In space — the field, not the place — there are startups developing disruptive technologies, and there are government and DoD organizations that need them.
It’s tough for those entities to find each other.
“If you’re somebody coming out of the university or commercial world, this is intimidating — maneuvering the [Federal Acquisition Regulation] and the [Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement] process, government procurement,” said David Mitlyng, who is the co-founder and CEO of one of those startups. “It’d be tough for us to figure out even how to approach these groups.”
That’s a job for the Catalyst Space Accelerator.
“They like to say they’re the bridge, the matchmaker between companies like us with interesting technology, and the groups that have a need — but are a little intimidating to approach,” Mitlyng said.
Mitlyng’s company, Speqtral Quantum Technologies, needed that guidance in a hurry. SQT was formed and funded in March, and in April was accepted for CSA’s Resilient Commercial Space Communications Cohort. At the end of last month, SQT and the six other cohort companies pitched their space communication technologies to government and corporate strategic investors and venture capitalists at CSA’s third Demo Day.
Headquartered downtown at Catalyst Campus, CSA is a space-focused defense and national security industry accelerator, designed to aid the warfighter while helping nontraditional companies break into the defense industry.
For this cohort, the Air Force Research Lab Space Vehicles Directorate (which defines the problems that need to be solved) and CSA were looking for companies with technologies designed to “drastically increase the resiliency of the space communication architecture … to enable the continuation of U.S. space superiority.”
As the world’s reliance on space solutions for communication increases, growing vulnerabilities can disrupt the lives of civilians and military members, AFRL government lead Lt. David Buehler said.
“Communication signals are being intercepted, denied, degraded and disrupted. … These seven companies have not only developed technologies that have the potential to solve warfighter and commercial space communication issues, but they’ve also found synergy and opportunities to collaborate with each other and companies they met during the accelerator to develop more holistic solutions,” he said.
“We’re on the cusp of an unprecedented boom in the space market — and companies like these are leading the charge.”
Through 12 weeks of intense customer discovery, the cohort companies have “proven or pivoted their technology to create a solution to an identified problem,” CSA program director KiMar Gartman said.
The cohort companies received seed funding from Space Capital Colorado, a Catalyst-endowed accelerator fund, as well as direct access to operational experts and stakeholders from the Air Force and other government agencies, and from the Catalyst Campus, SBDC TechSource and PTAC national network of mentors, partners and investors.
For Denver-based SQT, Mitlyng said, the accelerator program was “really outstanding” — far exceeding their expectations.
“We’re a group of scientists, engineers and academics coming with a commercial mindset,” he said. “The collaboration … has been great for us. Our company is focused on quantum technologies, which has really tied in well with some of the other technologies that are being developed within the cohort companies.”
Campbell Marshall, CEO of Virginia-based Omnispace, said CSA has boosted useful collaboration among the companies.
“The government is such a humongous opportunity,” Marshall said. “We were out with one of our other cohort companies talking about ways that we might be able to leverage each other’s technology. So it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Along with Omnispace and SQT, the Resilient Commercial Space Communications cohort included:
Opterus Research and Development (Loveland), which gives small spacecraft the performance of big spacecraft through innovative deployable and unfolding structures ranging from high precision, frequency and gain parabolic RF reflectors to extremely large area antennas, solar sails and sun shades. On June 16, Opterus received a $250,000 grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade Advanced Industries Accelerator Grant Program.
Xenesis (Chicago, Ill.), which is working to solve the New Space satellite communications problem by offering low-cost and high-bandwidth space-to-ground optical data transport.
Analytical Space (Cambridge, Mass.), which is launching a satellite relay network that will provide the first secure, reliable, high-speed data connection for Earth observation satellites.
Skyloom (Berkeley, Calif.), which eliminates the data transfer bottleneck caused by the current low data rates for radio-based links for smallsats, the limited contact satellites currently have with ground stations, and by the enormous amounts of expensive power required to transmit.
Atlas Space Operations (Traverse City, Mich.), which has developed global communication and data services using cloud-based intelligence to lower cost and deliver simple, secure and scalable solutions.
FROM MUSIC TO MARINES
Omnispace was founded by the same technologists and investors who created Sirius XM Radio, Marshall told the demo day audience.
