Saturday, November 28, 2015

exactEarth’s big bet on the Internet of Things

Cambridge, Ontario-based exactEarth is thinking big and they aren’t shy about making their intentions known.

Currently, exactEarth provides satellite tracking services to the global maritime market. On November 23, 2015, they took a minority ownership position in Myriota of Adelaide, Australia, as announced in a press release, exactEarth invests in satellite 'Internet-of-Things' technology company. Myriota makes technology that connects devices globally.

This move is part of a strategy to get a piece of what’s predicted to be the next big technological development: The Internet of Things (IoT). Peter Mabson, President of exactEarth, confirmed the strategy in an article at The Record.com, ExactEarth investing in Internet of Things startup.

Many people don’t understand what the IoT is. Although at this point different definitions exist, Forbes magazine outlines one in A simple explanation of ‘The Internet Of Things’.

The key concept is this:

Simply put this is the concept of basically connecting any device with an on and off switch to the Internet (and/or to each other). This includes everything from cell phones, coffee makers, washing machines, headphones, lamps, wearable devices and almost anything else you can think of. This also applies to components of machines, for example a jet engine of an airplane or the drill of an oil rig. As I mentioned, if it has an on and off switch then chances are it can be a part of the IoT. The analyst firm Gartner says that by 2020 there will be over 26 billion connected devices...that's a lot of connections (some even estimate this number to be much higher, over 100 billion). The IoT is a giant network of connected "things" (which also includes people). The relationship will be between people-people, people-things, and things-things.”

If that explanation isn’t clear enough, have a look at the Forbes article with the accompanying video and graphic of what the advantages and potential dangers are.

It’s easy to see why a satellite data company like exactEarth would want a piece of the IoT. Why just monitor ship activity when you can get a piece of monitoring everything?

So how does exactEarth’s latest move fit in to what they’ve done up until now?

Currently, exactEarth is jointly owned by COM DEV International Ltd. of Cambridge, Ontario (they have 73% of the company), and Hisdesat Strategic Services S.A. of Spain (they hold the rest).

COM DEV, a hardware provider to the satellite industry, must spin off exactEarth into a separate company as part of its recent sale to Honeywell International. The details of the sale are outlined in the Commercial Space Blog article, Should the proposed COM DEV sale to US-based Honeywell trigger the Investment Canada Act?

Whether or not COM DEV will have anything to do with exactEarth going forward is unknown.

Hisdesat, on the other hand, remains part of the strategy. As described on their website,

Hisdesat Servicios Estrat├ęgicos S.A. was founded in 2001 as a government satellite services operator to act primarily in the areas of defense, security, intelligence and foreign affairs. Since 2005 we have been providing secure satellite communications services to government agencies from various countries, and we are currently developing new earth observation and maritime traffic information (AIS) satellite constellations.”

Another exactEarth partner, Harris Corporation of Melbourne, Florida, bills themselves as “a world leader in space, geospatial and remote sensing solutions.”

The connection between exactEarth and Harris is covered in the Commercial Space Blog article, The REAL story behind the upcoming (maybe) exactEarth IPO.

The 3 companies combine satellite constellations, data capture and management, data processing and delivery systems, and secure communications expertise. This is where exactEarth’s minority ownership of Myriota comes into play.

Myriota bills themselves as a company with “Global Reach for the Internet of Things.” Adding a system designed specifically for the IoT pulls everything exactEarth has together for that Next Big Thing.

The Internet of Things concept is a slow developing process that will take many years. Now is probably the best time for a company to build the structure needed to be a significant player in what could turn out to be the next revolution in technology.

The strategy is clear: exactEarth wants to be one of those companies.

Who says Canadian companies can’t think big?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

One shoe has dropped for Canadian space; Will the other shoe drop next week?

The first shoe dropped. Now we know who’ll be in charge of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

As predicted in the Commercial Space Blog article, A new era for Canadian space or more of the same?, Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development is the CSA’s new boss. The “Our Minister” link at the bottom of the CSA’s website leads to Mr. Bains’ government profile.

Maybe, just maybe, the other shoe might drop next week. We might find out what the government has in mind for the Canadian space industry.

