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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

 
 

nVenue's proprietary predictive analytics appear at the bottom right corner of the screen on Apple TV broadcasts. Photo via nvenue.com

Using technology to solve big problems has always been Kelly Pracht's career, but she never thought she'd be able use her skills for the sports world she's a lifelong fan of.

After spending nearly 20 years at HP Inc. in various leadership roles and across technology, Pract was watching a baseball game when something clicked for her. Baseball — and its endless data points and metrics — wasn't serving up analytics that the fans cared about. Teams and leagues had their own metic priorities, but fans just want to engage with the game, their team, and the players.

"I saw a gap in how we handle the data coming from the field and how that can impact the fan — and nobody was getting it right," Pracht, co-founder and CEO of nVenue, tells InnovationMap. "I saw technologists coming up with the most nonsensical solutions. For fans like me, coming from my crazy sports family from West Texas where my dad was a coach, I knew that these solutions were a huge miss."

She gives the example of a wearable technology for the viewer at home that can feel what it feels like for the players on the field who get hit. Pracht says it seems like companies were trying to fit technology into the sport, rather than thinking of what the fans really wanted.

She had the idea for a data-driven fan tool in 2017 and nVenue was born. She started building out the code and the team started testing it out at Astros games at Minute Maid.

"What great years to develop this platform. It was fun — these were not boring baseball games," Pracht says. The Astros have won their division four out of the past five years, including winning the World Series in 2017.

Kelly Pracht is the CEO and co-founder of nVenue. Photo courtesy of nVenue

At first, nVenue was using historical data, and that in itself was impressive. But then, Pracht and her team decided to take it live. After building its proprietary analytics platform, nVenue could use data to make predictions in real time.

"We spent over a year — all of 2019 — mastering timing and putting it into a platform," Pracht says, explaining how they built out the artificial intelligence and designed an app for fans to interface with. "We wanted to be able to predict and play. We had over 180 people during the 2019 World Series and playoffs."

The app and algorithm were good — and nVenue expanded into football. Then, the pandemic hit and sports halted completely. Pracht says they pivoted to a B2B model but wasn't seeing any real opportunities for the platform — until the 2021 Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator.

"In kind of a last-ditch effort, we applied to the NBC Comcast accelerator somewhere around August or September of 2020," Pracht says, explaining that she wasn't seeing a sustainable business so it was get into the program or close up shop. "And we got in. They just resonated with everything we said — we found our people."

The accelerator gave nVenue the jumpstart it needed, and as sports returned, the company found its momentum again. Now, the company is headquartered in Dallas with 14 employees all over and three — including Pracht — in Houston. The company has raised its $3.5 million seed round co-led by KB Partners and Corazon Capital and plans to raise a Series A next year.

After a few broadcasts last season, opportunity came knocking by way of Apple TV and Houston-based TV Graphics. The companies collaborated on a deal and, two weeks before the 2022 season started, nVenue got the greenlight to have onscreen analytics on Apple TV broadcasts.

"In under two weeks we structured the deal, convinced them it worked, pulled together every bit of testing we could — by then we only had one week of pre-season games to test — and we pulled it off," Pracht says.

The technology has tons of potential when it comes to sports betting, which is a growing business across the country. Pracht says nVenue isn't looking to compete with the providers on the scene, but instead work with them as an analytics tool.

"We broke down the market down to microbets or in-the-moment bets that are going to happen annually by 2025 — it's 156 billion microbets a year, which turns out to be 3 billion a week," Pracht says.

She adds that new technologies in the streaming world – like no-delay, latency streaming — is only going to make the sports betting world more lucrative, and nVenue will be right there to ride that wave.

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