectory to, as Buzz Lightyear might put it, soar to infinity and beyond.
“We're at the beginning of what is now a massive growth curve for the company,” says CEO James Slifierz.
In early January the company, based out of the Communitech Data Hub, announced a US$7.5-million Series A raise, adding to the US$3.2-million seed round the company completed two years ago.
The seed money allowed the firm to build out the software that integrates with the world’s satellite operators and automate processes and workflows.
The new raise, Slifierz said, marks a new phase for the company.
“Now, we're in a scale-up mode. A lot of the financing that we brought on is going to be used to scale our sales team, account management functions, things that we need to do to support our customers and at a rapid rate.”
The company now has 20-plus employees. “We’ll surpass 25 this quarter,” Slifierz says. “By the end of the year, we could be somewhere in the range of 35 to 40.”
The value SkyWatch offers is that it allows its satellite partners to sell far more data to far more customers.
Slifierz offers an example: A maker of software that helps farmers manage their crops can now easily and seamlessly interface with SkyWatch and obtain regular infrared satellite images that allow that farmer to see the health of their crop. The farmer isn’t SkyWatch’s customer. The software maker is.
And the money piece?
“Data is sold on a per-square-kilometre basis, based on the size of the area that you need imagery of,” says Slifierz. “We have a revenue split with our data partners.”
In other words, the more data that gets sold, the more money that SkyWatch and its satellite partner make. “We help them sell more data.”
By making satellite imagery easier to access, Slifierz is convinced that new applications, and a corresponding new demand for images, will flourish, much the same way use-cases flourished once GPS technology was established.
“GPS is another satellite technology,” he says. “It's a $40-billion to $50-billion-a-year market. And it touches everyone's lives.
“Twenty years ago, there was a concerted effort to make GPS easy to access, standardized, very simple, free, and to enable an ecosystem of applications to be built on top of it.
“When we entered the market, satellite imagery was sold over the phone, so you [couldn’t] build an application that integrates with it. Nobody was providing programmatic access. So part of our innovation and part of our core technology was thinking about building and providing programmatic access to this data in a way that can enable people to build applications so that the market can flourish.”
It’s an “If you build it, they will come” take, one that Slifierz says was quickly embraced by his satellite partners.
“This is illustrative of how strong the value proposition was: Our suppliers were willing to change their internal systems to distribute data through our system.”
SkyWatch is yet another example of the way that technology companies are able to rethink and re-engineer established processes, changing and disrupting the status quo, driving new processes and expanding the economic pie. And as game-changing as that 20-cent SkyWatch proposition is, Slifierz thinks there’s far more opportunity on the horizon. He believes that 20-cent cost will come down “50 per cent year-over-year for the next little while, until eventually it'll be a couple of cents.”
Which suggests Buzz had it right. Where SkyWatch goes, it’s to infinity. And beyond.