Pixalytics: Five Years & Thriving!

Background Image: Sutichak Yachaingham / 123 Stock Photo

The start of June marked the five-year anniversary of Pixalytics!

For a small start-up business, like ours, five years is an important milestone. Depending on which you report you believe only around 50%, or even 40%, of new small business survive their five years! So we should definitely celebrate the fact that we’re still here!

The last twelve months have been successful for us. Our key highlights have included:

  • Continuing to grow our income year-on-year
  • Expanded our team to five, soon to be six, employees – which is a 100% increase over the last year!
  • Moved to a new office on Plymouth Science Park
  • Part of a consortium developing a Drought and Flood Mitigation Service (DFMS) in Uganda.
  • Secured our first European Contract and so now we are exporters!

It has been a lot of hard work, but we’re really pleased with what we’ve achieved.

In a similar blog last year, we wrote about our target of releasing an innovative series of automated Earth Observation products and services. You’ll have noticed that this is not listed in our highlights, as despite our efforts we’ve not managed to do this … yet.

We have made significant progress with our eStore. We have a number of products almost ready to go, the product interface has been developed and we’re currently developing the front end eCommerce website. We’re intending to go live with flooding, turbidity and ocean colour products. So watch this space, things will be happening later this year – we hope!

Launching the products is really the easy bit, the difficult part will be getting people to buy them and this a challenge which firms much larger than us are still to effectively solve. As a small business we tend to market through our website, social media and the odd exhibition. However, we’ll need to come up with some new cost-effective innovative ideas for our eStore if it is to be successful. We’re also participating in Europe wide projects established by EARSC and the Copernicus World Alliance looking at ways of developing the market and promoting Earth Observation products and services.

For the last couple of years we’ve quoted a phrase from ‘Worstward Ho’, a monologue by Samuel Beckett which is ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.’

This sums up our approach. We try things. If they don’t work out, we try something else. It’s worked okay so far.

Before we leave our five year celebration, we wanted to take the opportunity to thank all of the people who’ve helped us along our journey, including the readers of our blog.

Let’s hope we’re still here in another five years!

Brexit and the Earth Observation Market

Artist's rendition of a satellite - mechanik/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – mechanik/123RF Stock Photo

Last week the UK voted to leave the European Union (EU). For us it was sad day, evidenced by the fact that on voting day Sam was at the European Association of Remote Sensing Laboratories (EARSeL) Symposium in Bonn, Germany; and I was in Brussels having attended the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC) Annual General Meeting the day before – I should say we had both already submitted our postal votes!

This obvious topic for this week is what Brexit means for the UK Space Market, and in turn what it means for us:

European Space Agency (ESA)
ESA is not the EU. It has a different membership and different rules. The UK can remain part of ESA even if it leaves the EU, as evidenced by Norway and Switzerland’s membership, and even Canada’s associate membership.

However, at the ESA Ministerial in December member countries will need to declare how much money they intended to contribute towards ESA programmes. ESA operates a geo-return principle which dictates that countries cannot receive more money back than they put in, and therefore the decision on how much funding to commit at the December meeting will be vital for the UK Space Industry.

At the moment there is a power vacuum in this country following the resignation of the Prime Minister, and it would appear that no major decisions will be made on the future direction of the country until the new Prime Minister is appointed in September. Given the new Prime Minister will want to set up his own Executive arrangements and that the most pressing matter will be Brexit, it is not clear who will be taking the significant decision on the UK’s ESA Contribution.

Lack of commitment at this point has the potential to damage the UK Space Industry far more than Brexit.

European Union
Despite the assertion above that the EU and ESA are different bodies, they are linked organisations. They have a joint European Space Strategy and the EU is the biggest financial contributor to ESA’s budget. In addition, the EU owns a number of programmes such as Copernicus and the Galileo positioning, navigation & timing network.

Outside the EU the UK will probably no longer have a voice within these programmes and it is unlikely the siting of significant infrastructure related to these programmes, such as ground segments, will include this country. Hence, even remaining an active participant within ESA, it is hard to argue against the fact that the UK’s role in the future of the European space industry will diminish.

