The big space race between the USSR and the United States during the Cold War period captured the world’s imagination. As the movie The Dish showed, Australia played an interesting role in one big NASA win but, for the most part, the local space sector has failed to grab the average Australian’s attention.
Chris Boshuizen is a notable exception. Growing up in country NSW, Boshuizen developed a love of space at school that saw him head to NASA as a space mission architect before leaving to launch his own venture, Planet Labs.
Leaving the riches of NASA behind, Boshuizen and his cofounders Will Marshall and Robbie Schingler went down the classic startup route and launched Planet Labs out of a garage. The startup’s mission is to regularly capture a complete image of the globe daily – like Google Maps, if you will, except that in some places, images on Google Maps are several years out of date.
It works by launching a number of cube satellites, or cubesats, equipped with cameras. These are launched with and deployed from within larger satellites.
Planet Labs now operates the world’s largest fleet of Earth-imaging satellites, with the data they collect opening up endless possibilities for industries the world over: they can help measure agricultural yields, monitor natural resources, or aid first responders after natural disasters, to name but a few examples.
As the company’s website states, Planet Labs “believes timely, global imagery will empower informed, deliberate and meaningful stewardship of our planet.”
Though the startup began on the cheap, its first images captured with ordinary Android phones, its potential meant it soon caught the attention of investors, raising USD$158 million in funding.
Despite the funding, Boshuizen said it was the startup’s ability to show it was able to work smart and cheap, without putting all its eggs into one basket that saved it when things didn’t go its way. Because its data comes from dozens of small, comparatively cheap, cubesats rather than one big, expensive satellite, the fact that a number of its cubesats were destroyed when the ship they were on failed to launch didn’t put Planet Labs back at square one.
Rather, he said, this particular failure showed investors that the startup had devised a strong business plan that would ensure it was able to get back on its feet despite not everything going to plan.
Boshuizen left Planet Labs last year, joining venture capital firm Data Collective VC as an entrepreneur in residence. He has also recently made his first investment through the firm, though the startup and figure invested is yet to be announced.
While that remains a secret for now, what we do know is that each role Boshuizen takes is geared towards getting us one step closer to his grand goal: making getting to space as easy as catching a bus.