Mr. Bains is scheduled to speak at the 2015 Canadian Aerospace Summit in Ottawa on November 18th. This conference, hosted by the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC), is billed as a meeting for “primarily C-suite executives and government officials.”

Space makes up a small part of the aerospace market for Canada, so it may not be a major topic here. Not unless one of the spacier attendees, like UrtheCast President Wade Larson, gets Mr. Bains in a verbal headlock and whispers in his ear about the joys of commerce in a galaxy far away.

Headlocks, verbal or otherwise, won’t be needed to get people talking about space at another conference that starts on November 19th in Vancouver. CSA President Sylvain Laporte will speak at the Canadian Space Summit, the yearly event put on by the Canadian Space Society (CSS).

It’s all space here—that’s what the CSS is about. Maybe Mr. Laporte will have something to say about the future of the space industry and the CSA.

Even if not much is revealed at either conference, there’s still reason to be optimistic about greater government support for Canadian space, and the hint comes from an unexpected source.

The government did something unusual. They released the Ministerial Mandate Letters for all of the ministers to the public, something that observers say has never been done before by a federal government in Canada.

The letters for Mr. Bains, the minister in charge, and the other two ministers working with him, Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan and Minister of Small Business and Tourism Bardish Chagger, don’t give a lot of detail, but one of the three letters could be significant for the space industry.

Ms. Chagger's letter shows that she will take a support role with Mr. Bains and other ministers in promoting small business and tourism.

Ms. Duncan’s letter outlines that she is in charge of strengthening scientific research and development. She’ll create a position called Chief Science Officer to ensure that scientists are able to speak freely to journalists and the public about their work.

Ms. Duncan will also assist the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour to create more co-op places for STEM students, and work with other ministries on bringing science-based evidence back into environmental assessments.

Mr. Bains’ letter is the one that could have implications for the space industry. It says he is to develop an Innovation Agenda that will expand “effective support for incubators, accelerators, the emerging national network for business innovation and cluster support, and the Industrial Research Assistance Program.” (Note that the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) is designed to help “accelerate the growth of your business through innovation and technology.”)

The directive goes on to say that “...These investments will target key growth sectors where Canada has the ability to attract investment or grow export-oriented companies.”

That sounds like it should include the space industry, doesn’t it? Maybe that Innovation Agenda is something Mr. Bains will expand on at the AIAC conference.

So now we wait and see if that other shoe hits the ground. Those of you who’ll be in Ottawa or Vancouver next week may be in the best position to hear a thump.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

A new era for Canadian space or more of the same?

Sometimes you get what you want. Or so it seems.

The government hasn’t said who will have responsibility for space, but what used to be Industry Canada would be a logical choice.

Yes, past tense for Industry Canada. The newly elected Canadian government has decided to turn it into a super-ministry, an idea that the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) promoted. Industry Canada will now be the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

CATA, which bills itself as the largest high-tech association in Canada, stated their position in an October 16, 2015, press release with the windy title, Major Industry Group calls for elected government to consolidate current Minister of State (Science and Technology) and Minister of Industry positions into Minister of Science, Technology and Business Innovation.

CATA believes that a “Newly refocused department would send a message that the federal government is serious about making business innovation the keystone of its economic policies.”

The association was clearly pleased by the government’s response, as their November 4th, 2015, press release shows.

The head of the super-ministry is Navdeep Singh Bains. Mr. Bains previously served in Parliament in the Paul Martin Liberal government, and later as a member of the opposition. He lost his seat in the 2011 election to Conservative Eve Adams.

Mr. Bains is a Certified Management Accountant. He was also a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto.

People in the automotive industry are enthusiastic about his appointment to this ministry, as outlined in an article at the Windsor Star, High hopes for new federal minister in charge of auto industry. Mr. Bains worked as an accountant and financial analyst for the Ford Motor Company for several years.

Even if it turns out that Mr. Bains isn’t in charge of space, just substitute the name of the minister who will be. The following questions won’t change.

Right now, everything is up in the air (no pun intended) until the new government starts to make its mark, or perhaps leave a mark, depending on what it does.