Single Market
The space industry, like other industries, currently benefits from the single market which makes it easier for European businesses to trade with each other. It is clear that most of our businesses, and politicians, feel that this is a benefit they’d like to keep. The question is whether they will be willing to pay the EU’s price?

If they do, then it is likely that change will be limited. However, if they don’t and the UK leaves the Single Market then trade with Europe will become more difficult. It will of course continue, but there may be tariffs, limitations on exports/imports and the potential for businesses to open or close offices within the UK or Europe to best maintain their access to both the UK and European markets.

Scientific Collaboration
We collaborate with a lot of EU companies, scientists and students. Now again there is no suggestion that this would stop, but everything will become more complicated.

  • How easy and quickly will people be able to get visa to travel to Europe or vice versa? This could impact attendance at meetings or conferences.
  • Will European Conferences still come to the UK?
  • What will be the impact on placement programmes such as ERASMUS? ERASMUS has different membership to the EU, like ESA, but will the UK still be as attractive to those students?

Of real scientific concern is the emerging anecdotal evidence that UK researchers are being removed from EU based funding bids, such as Horizon 2020, as the consortia fear their bids will be less attractive if the UK is involved. If true, this is will impact scientific research, at least in the short term until our involved in such programmes is clarified.

UK Space Industry
The UK has an expanding, exciting and innovative space industry and the future is certainly not dependant on us being part of the EU. However, it would be naïve to suggest that we don’t face challenges ahead following Brexit. There are a number of key elements we need in place to ensure that our industry can continue to thrive:

  1. Commitment to our continued membership of ESA, supported by funding at the December ministerial.
  2. Commitment that the resources the UK Science and Space sectors received via EU funding, such as Horizon 2020, must be replaced with equivalent UK based funding calls.
  3. Not to let the Brexit negotiations overtake everything else. For example, it must not stop continuing progress on elements such as a UK Spaceport.

Pixalytics
We have a variety of strong European links including:

  • European contracts
  • Scientific collaboration with European Researchers/Institutes
  • European placement students spending time working with us
  • Contracts that are either directly, or indirectly, based on ESA funding
  • Membership of European Associations

We believe we have a strong business, with good value products and a positive brand. However, like all other UK businesses, we are going to need to assess our current business strategy, and decisions we need to make, through the prism of Brexit as further information is known.

Conclusion
Almost one week on from the UK vote, I think our position is best summed up by paraphrasing the famous statement of US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld:

There are some things we do not know, but there are also things we don’t know we don’t know and those will be the difficult ones.

Or to put it more succinctly, we face months, and years, of uncertainty! What does everyone else think?

Pixalytics Four Year Celebration!

Sutichak Yachaingham / 123 Stock Photo

Sutichak Yachaingham / 123 Stock Photo

The start of June marked the four-year anniversary of Pixalytics! We’d not realised that the time of year had come around again until Sam started receiving messages via her LinkedIn profile. A lot of small business owners are like us, busy working with their head down and they forget to look up and celebrate their successes and milestones.

So, although we had to be prompted to look up, we’re going to celebrate our milestone of Pixalytics thriving – or maybe surviving – for four years!

The last twelve months have been really successful for us, with the main highlights:

  • Doubling our company turnover.
  • Appointing our first additional full-time employee.
  • Having our book, Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing, published and being sold.
  • Winning a Space for Smarter Government Programme contract.
  • Expanding our EO products and services into AgriTech & flood mapping.
  • Being short-listed for the Plymouth Herald Small Business of the Year Award.
  • Being short-listed for the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC) European EO Services Company Award.
  • Hosting two ERASMUS placements and other work experience students.

We wrote a blog last June identifying what we were hoping to achieve in the coming twelve months. The key things were developing our customer base, products, and services together with employing someone else full time. Those aims were definitely achieved!

Well, that’s enough of the celebrating! Like any other small business we’re much more interested in what’s in our future, than our past. We’ve still got plenty of challenges ahead:

  • Doubling our turnover was a big leap, and this year we’ve got to maintain that level and ideally grow more.
  • Despite having additional hands in the business, we still have more ideas than capacity. Some of the ideas we had last year have been taken forward by other companies, before we’ve had the chance to get around to them! We wish them success and will be watching with interest to see how they develop.
  • Marketing is hard work. None of us at Pixalytics are marketing experts, and it’s clear to us the difficulty of competing with firms who have sales and marketing teams promoting themselves at conferences and events. Our current approach is a combination of social media, and picking the events to attend. Both Sam and I are promoting Pixalytics this week, and then it’s back to the office next week to welcome our summer Space Placements in Industry (SPIN) student.

