Evolution of the Earth Observation Market

Artist's rendition of a satellite - 3dsculptor/123RF Stock Photo

Artist’s rendition of a satellite – 3dsculptor/123RF Stock Photo

The changing Earth Observation (EO) market has been a topic of office conversation this week at Pixalytics. We’re currently in the final stage of developing our own product portal, and it was interesting to see that some of our thoughts were echoed by reports from last week’s World Satellite Business Week event in Paris.

Unsurprisingly, speakers at the event agreed that the EO sector has huge growth potential. This is something we regularly see highlighted in various emails and press releases. For example, in the last few weeks we’ve had:

At a few thousand dollars for access to each report, we’ve said before that one of the products we should develop is an annual report on the EO market!

As we’ve been working towards our portal, one of issues we’ve identified is how difficult some portals are to navigate, particularly if you are not an EO expert. This was also recognised at the Paris event, with an acknowledgement that EO companies need to understand what customers want and then provide a user friendly experience to deliver those needs.

As reported by Tereza Pultarova in Space News, there was also discussion on the need to move away from simply selling data, and instead provide answers to the practical questions about the planet that businesses and consumers have. It is only through this transformation that new sectors and markets for EO will open which will be the key for the aforementioned future growth. The Paris event also highlighted some of the key trends that will be the backbone of this transformation:

  • Providing as close as possible to near real time data.
  • Increased data analytics, particularly through machine learning and artificial intelligence platforms to analyse data and highlight anomalies and changes faster.
  • Bringing satellite data together with social media information to rapidly enable context to be added to images.
  • Vertical integration within the industry within satellite firms acquiring with data processing and analytics companies; for example, Digital Globe acquired The Radiant Group earlier this year.
  • Processing data onboard satellites, so users download the information they want, rather than reams of data.

There was a really interesting analogy with the navigation industry given by Wade Larson, president and CEO of Urthecast. He said “Navigation became kind of embedded infrastructure in a much larger industry called location-based services. We think that this is happening with geoanalytics.”

This is the direction of travel for the industry, and some players are moving faster than others. Last week Airbus confirmed their four satellite very high-resolution-imaging constellation, Pléiades Neo, is on schedule for launch in 2020. This will have 30 cm spatial resolution and will utilise the Space Data Highway, also known as the European Data Relay System (EDRS), to stream the images into an online platform. The ERDS uses lasers to transfer up to 40 terabytes a day at a speed of up to 1.8 Gbits per second, meaning users will have access to data in near real time.

This evolution of the EO market needs to be recognised by every company in the industry from the Airbus down to the small company’s trying to launch their own product portal. If you don’t move with the changing market, you won’t get any of the market.

Keynote Speaking at the 9th Irish Earth Observation Symposium

Entrance to the venue for the 9th Irish Earth Observation Symposium

Entrance to the venue for the 9th Irish Earth Observation Symposium, Galway

I spent last week with the 9th Irish Earth Observation Symposium at the Ryan Institute, National University of Ireland in Galway, where I was delighted to be giving a keynote presentation.

The trip started with a novelty for me as I could fly from Exeter, rather than a London airport, which meant a short drive from home and a much smaller and calmer pre-flight environment.

Arriving the day before the symposium began, I had an opportunity to walk around the engaging city of Galway. This is something I often do before presentation, as it allows me to bring a sense of place to my talks and influences the overall emphasis I give.

The symposium began on damp autumnal morning, where the Atlantic drizzle gave a salty tang to the air. We began with a welcome from Colin Brown, Director of the Ryan Institute, followed by agriculture and forestry talks focusing on classifying small management units within managed forests, identifying high natural value farmland and large forest resource assessments. This session reminded me of the importance of finding the right data source and technique for the specific task, as assessments based on individual pixels are very different to those based on collections of objects.

After coffee, I gave my keynote focusing on growth and opportunities within the European space industry. The Copernicus missions are presenting a once in a generation opportunity for remote sensing and Earth observation companies, and I talked about how SME’s, like Pixalytics, can take advantage of this through the development of products and services. It was great to give have a longer presentation, which allows more thought development than the more usual 15 minute conference presentations. It seemed to go down well, judging by the number of people who came up to talk to me throughout the rest of the symposium.

There were talks before lunch on econometric approaches for analysing time-series data, deep scattering layers in the ocean and monitoring land cover at a national scale. After lunch the second keynote, by Martin Gade from the University of Hamburg, gave an in-depth introduction to the use of Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) for coastal applications including mapping intertidal areas for shellfish and the underlying archaeology. The rest of the afternoon focused on multi-sensor airborne data acquisition, passive gamma ray detection from low level flying within the Tellus programme, the application of neural networks, coastal time-series analysis and the coastal thematic exploitation platform funded by the European Space Agency. A very tasty and enjoyable Symposium Dinner rounded off the day.