The first test may come sooner than expected with a potential hot potato. Last week, Cambridge, Ontario-based COM DEV International was sold to Honeywell International Inc., as reported in the November 7th, 2015 article, Will the proposed COM DEV sale to US based Honeywell trigger the Investment Canada Act?. How will the new minister deal with this one?

And what about the red-headed stepchild, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA)? Will the CSA get a clear mandate, proper funding, a long-range plan, and the independence to execute that plan without politicians meddling in the day-to-day affairs?

Or will the agency continue to meander, doing not much more than acting like the vice-principal of a high school making sternly-worded phone calls to miscreants who step over the party line?

How different will the new minister be from his predecessor at Industry Canada, James Moore? Will he be the new sheriff in town, or will it be meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

CATA says they got what they wanted. Will the space industry?

Considering how many promises the Liberals made during the election and the major issues, and high expectations, facing their new government, we’ll likely find out sooner than later.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Commercial spaceports and ‘Field of Dreams’ business models

Commercial spaceports are popping up all over the United States, Europe, and Asia. The latest one is at Ellington Airport in the Houston, Texas area. NASA and the Houston Airport System announced a joint development agreement for a new spaceport on October 29.

It’s not a bad idea for some. Eventually, sub-orbital tourism and scientific flights, as well as small satellite launches, will become a good business. But one thing seems to be missing from the plans for too many of these spaceports.

How will they make money until the spaceships show up? How many spaceports are being planned and built on a field-of-dreams business model?

In the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner plays an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella. Ray is out in the field one day and hears a disembodied voice whisper, “If you build it he will come.” Ray cuts down the corn field and builds a baseball field. Soon, the field is populated by the ghosts of long dead major-league baseball players.

The movie, which has a heartwarming ending, was a big success.

But that’s the movies. Real-life ventures based on “If you build it he (they) will come” don’t usually work out as well. As an example of that, and potentially a business-school case study for what not to do, look at Spaceport America (SA). An article at Popular Mechanics, Welcome to the ghost town that Virgin Galactic built, tells the tale of unfulfilled expectations.

Located 32 km southeast of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, SA was supposed to be the cutting edge of commercial space with Virgin Galactic (VG), the company run by flamboyant billionaire and part-time space-whisperer Richard Branson, as its signature tenant.

At this point success for SA remains firmly out of reach. The crash of VG’s SpaceShipTwo on October 31, 2014 in the Mohave desert and a promise of flights within 2 years of building the facility (that promise is now in its 10th year) has left SA without much to show for their commitment.

Now, some of those politicians who listened to Mr. Branson’s corn-field whispers might be looking to get the spaceport off their hands, according to Could Virgin Galactic's Spaceport America be put up for sale?, an article at Gizmag.

Ironically, in the article, New Mexico state Senator George Munoz, sponsor of the bill to sell SA, uses the “If we build it they will come” quote from the movie to describe the expectations of good times that haven’t materialized.

Spaceport America’s plight also gets a mention in an article at The Space Review, Looking back a year and a decade. Most of the article is about other areas of commercial space, but SA gets their moment under the microscope near the end.

Christine Anderson, Chief Executive Officer of Spaceport America, says they are working to get new tenants while they wait for Virgin Galactic, but she doesn’t expect the facility to be financially self-sufficient until at least late 2017 or early 2018. That could be causing a serious pucker factor for the politicians because the next state election in New Mexico is in 2018.

Ms. Anderson is also quoted as saying they need to be resourceful and resilient in the face of these setbacks. Perhaps they wouldn’t need to be quite so resourceful and resilient if they hadn’t put together a field-of-dreams business model in the first place.

Without a business plan that will make money until the day comes when spaceships are flying, many of those spaceports may revert back to being corn fields, deserts, or whatever they were before.

Is there a defence against the dreaded field-of-dreams pitch? Yes there is, and it’s offered here free of charge to business people with dollar signs in their eyes, and politicians with votes in theirs.

If a space-whisperer has this fantastic idea of building an awesome spaceport that will bring in millions and make you a hero for life, ask one question: What’s the plan for making money until the spaceships finally come to the facility?

If the answer is “uh, great question,” smile, show them the door, and watch the movie “Field of Dreams.” You’ll get the feel-good buzz you want for a lot less money and far less trouble.