Emiliano Kargieman- the power of information technology in space

“There is a structural problem with poverty”, he tells me, “which is as much about resource allocation as about distribution”. The problem, he says “won’t get easier when we need to feed and provide energy for 10 billion people sustainably.” These were the questions he was pondering way before he founded Satellogic, a company aiming to provide the world with a network of sensors in space. Meet Emiliano Kargieman, EK to his friends, Mathematician, Philosopher and entrepreneur who believes that the constellation of affordable satellites he is dreaming of building will offer us tools to solve the world’s most pressing challenges.

EK, Tell me your story. Were you always fascinated by space?

I was born in Buenos Aires and I would love to tell you I was fascinated by space as a kid dreaming to become an astronaut. But that is not the case: I loved maths and my dream was to become a scientist. But back then, truly all I wanted to do was to be in school as little as possible and instead to spend the most time with my computer and books.

I got my first computer at 9 and I taught myself to code. At 13 I got a modem and I basically spent my teens hacking systems. When I was 15 I launched my first software company, building systems. But at 17 I was tired of doing software for other companies so I closed that company and instead my friends an I opened a cyber security company. We were first hired as consultants to find the weak security spots of companies’ systems. Later we became cyber security software developers and built the first automated penetration testing software. In my twenties, I also founded a venture capital firm.

Were your parents scientists?

My parents were both psychoanalysts and I have a twin sister, Lucila. She is an electro-neuro-physiologist, the true scientist in the family. She is currently studying Parkinsons!

You studied Mathematics and Philosophy. Tell me about that unusual combination and the impact both have in your profession.

I was struggling to decide which of the two subjects to study. I wanted to study something I would build on when I worked. As I already had my company what I wanted were studies that would help me build a platform and provide me thought tools that would enable me to look at the world in a systematic way and from different points of view.

I studied Maths first and Philosophy later. People imagine Philosophers on a couch with a glass of whiskey and a cigar discussing the purpose of life. But Philosophy is like Mathematics very much a technical discipline. Philosophy has a lot to do with language and it offers models, categories and systems to think about things. I use mathematical and philosophical frameworks for almost any problem I look at. With Maths and Philosophy one can look at very complex issues in conceptual ways.

That is in fact how Satellogic started. I was looking at problems I wanted to solve.

Philosophy was a also good thing because although I knew my wife Pola Oloixarac before, it was in the faculty of Philosophy where we got to know each other better.

What were those problems? And when did satellites seem like a solution?

I was looking at how to solve three interconnected problems and the technology at hand we could use to solve them. The idea of the satellites came much later. I started with the problems to tackle first.

We have a poverty problem that is structural in the world today, and it’s as much about resource availability as it is about resource allocation and distribution. I was concerned that only a couple of decades from now we would be close to 10 billion people. Thus comes problem number one: how would we produce and distribute food for 10 billion people?

Then there would be the question of how to access, produce and distribute energy to meet the needs of these 10 billion people. That was problem number two.

And the greatest challenge, problem number three, is how to meet those needs in a much better way than we are doing today, without draining the resources that future generations will need, without failing the environment. We need to solve these problems sustainably.

How are these three problems interconnected?

These three problems are interconnected in many ways: if you have energy, you can extract the salt from sea water and generate freshwater for crops. Crops can be food and fuel. There’s a carbon cycle, and there’s a water cycle that play at the bottom of those choices we make.There are many connections and tradeoffs within these three systems.

The problem I wanted to solve was how to make decisions to consider what tradeoffs to make, at a planetary scale, at the scale of governments, at the scale of companies, and even for individuals. I wanted to find a way to make the most informed decisions and for that we need data, and to weigh different options.

So in a sense, satellites were the outcome. 

That is right. Building companies is the best tool I have to add value to the world. I was obsessed with what value I would bring to the world. I felt fortunate to have access to education and technology. Those of us that have that privilege also have a moral obligation, if you will, to give back to society.

I felt cyber security was important: we employed people and added economic value but the problem we were solving was perhaps not as profound as the one I wanted to tackle.

So how did you go from the problem to identifying satellites as a solution?

I thought having a network of sensors around the globe that would provide data would help us make the most informed decisions around these three problems, so we would choose the right trade offs. I had no bias as to where the sensors should be: on the ground, in smartphones, in the air. But I had been following some technologies, specially those of computational photography, and spectral imaging, which I thought might help. Some of the best research in that space is conducted out of Tenerife in the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias.

In 2009 I went there for 6 months, invited by the University of La Laguna, to understand what they were doing. Of course it did not hurt that I could enjoy the beach and great food. After that I spent first the summer with NASA in Mountain view California and then the rest of the year. It was there that I started to look at satellites and space technology. What I understood there is that satellites would be the perfect platform to deploy the type of global sensors I was thinking about. The only drawback was that they costed thousands of times more than what I needed to make my concept work.

To understand the context of where you want to go, please tell me how many satellites are there in the world today?

Today there are approximately 1500 active satellites in the world, most of which are used for media broadcasting, telecommunications and navigation. Some few dozens are used for photography and imaging.