Our key target for the end of this year is to release an innovate series of automated Earth observation products and services that we can sell to clients across the world – we started to describe this journey here. We know we’ll be competing with companies much bigger than us and we know it’s not going to be easy, and to revisit the Samuel Beckett quote we used last year:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

It still holds true for how we run our company. We try things. We fail. We succeed. We learn. We try new things.

We’re looking forward to what the next twelve months, or four years, have in store.

Living Planet Is Really Buzzing!

Living planet rotating global in the exhibition area, photo: S Lavender

Living planet rotating global in the exhibition area, photo: S Lavender

This week I’m at the 2016 European Space Agency’s Living Planet Symposium taking place in sunny Prague. I didn’t arrive until lunchtime on Monday and with the event already underway I hurried to the venue. First port of call was the European Association of Remote Sensing Companies (EARSC) stand as we’ve got copies of flyers and leaflets on their stand. Why not pop along and have look!

The current excitement and interest in Earth observation (EO) was obvious when I made my way towards the final sessions of the day. The Sentinel-2 and Landsat-8 synergy presentations were packed out, all seats taken and people were crowding the door to watch!

I started with the Thematic Exploitation Platforms session. For a long time the remote sensing community has wanted more data, and now we’re receiving it in ever larger quantities e.g., the current Copernicus missions are generating terabytes of data daily. With the storage requirements this generates there is a lot of interest in the use of online platforms to hold data, and then you upload your code to it, or use tools provided by the platform, rather than everyone trying to download their own individual copies. It was interesting to compare and contrast the approaches taken with hydrology, polar, coastal, forestry and urban EO data.

Tuesday was always going to be my busiest day of the Symposium as I was chairing two sessions and giving a presentation. I had an early start as the 0800 session on Coastal Zones I was co-chairing alongside Bob Brewin –a former PhD student of mine! It was great to see people presenting their results using Sentinel-2. The spatial resolution, 10m for the highest resolution wavebands, allows us to see the detail of suspended sediment resuspension events and the 705 nm waveband can be used for phytoplankton; but we’d still like an ocean colour sensor at this spatial resolution!

In the afternoon I headed into European Climate Data Records, where there was an interesting presentation on a long time-series AVHRR above-land aerosol dataset where the AVHRR data is being vicariously calibrated using the SeaWiFS ocean colour sensor. Great to see innovation within the industry where sensors launched one set of applications can be reused in others. One thing that was emphasised by presenters in both this session, and the Coastal Zone one earlier, was the need to reprocess datasets to create improved data records.

My last session of the day was on Virtual Research, where I was both co-chairing and presenting. It returned to the theme of handling large datasets, and the presentations focused on building resources that make using EO data easier. This ranged from bringing in-situ and EO data together by standardising the formatting and metadata of the in-situ data, through community datasets for algorithm performance evaluation, to data cubes that bring all the data needed to answer specific questions together into a three- (or higher) dimensional array that means you don’t spend all your time trying to read different datasets versus ask questions of them. My own presentation focused on our involvement with the ESA funded E-Collaboration for Earth Observation (E-CEO) project, which developed a collaborative platform  where challenges can be initiated and evaluated; allowing participants to upload their code and have it evaluated against a range of metrics. We’d run an example challenge focused on the comparison of atmospheric correction processors for ocean colour data that, once setup, could easily be rerun.

I’ve already realised that there too many interesting parallel sessions here, as I missed the ocean colour presentations which I’ve heard were great. The good news for me is that these sessions were recorded. So if you haven’t be able to make to Prague in person, or like me you are here but haven’t seen everything you wanted there are going to be selection of sessions to view on ESA’s site, for example, you can see the opening session here.

Not only do events like this gives you to a fantastic chance learn about what’s happening across the EO community, but they also give you the opportunity to catch up with old friends. I am looking forward to the rest of the week!