The ventures of an Earth Observation (EO) Startup
Inside the pixels of earth images a wide variety of information about lands, oceans, cities and everything on the face of earth is hidden. Commercialization of Earth Observation applications seems promising but is in an early stage. Are the risks still too high or does the early bird catch the worm?
Image credit: Cebis Mobile
From all the fundamental w-questions (e.g. who, why) there is only one that we can answer with great precision: where are we? The simple answer is “here, on this planet”. Almost twenty years ago Europeans politicians decided they wanted to prove to their citizens how much they care about this place we all share, our planet. They agreed that by observing the earth from a certain distance, just like satellites do, they could demonstrate that their sustainable ecological policies were effective actions and not mere bureaucratic papers. This intention became the Copernicus Programe, the largest satellite mission dedicated to Earth Observation (EO), financed by the European Commission.
Sentinels (satellites) are like eyes that take pictures of the planet, which can be analyzed through sophisticated softwares to obtain a lot of information about the behavior, health and condition of the earth. If a natural disaster occurs, Earth Observation will help governments to monitor the situation. It could also be used by citizens to solve their daily problems, for example by analyzing satellite pictures of a farm, a farmer can detect where his land needs water or fertilizer with high precision, saving time and money.
Image: Mar Chiquita Lake, Argentina. July 1998. — September, 2011.
The main actors of the EO market are governments, researchers, companies and NGOs. Let us remember that during the 1980s the Internet and the GPS (two other satellite technologies) were only used by governments, researchers and companies. The last two decades demonstrated that unimaginable applications of these technologies revealed themselves when it becomes accessible to the general public. In this line of thought, I have been considering how to to connect common people with EO technology and popularize the Copernicus mission.
Starting lean: the Copernicus competitions
I evaluated the results of two competitions that foster the free imagination of new applications of earth observation, the Copernicus Masters and the Space App Camp. I tracked and contacted sixty five of the most relevant app projects in the last six years. Their current status is shown in the following graph.
Figure: Current status of the winning or most relevant projects from the Space App Challenges and Copernicus Masters. Detailed list of the projects here, .
The result shows  that more than half of the initiatives did not progress any further, almost a quarter are part of the portfolio of a company or research institute and one sixth succeed as a startup project. From all apps, only one does marketing to end users like farmers, FieldSenseApp.
It is very interesting to see that the majority of initiatives has an ecological and social impact, i.e. detecting illegal logging or making game-based education about climate change. However, as with many ideologically driven projects, ecological awareness applications do not generally have a business model behind them. These projects develop further if they obtain funding from the government, the academy or an NGO, which can be a cumbersome task. One way to give them continuity could be to gather them on an online site, give them visibility and release them as open collaborative projects, where empathic strangers can team up and keep developing them. Some projects have similar objectives, so why not to merge them into one? After all, teamwork is one of the great pillars on which civilized society rests, and creating new interactions between likeminded strangers is a trend of our modern society.
The quest of finding sustainable businesses in the EO environment
According to the Copernicus Marketing Report, commercialization of EO products and services seems to have a huge potential. Copernicus benefits are predicted to grow 31% per year. In the case of Europe, this mostly means that governments subsidies projects that return the investment in benefits for the government.
Due to my concern of how to connect common people with EO technology, I want to find out who is interested in commercializing EO technology for ordinary activities like farming, fishing or planning a house. Along this year I have joined activities (workshops, forums) to look for EO entrepreneurs whose products/services are directed to end users or consumers (B2C). Almost none of the projects deliver a value to end users in the consumers market. The few startup projects I met are independent initiatives from people with a bright professional career, like a university professor.
The European Commission and ESA do foster entrepreneurship through sixteen incubator centres around Europe and funding opportunities like ARTES. The next step will be to evaluate the current status of all these space related business projects, searching for those who want to be independent of public funding and want to offer a product in the B2C market. If there is a critical mass of projects with this characteristics, it will be feasible to create an e-commerce EO marketplace.
Nowadays, if a farmer would like to know more about EO apps, where could this person get easily informed? How will they know which app fits the needs of their farm? An online market initiative must also guarantee the engagement and understanding of end users with the products, otherwise it will simply be a catalogue like eopages.eu or copernicus.work-with.us. A nice solution is the CloudEO store, which already features 58 products, mostly in the B2G and B2B market. The gap in the B2C market still needs to be fulfill.
Finally, it is worth noting that my main drive was to create a communication platform to popularize the Copernicus mission. Finding uses and applications of EO technology actually means to find stories and news to tell. The idea of an EO marketplace emerged while searching for a possible business model to sustain an entertainment and news platform about the impact of Earth Observation in society.