In 2010 what I understood is that the existing satellite technology would not be appropriate for the sensor network I was looking for. We needed the cost to be three orders of magnitude smaller for this to work. I felt my background in software could help, that there were things we could bring from information technology to approach space in a fundamentally different way. A the end of the year I created Satellogic. I felt a new mindset was needed outside the existing satellite and aero space industry to look at this problem from afresh. One of my first decisions was to hire a team from outside the industry.

So you needed to create both a vision and a new business model?

That is true. The aerospace industry was not originally optimised for solving the kind of problems I wanted to look at. I felt satellites were capable of much more than what we use them for today. This is because the cost of satellites is so high. I felt the next step would be to democratise the space technology, so that it would not be limited to governments and very large companies. That required the creation of a whole new market and framework.

I equate the current space revolution, and the drone revolution, to the aero-space equivalent of the transition from mainframes to PCs. In the old days there were hundreds of mainframes like today there are thousands of satellites. But the limitation is one of our own thinking: just put yourself in the fifties, and ponder the reality we have today, the incredible revolution, productivity and economic growth that followed the democratization of information technology, with individuals having their own personal computer.

Both the computer and aero space technologies are post war technologies that play a role in our daily lives. Information technology was unleashed first, and now is helping to accelerate technology and science in every other area, such as aero space technology and biology enormously.

Will different types of sensors interconnect with satellites?

To quantify and better understand what is happening in the globe in the future we will have sensors that intercommunicate at different levels: at the ground level, on mobiles, in ground and air vehicles, in drones, in planes, in high altitude long endurance objects like air balloons and in satellites.

What stage are you in? prototyping the technology? launching first satellites?

We launched our first prototype (“El Capitan Beto”) in April 2013, the second (“Manolito”) in November 2013 and the third (“Tita”) in June of 2014. The June 2014 prototype allows us to take high resolution picture and videos.

We have been building our manufacturing capability to scale up and we are now starting to produce the first series of satellites. On May 30 we will launch the next 2 satellites (“Ñusat” 1 and 2) out of China and we will start offering services. We are looking at 19 launches next year.

What kind of applications do you expect will be built? I suppose once the technology is there creativity will follow…

Imagine if in 1997 someone would have wanted to build Twitter or Facebook. They would have needed to build a data center capable of supporting a billion users; infrastructure would have been needed, a building, a cooling system. Hundreds of millions of dollars to try an idea. No one would of course do that. The reason we have social media today is because the cost of starting these services is ridiculously low because of cloud computing.

One can think of satellite services of the future in the same way. Today the entry costs are very high to start exploring new services, but once the costs come down there will be hundreds and thousands of ideas that are explored and innovation will explode.

There will be many services and not all tied to earth. Satellite technology will allow us to tap into space: we could look at energy and material sourcing.

So you are really democratizing access to space?

You know, there is a story I have never told before. Right when I was starting to think of Satellogic I met one of my heroes, astronaut Buzz Aldrin. I asked him how we should democratize space. He answered with one word: “Hollywood”. But with all the respect of the world to my hero, I did not want space to become a spectator sport. I want access to space to be open so we can solve the issues we face with informed decisions.

Would a company like yours have been headquartered in Buenos Aires 30 years go?

It wouldn’t have been possible anywhere in the world. We can do what we do thanks to the rapid prototyping that computer design allows us to do. Before we manufacture we can prototype a concept, simulate it, test it. We know how it will behave mechanically, thermally, how the software or electronics would work even before we manufacture. We can also do modelling without tooling. Information technology gives us tools that transform manufacture into data science. When a traditional industry transforms into information technology it takes a quantum leap in innovation.

The great advantage of technology today is that it is much more democratic. We have built Satellogic with the best teams we can find in the world, so we have teams in in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Palo Alto and Tel Aviv. Access to talent and capital have become much more democratic.

You have teams in different places, time zones, and cultures. How does this benefit Satellogic and what leads to successful cross collaboration?

I never doubted we would be a multinational company from day one. It’s about finding the best talent and resources in the best places.

Our company is built on purpose and will power because we started with nothing. This sense of purpose of tackling the problem and demonstrating how it is possible is very unifying to a team.

We have a vision about the problems we want to solve. For us to build the biggest constellation of satellites in the world, through a group of people who had never had aero space experience is a great challenge and gives us all a sense of purpose.

We use tools to enable collaboration and I also encourage the team to travel a lot and spend face time with one another.

I try to build gender balanced teams. There is an input bias as there are less females in this space, but I believe men and women balance and add more value together in teams.

I love that alongside building satellites, you are learning to play the trumpet and you enjoy sports…

I need sports to channel stress. I do some exercise every day. I like to do things that force me to stop thinking, at least in the surface, about work. I love to read specially literature and play music. I play guitar and I am now learning to play the trumpet.

What is happiness to you?

Happiness is those small moments when great things converge. For me it is about building beautiful objects from nothing.

What is the most underrated value?

Curiosity.

What is the most overrated value?

Discipline.

Do you have a life motto?

I do now: Per aspera ad astra. Through hardship to the stars.

Photo: Bernardo Cornejo

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