The second morning was a much sunnier affair allowing Galway to show off its beautiful architectural and landscapes, and I took the photo at the top of the blog; which is the door of our venue. I was lucky to get a clear shot as the symposium coincided with graduation ceremonies and this was a very popular photographic backdrop! We began the day with air and climate talks including the use of ground and satellite based remote sensing to track pollution layers within the atmosphere. There was also a reminder of the importance of engaging with downstream users when developing services; staying focussed on customer needs is something we passionately believe in at Pixalytics.

After coffee we had marine presentations looking at improving hydrodynamic models through the assimilation of ground based radar data and the tracking of vessels using SAR and the Automatic Identification Systems (AIS). The day then concluded on landcover, focussing on getting the most out of the PROBA-V mission by creating 100m resolution products, mapping upland vegetation, and extracting non-seasonal changes from time-series. All three of these landcover talks gave me ideas to ponder.

I really enjoyed my two days in Galway, and was very grateful for an invitation to give one of the keynotes. I met a lot of new people and gained many insights to think about, all of which I will be following up. I hope to see more of Ireland in the future.

Three years and beyond …

3rd BirthdayThe start of June marked the three-year anniversary of Pixalytics! Given that statistics indicate almost half of all start up businesses fail with the first three years, the fact that we are still here is a major success!

Not only that, but in the last twelve months we grew turnover a little, paid salaries for the whole year, didn’t take on any more debt and had our first employee – albeit a fixed term and part-time employee, but an employee nonetheless! All of which we considered to be achievements; however we want more.

As any small business owner knows, it’s very easy to get sucked into the treadmill of finding work, completing the work, getting paid and then going straight back to finding more work. You spend so much time working in the company, there isn’t any time to work on the company which is critical for growth and development. During the second half of 2014, we spent time working on Pixalytics.

We’re in a mentoring scheme where we are based and we’ve worked with our mentor, Phil Johnston, to better understand our business. Having the external critical friend asking the awkward questions isn’t easy, sometimes we couldn’t answer Phil, sometimes we didn’t want to answer Phil and sometimes we completely disagreed with Phil. However, all of his questions made us think harder about what Pixalytics was and how we wanted to develop it. By the end of 2014 we’d updated our company brand, marketing materials, website and our strategic thinking.

We’re a science company, and we like to experiment and see what happens. At the start of 2015 we were ready to start our growth strategy. So far this year, we’ve:

  • We’ve written a book! The Practical Handbook of Remote Sensing is due to be published in October/November 2015.
  • Exhibited for the first time at GEO Business 2015, and we’ll also be exhibiting at the 2015 UK Space Conference.
  • Expanded both our customer base and the services we offer.
  • Started developing new ways of interacting with our clients.
  • Forecasting growth this year in excess of 35%.

We still have a long way to go, to get to where we want to be; we need to continue to develop the customer base and the products we offer. Andy is spending more and more time within the business and this will continue to grow, but we’d like to get to the point of being able to employee someone else full time.

The first three years have been a huge learning curve, we’ve made some mistakes and there are certain things we’d do differently. We experiment and if things don’t work out; we remember the words of Samuel Beckett:

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

We’re a growing small company, and we want to do all we can to make sure it stays that way for the next three years and beyond.

Looking back and moving forward

2013 was the first full year of existence for Pixalytics, and I’m pleased to say we’ve been kept busy. So busy in fact, that some of the things we planned to do, we didn’t manage – like our weekly blog! We started off well in the summer, but the closer the end of the year came the more infrequent become the blog. We know the key to blogging is regularity and consistency, so we intend to do better in 2014. Right here, right now, we publically commit to issuing a blog every Wednesday recording our thoughts, and the journey of the business over the coming year.

The last year has been interesting and alongside working, I’ve attended a lot of great conferences, with RSPSoc Annual Conference followed by ESA Living Symposium being particular highlights! As a scientist I recognise it’s vital to meet the community to show what you’re developing, and see the new research everyone else is working on. I used to call this networking, but after our blog discussed the usefulness of meeting people you already know; I should probably come up with a new phrase – how about continuing professional development? What do you think about attending conferences – work, research, networking, professional development or something else?
At July’s UK Space Conference in Glasgow I even managed to get Andy to come along and have the full delegate experience (First Small Step in Space and Space Can Help). I’ve found myself increasingly attended webinars this year, and ResearchGate took off as one of several research focused online networking platforms. Although, this won’t stop me attending conferences in person … particularly looking forward to Ocean Sciences in Hawaii, where I’ve offered to be a mentor, and Ocean Optics in Portland, Maine this year.

It was also a year of goodbyes and new beginnings. I finished my 3-year term of Chairman of RSPSoc (the UK’s learned society focusing on remote sensing and photogrammetry) which I thoroughly enjoyed, and found it really positive that despite everyone’s hectic schedule, people are still willing to volunteer. However, to ensure I didn’t get any free time I became Vice-Chairman of the British Association of Remote Sensing Companies (BARSC) and am looking forward to the exciting year ahead.

