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Nicole Junkermann’s insight into how satellites improve connectivity around the world

Nicole Junkermann is an international entrepreneur and investor, and the founder of NJF Holdings, an international investment company with interests in venture capital, private equity, and real estate. Through NJF’s venture capital arm, NJF Capital, Nicole oversees a portfolio of over 30 start-ups across three continents, including in healthcare, FinTech, and deep tech.

Investing in space – often described as “the final frontier for investors” – is booming. We are seeing a new commercial space race unfolding at a rapid pace. Only last month, NASA astronauts launched a mission to the International Space Station in a spacecraft commercially built and operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. NASA confirmed that from now on, it will no longer own and operate such spacecraft, but will instead be purchasing transport services from the commercial sector.

In 2018, a Bank of America Merrill Lynch report estimated that the space market – ranging from the manufacture and use of infrastructure, to space-enabled applications such as satellite phones and weather services — was worth $339 billion. In the same report, the bank predicted that this number will grow eightfold by 2045 to $2.7 trillion, with a significant area of short-term growth being in the use of satellites to deliver broadband to commercial aircraft and high-speed terrestrial internet to the four billion people globally who still do not have access to the internet.

In a sector worth so much, it is no surprise we are seeing a new kind of space race. While historical space races and battles have been waged between the world’s superpowers, this new wave of investment is focused on developing commercial, rather than military, technologies. This is nothing new. We have seen that for years consumers across the world have benefited from the internet, television, and navigation services, all powered by satellites, but there is so much more to come.

Introducing Swarm

A few years ago, I invested in Swarm Technologies, a California-based start-up and, in my view, a great example of an innovative company driving the new commercial space race.

Co-founded in 2016 by Dr Sara Spangelo and Dr Ben Longmier, Swarm’s mission is to enable global connectivity through the world’s lowest cost satellite network of micro-satellites around the Earth; satellites so small that they can fit in the palm of your hand. These are the type of new satellites, also known as nanosatellites or CubeSats, which are cheaper to build and much easier to deploy than the traditional satellites, which in the past could only be manufactured and launched by multinational companies such as Boeing or the defence contractor Lockheed Martin.

Such a satellite network could serve many purposes; Swarm identifies a number of applications for their satellite technology: agriculture, energy, ground transportation, global development, international shipping, and connected cars. You can see how Swarm’s technology could, for example, allow farmers in remote locations to invest in connected devices and significantly improve the yield of their crops. Furthermore, the company’s micro-satellites – the smallest in the world – could also help improve air and water quality, facilitate emergency communications, and monitor vital weather and climate change.

At their California base, Swarm have put together an impressive team of space explorers, researchers, and technical operators. Dr Spangelo herself worked on small satellites and autonomous aircraft at the University of Michigan and was a lead system engineer at both NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and Google X, in addition to being a Top 32 astronaut candidate in Canada. The company is backed by a number of leading VC firms including Social Capital and Craft.

Although early days, I am very excited to be part of Swarm’s journey. Ahead of schedule, the company received in October 2019 the necessary licences from the Federal Communications Commission (Satellite Division) to launch their satellites and operate commercially in the US and currently has nine satellites in orbit and is well on the way to deploying its full constellation.