“What a lot of people don’t realize when you’re listening to Sirius XM in the city is that you’re actually listening to the signal off of a cellular network — then when you leave the city, you transition seamlessly over to a satellite signal,” he said.
“Omnispace is taking that same technology but instead of doing music inside the U.S., we’re doing data globally.”
Omnispace is building a groundbreaking pole-to-pole communication system that will allow seamless transitions between urban, rural and maritime domains, he said, overcoming the need for multiple devices on multiple networks.
“We do this by fusing the reach of satellite with the power of cellular to harness our unique 2GHz spectrum, bringing interoperable one-network connectivity to users and IoT devices anywhere on the globe.”
Marshall illustrated the need for Omnispace’s global communications platform.
“A number of you might be aware that due to changing geopolitical realities, we’ve repositioned a battalion of U.S. Marines up in northern Norway — north of the Arctic Circle at 70 degrees north — and they’ve been challenged with communications up there,” he said.
“They’ve been unable to close the link with some of our exquisite traditional GEO satellites that our forces typically rely on. So we went up, at their invitation, in October of last year and successfully connected them to a static connection using a very basic prototype terminal and our legacy satellite. They were so pleased with it, they invited us back in January to do comms on the move.
“Again, using a legacy satellite in a very basic prototype terminal we were able to connect the Marines in the back of this mobile command post at 70 degrees north — in a snowstorm, on the move — using an omnidirectional antenna to [a Non-classified Internet Protocol Router Network].”
Omnispace has a vision for not just updating the future of communications for the warfighter, but fundamentally redefining it, Marshall said, and the company wants to partner with commercial and government to do that.
“I’ll leave you with a quick story from our last trip to 70 degrees north in northern Norway with the Marines,” he said, “where one of the Marine officers said to us, ‘We’re ready to fight Vladimir Putin — as long as he comes down to the 65th parallel.’
“It’s funny, but it’s not funny. Omnispace believes that every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine deserves to be connected anywhere and everywhere we ask them to fight.”
THE MAGIC BOX
Pitching SQT’s secure communications technology, Mitlyng described it as “a magic box that provides an unhackable and unspoofable link for your secure network. We’re the only company outside of China with a space-qualified entangled photon source — i.e., a magic box.”
SQT focuses on quantum communications for Quantum Key Distribution and secure Quantum Clock Synchronization applications. QKD is a more secure form of encryption that thwarts eavesdropping and spoofing, as opposed to public key encryption — which is much more vulnerable to advances in computing.
“It’s good timing, because QKD solves a very major upcoming problem,” Mitlyng said. “Today, 99 percent of [keys] are distributed through public key encryption and it’s good, solid so far. But there are algorithms that have been published … and once quantum computers reach a certain level, they can crack public key encryption in seconds. So our goal as a company is to get the commercial QKD service up and ready before this quantum apocalypse hits, and the whole existing infrastructure comes crashing down.”
SQT’s other area of focus, QCS, allows for unspoofable time transfer for PNT (Position, Navigation and Timing) and has precise accuracy to within <100 picoseconds (a picosecond is one trillionth of a second).
Mitlyng acknowledged that China is “in the lead” with QKD experiments, with the Chinese government recently committing an additional $10 billion for further development.
China clearly plans to dominate QKD, he said, but “all is not lost, because we feel that we have a better solution overall.
“Because what the Chinese did is they took this big tabletop setup, they put it on a large, expensive satellite, launched it in orbit, just so they could stake the flag in the ground and say, ‘We were first to do this,’” he said, “while our team has spent the better part of a decade taking this tabletop setup and getting it into this compact, ruggedized form that can launch on any spacecraft, any high-linking platform, anything.”
SQT’s “ask” is simple, Mitlyng said. They want to get their magic boxes in orbit.
“Our satellites, your satellites, QKD, QCS — my team, they’re hungry, and they look at this as, ‘We have developing technology. This is a race.’ And we — and by ‘we,’ I mean all of us in this room — don’t like doing races with the intention of getting silver,” he said.
“We don’t like being in second place. We want to work together, and we want to get the gold.”