The new year has started positively with great publicity about the UK’s Space Industry with Chancellor George Osborne indicating he wants the sector to triple in size within 20 years. This builds on the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy 2014-30 that was previewed in July and released in September. Our challenge for 2014 is to ensure that Pixalytics plays it’s part in this growth, and we hope you’ll enjoy following our progress. Until next Wednesday … We hope ….

When is networking, not networking?

I was talking to a group of writers this week about pretending you’re writing. A pretence everyone recognised was that reading how-to-write books equated to writing. It does not! The books may be interesting, give you tips or make you think about writing techniques in a new way, but it isn’t writing. To do that, you need to write!

It got me thinking about my recent blog on Maslow for the Micro Business, where I noted the importance of networking for developing and growing your business. I know you’re thinking that attending meetings, industry events, conferences and social events are part of any business owner’s life, and it’s all networking right?

Networking is about building relationships between businesses that could benefit both parties, or simply put it’s about developing potential new clients or suppliers. So are all events networking? They are certainly all networking opportunities. However many micro businesses operate in niche markets, like us in remote sensing earth observation. You need to be honest with yourself when you attend an event, and consider who in the room is a potential new client or supplier? Is anybody?

Think about the events you attend, are they true networking opportunities? You may talk about business at these events, you may talk about your business and you may even give out the odd business card, but if no-one has the potential to be a client or supplier, then don’t pretend to yourself that you’re networking.

Professional development, scientific updates, discussion groups, learning sets or catching up with business friends are all useful and valid ways to spend time as a micro business owner. In some cases you’ll learn new skills or get new ideas, but they aren’t networking. Of course don’t turn your networking head off altogether as there is always the exception to the rule, where the person you are talking with has a next door neighbour, brother, sister–in-law or friend in your field.

However these happy occurrences are the exception to the rule. If you want to develop new clients or suppliers, you need to go to the events that they go to; not expect them to come to the events you go to.

Analyse your time outside of business delivery. Are you going to real networking opportunities? If the answer is no, then ask yourself if you are going to the right events?

Find the right events, go to them and talk to your potential clients and suppliers, get their details and follow up with them after the event. In essence, don’t pretend that you’re networking, go and network.

Maslow and the Micro Business

Anyone who’s read the principles of motivation will recognise the pyramid, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow's hierarchy

Maslow’s hierarchy

This management theory is seventy years old this year, and the BBC website has produced an interesting article on the theory and its creator; including how it’s applied to business.

I’ve studied Maslow a number of times and the article got me thinking about Maslow and the Micro Business. What does the hierarchy of needs mean for a sole trader; or a micro company of one or two people; like us! The concepts of team, manager, promotion and self-development look very different in these organisations.

At the bottom of the pyramid are physiological needs, in Maslow terms this is the need for food, drink and shelter. In Micro Maslow, I see this as paying yourself a reasonable salary. If you’re not paying yourself, then you have a hobby and not a business.

Next level is safety. For Micro-Maslow I equate this to longer term contracts and future cashflows, rather than not knowing where your next influx of money is coming from. Once you get to here, you have a good foundation for growing the business.

Maslow’s middle level is love and belonging. This is important for micro businesses, as the lack of people means it can be a solitary working life; the solution is networking. You need to meet, talk and discuss with people working in your field or other micro business owners. This might be through on-line forums, trade/industry organisations, local chamber of commerce or business owners meetings.

Moving towards the top of the pyramid is self-esteem, which Maslow describes as reputation and status. For Micro Maslow there are two sides to this. The external side is about getting your name known; give talks or presentations, speak or volunteer at industry events and get recognised as an expert by others in your industry. The internal side is about appreciating your own achievements. We’re not very good at taking a step back and congratulating ourselves on what we’ve done. Have you achieved your targets for the year? Has your business grown? Have you remained profitable? Recognise what you have achieved and congratulate yourself!

Maslow’s peak is self-actualization, realising your own potential. For Micro Maslow this is about achieving your business dreams – and remember it’s your dreams! It might be achieving a certain level of turnover or profit, providing a certain personal income level, creating jobs, giving back to the local community or achieving the work life balance you want or something else. What’s your business dream and have you made it come true?

Maslow's Micro Business hierarchy

Maslow’s Micro Business hierarchy

Putting my thoughts together gives me this Micro Business version of Maslow. In writing this blog, I’ve identified a few areas we need to work on. What about you?
Where are you on the hierarchy? Any level you need to work on? Have you achieved your business dream?

Business with social inklings

I recently read Richard Branson’s ‘Screw Business as Usual’ and his idea of ‘Business as a Force for Good’ struck a chord with me. For me a business is more than just financial figures, its ethos and values are as important. This is not about having a lovely glossy brochure, instead how does the business stand up for and demonstrate the values it believes in.

