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Houston entrepreneur using cloud-based AI technology in space and satellite applications

In a decade, there will be five times as many satellites as there is now, and we're going to need a better way of keeping track of them. Cognitive Space, lead by Guy de Carufel, has a solution. Courtesy of Guy de Carufel

There are around 2,000 satellites up above our heads, but in the next 10 years, that figure will have surpassed 10,000. As the number of satellites goes up, it'll be harder for companies to manage them.

Houston-based Cognitive Space lead by Founder and CEO Guy de Carufel recognizes this as an opportunity to engage artificial intelligence and cloud technology. De Carufel spoke with InnovationMap about his company, how it will grow, and the role Houston plays in the evolving space exploration industry.

InnovationMap: How did you come up with the idea for your company and technology?

Guy de Carufel: From my experience working at [JSC], I understand the traditional way of commanding spacecraft and how you interface with that from the ground station point of view. In the industry, it's changing very quickly in terms of new companies that are launching constellations of satellites. We're currently at an inflection point where the satellite industry is expected to grow up to five folds in the next 10 years because of the large companies building up these satellites. There are around 2,000 satellites active right now, and that's expected to grow to over 10,000 in the next 10 years.

With all these satellites, you're going to need to manage these assets. Having an operator look at each satellite is not going to cut it. It's not going to be enough for all these satellites. I've been investing and researching in AI technology and machine learning, and I came up with a different way of approaching the problem, and it's a cloud-based approach to [managing the satellites.]

IM: What got you interested in space initially?

GC: Just the excitement of the new frontier. It's still one of the only places that we have a lot of exploring to do, and that got me into space in general and then aerospace engineering, which I got my master's degree in.

IM: What are some of the challenges of introducing a new technology in such a rapidly changing industry?

GC: Traditionally, the aerospace industry is very conservative and doesn't adopt change very quickly. Especially from NASA's point of view and large corporations' point of view, it takes a lot of effort to implement changes — and there's reasons behind that. Space crafts are very expensive to launch and mistakes are very costly. The industry doesn't necessarily like to take too many risks, but that's changing quickly. Now, there are a lot of startups in what's called "new space." You have a lot of companies being funded by venture capital. These startups are willing to take a lot more risks.

IM: How is this growth in satellites going to affect things here on earth?

GC: One of the reasons there's been new interest in space is there are new market forces that are pushing the industry in new directions where you have new uses for space assets. One of them is obviously worldwide connectivity, so internet from space. You have a lot of companies investing billions into that.

The other market force is to have real-time insight into what's going on in the world through imagery. There's a need for tracking transportation and logistics, as well as farming and mining. All of this will have a profound impact on the economy in general.

Industrial IoT, which basically just means everything will be connected, and in order to operate these remote devices, you're going to have to have real-time knowledge of what's going on, and one of the ways to do that is with real-time imagery. It's not something that can be done with today's technology, and we want to be able to position ourselves to be able to enable that market trend.

IM: Has NASA changed with the times? Does it still have the same role in space exploration in "new space"?

GC: The role of NASA has changed over the years. It's changed from initially being a national pride to be the first on the moon and the astronauts were test pilots and the soldier type. When the space station came up and the shuttle program, astronauts became scientists and educators from all sorts of backgrounds. NASA has evolved considerably over the years, and now it is evolving again because of the changes in the industry. NASA will always be relevant, but now it does have to change in how it will play in this new economy. Commercial entities are going to be a large part of exploration, but NASA does have a role to play in setting the roadmap and logistics, as well as sharing the expertise it has from 60 years.

IM: Is Houston a good place for aerospace startups?

There's starting to be a strong startup ecosystem here, but the focus is still medical and oil and gas, much less so aerospace. I do hope that the community realizes that there's a lot of talent here for aerospace. If I were to suggest anything, it would be to have an accelerator program with a focus on space.

IM: Where is Cognitive Space at with its technology and business plan? What are some goals you have for the company?

GC: We're still very early. We're building up our product, and we have a functional prototype. We are in discussion with most major players in the industry and with various government entities.

By next year we will have major contracts, and growing our team to 15 to 20 people. We'll have a commercial product by then and servicing some commercial players. Five years from now, we'll probably be in many different verticals, spawning from what we have now to really expand and apply our systems to as many applications as possible.

IM: Who are Cognitive Space's clients?

GC: Our focus is on earth observation satellite companies — the companies that are developing small satellites with different sensors onboard to take imagery or different spectrum, say hyperspectral or optical. We're focused on that market. What we provide for them is this autonomous tasking solution for their earth observation systems.

We're starting with a niche market but it's growing very quickly. It's expected to grow to $8 billion industry in 5 years. But the technology we develop will be applicable to many different industries.

IM: What's next for Cognitive Space?

GC: We've been focused mostly on developing our prototype and validating the market, but we are looking for investment in a Seed round this year.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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