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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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A Rice University team of engineers designed a low-cost ventilator, and now the device, which has been picked up for manufacturing, has received approval from the FDA. Photo courtesy of Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A ventilator that was designed by a team at Rice University has received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ApolloBVM was worked on March by students at Rice's Brown School of Engineering's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, or OEDK. The open-source plans were shared online so that those in need could have access to the life-saving technology. Since its upload, the ApolloBVM design has been downloaded by almost 3,000 registered participants in 115 countries.

"The COVID-19 pandemic pushed staff, students and clinical partners to complete a novel design for the ApolloBVM in the weeks following the initial local cases," says Maria Oden, a teaching professor of bioengineering at Rice and director of the OEDK, in the press release. "We are thrilled that the device has received FDA Emergency Use Authorization."

While development began in 2018 with a Houston emergency physician, Rohith Malya, Houston manufacturer Stewart & Stevenson Healthcare Technologies LLC, a subsidiary of Kirby Corporation that licensed ApolloBVM in April, has worked with the team to further manufacture the device into what it is today.

An enhanced version of the bag valve mask-based ventilator designed by Rice University engineers has won federal approval as an emergency resuscitator for use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Stewart & Stevenson

The Rice team worked out of OEDK throughout the spring and Stewart & Stevenson joined to support the effort along with manufacturing plants in Oklahoma City and Houston.

"The FDA authorization represents an important milestone achievement for the Apollo ABVM program," says Joe Reniers, president of Kirby Distribution and Services, in the release. "We can now commence manufacturing and distribution of this low-cost device to the front lines, providing health care professionals with a sturdy and portable ventilation device for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Reniers continues, "It is a testimony to the flexibility of our people and our manufacturing facilities that we are able to readily utilize operations to support COVID-19 related need."

The device's name was selected as a tribute to Rice's history with NASA and President John F. Kennedy's now-famous speech kicking off the nation's efforts to go to the moon. It's meaningful to Matthew Wettergreen, one of the members of the design team.

"When a crisis hits, we use our skills to contribute solutions," Wettergreen previously told CultureMap. "If you can help, you should, and I'm proud that we're responding to the call."

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