I know not everyone looks at business in this way. Maybe because I never dreamed of running a company, my view of the corporate world is influenced by my academic and scientific background. I transitioned from academia to business not for the pursuit of profit, but because it appeared to be the best way of getting where I wanted; and I’ve always liked a challenge!

From the last 5+ years of running companies I’ve decided that business is just a word, whereas the vision of a business is more personal reflection of those leading it. Whilst I’ve come to appreciate the importance of cashflow and profit to both company stability and growth; how the money is used is still an extension of the company values.

My vision for Pixalytics is for it to be a company that provides information and knowledge to people who need it, without them needing to understand the complexity of the underlying data gathering and processing. This will require a convergence of knowledge around business, research, innovation, science and education to be successful.

These knowledge strands must go beyond the pure financial aspect, they need to be imbedded in our values and ethos. I try personally to demonstrate this by:
• Exploring and learning about how different businesses work.
• Setting time aside to focus on scientific research.
• Writing papers/articles and giving presentations to develop and communicate ideas.
• Volunteering within a number of learned/trade associations.
• Supporting students and new entrepreneurs.

Obviously doing these things takes time, and hence time away from earning money. However, through our authenticity and values, I believe Pixalytics will be stronger and a force for good.

The Introvert In Your Business

There are two personalities running every business. First is the extrovert; speaking to customers, winning contracts and bringing in the money. The second often sits at the back of the business, in a dark corner of a room or a mind, the introvert; business administration.

These personalities have a symbiotic relationship and each requires constant monitoring and nurturing, particularly for start ups. Every business needs to the extrovert to be out earning money, otherwise the company won’t last long. But don’t forget the introvert! Doing admin at night or your next spare moment might isn’t good. Although administration doesn’t earn you money, it can cost you.

Firstly admin tasks take time. The more time you spend on admin, the less time you have to earn money. Being organised, and doing your admin little and often will save you time in the long run. Secondly are mistakes! Forgetting to re-order paper for the printer is annoying, but not paying your taxes correctly could be more serious.

If you’re starting a business and don’t understand the administrative side, get some help. There are plenty of local people and businesses that can support you, but don’t hand over admin completely. They’ll make sure you pay your suppliers and do your tax returns, but also use them, and learn from them, to get the information you need to run your business. For example, how does your cashflow look for the coming months? Are customers paying? What are you spending each month? What costs are rising? Are you making a profit on each job? Every business owner or manager needs to know these things!

Anyone who doubts the power of introverts, listen to Susan Cain’s TED talk on this topic!

In Pixalytics Sam is the extrovert; the face of the business: speaking, networking, winning the contracts and doing the work. I’m the introvert, responsible for doing administration and making sure the business runs smoothly. This enables Sam to concentrate on doing the work and earning the money. Focusing on what we’re each good at makes our business stronger – besides my Earth Observation knowledge is miniscule, despite attending the recent UK Space Conference!

For all you extroverts out there, make sure your business has an introvert hiding somewhere. Properly nurtured they will help you manage, control, develop and grow your business.


Brainstorming to Business Growth

After returning from the UK Space Conference in Glasgow we promised ourselves we’d start to write weekly blogs and so before that becomes a ‘never’ item I felt I ought to get going (for those who’ve not come across Ray Higdon, network marketing specialist, he advocates replacing sometimes and someday with never as a way to avoid procrastination).

During my presentation in Glasgow (slides) I set out my aspirations for our company; turnover of £5 Million and 30 employees within 5 years. A huge challenge and not something to approach lightly, but to quote Richard Branson ‘It is only by being bold that you get anywhere’.

Our aim aligns with the wider aspirations of the UK Space business sector defined in the updated Space Innovation and Growth Strategy (IGS); for the UK to have 10% of the world’s Space market by 2020, which needs year-on-year 8-9% growth. Andy Green (President of UK Space) suggested this needs to be achieved by a five-fold increase in the downstream sector (£8 Billion to £37 Billion) and tripling in size of the upstream sector (£1 Billion to £3 Billion).

Pixalytics is in the downstream sector, which is the development of applications to use satellite mission acquired data, rather than building and launching the satellites themselves. Although I do fancy owning a cubesat and I’ve personally invested in the crowd funded ARKYD Space Telescope.

We had our first brainstorming session on how to develop our business. A not unsurprising conclusion was that growth requires manpower and that requires finance; especially cashflow stability. So to grow, we need to invest and in a loop back to my presentation – do we do this through retained profits / shareholder loans or seeking external investors? At present it’s still probably the former as finding a suitable enlightened investor is a big ask in the current climate. Although crowd sourcing finance has already demonstrated it can fill that gap when the general public get behind a great idea.