Skybox Imaging's Dan Berkenstock Uses Satellites To Make Sense Of The World

For some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, simply coming up with lines of well-written code can turn a startup into a smashing success. But Skybox Imaging founder Dan Berkenstock is aiming much (much) higher.

Berkenstock’s three-year-old company is developing cheaper satellites that can take high-resolution photos of the entire surface of the Earth throughout the day and distill it into relevant data. Instead of building traditional satellites that last decades, Skybox offers a low-cost model. The satellites are easier to maneuver and can take high-res images several times a day, rather then once a year, which is common for costlier traditional satellites. Cost is in the tens of millions rather than $500 million, which is common for some of today’s larger satellites.

More important than the satellites themselves is the data that can be culled from space. The satellites are simply vehicles, but the data has the potential to cut down a lot of bureaucratic BS. After all, real-time images can be tougher to argue with than almost anything else. “Revolutionary transparency is what we’re trying to get into in the long term,” says Berkenstock of the Mountain View, Calif.-based company.

Perhaps it will be make it easier to truthfully answer some of the world’s biggest questions, he says. Here’s an example: When economists are worried about a real estate bubble, they can examine real-time stats on housing construction. Or when China’s state-controlled media boasts about the country’s prosperity, analysts can look at the rate of newly built roads and other infrastructure. These are still hypothetical, but the possibilities of having a real-time bird’s-eye view of the world are endless.

Skybox Imaging is an ambitious project and has already involved almost three years of prep work; commercial operation will start sometime in 2013. (Their first satellite, SkySat-1, is due out next year and will be able to track cars but not people, which helps get around individual privacy concerns.)

The 31-year-old Berkenstock has already raised $21 million and two rounds of financing. Recently, he was included on MIT’s Technology Review’s annual list of Innovators Under 35. “If any startup was easy or obvious it would already have been done,” he says. “We just keep plugging along every day and hope that some day our accomplishments will speak for themselves.”

The list of companies who will be buying their data is still confidential, says Berkenstock, who is the company’s executive vice president and chief product officer. He hopes to sell across a variety of industries, including natural resources, government, and finance. They’ll also make the satellite data available to third-party companies similar to Twitter, which he hopes will spur further innovation in using satellite-derived data.

Fast Company recently spoke with Berkenstock about Skybox Imaging and what it means to live in a world with affordable cheaper satellites:

Aerospace meets analytics: “Before I started Skybox, I was working on a PhD in aerospace engineering. Prior to that I worked at a couple of different NASA centers. I was interested in the intersection of aerospace technology with data analytics. It’s similar to analytics on the Internet scale and turns information into bite-size and digestible pieces.” Most aerospace companies don’t focus on analytics, he says. “I think that’s fairly unique for Skybox.”

The future: Berkenstock hopes the cheaper satellites will revolutionize the industry similar to other technological advancements. “The Internet of 1994 was interesting, but it didn’t wasn’t really a decision-making tool in daily life across the planet until much later. Same with satellite imaging; it exists and it’s useful, but not at that point that it provides a daily tool in the life in humanity,” he says. “If you look across the world and the conflicts that are raging, adding that extra level of transparency has a great deal of potential.”

Partners: Berkenstock has two cofounders and is quick to credit their work. Julian Mann heads up product research and development, while John Fenwick runs government sales, a big focus. “The hardest part of doing any startup, in my humble opinion, is finding true partners. It’s harder than raising money or building a product. It’s finding the right people who you can trust with the company and respect what they have to say,” says Berkenstock, who met his partners in grad school at Stanford. “It’s not so much that we were friends—we were more acquaintances but have since become friends.”

Employees: Recruiting the right aerospace experts for the company has been challenging because it’s difficult to find the right fit. Before hiring, “I always ask people who their mentors are because I think it's really important to have people you look up to and learn from. Our first 10 employees were the smartest people we knew from grad school.”

Trust: “It’s essential especially in a small startup that you have people that you absolutely trust and that you trust in their abilities. You need to trust them enough that you can take a step back and empower them and give them the benefit of the doubt. Even if you don’t understand every single piece that they are working on, you need to believe in them making the right decisions. It’s important for people to know you believe in them,” he says.

On a stroll: "We spend a lot of time hanging out or talking on the phone after work. We also take a lot of walks around the block [of the office] in order to be able to talk in a less formal environment. We started that tradition because our first office was incredibly small and we didn't have the space to have confidential conversations. Now I'll take a walk with someone and see two or three other groups of Skyboxers on walks of their own."

Space Age: “Back in the glory days, the Apollo program’s engineering staff was given an incredible degree of latitude and allowed to do an incredible amount of innovation. They were able to go off and shoot for the moon—literally and figuratively—and were able to get the support to do that,” he says. “In general space travel and satellite design has become less innovative. I’m not super focused on human space flight. The next big wave of space businesses are going to be based on lower cost satellites and revolutionizing the data. It’s repeatability that’s more important today.”

Leaving town: Most days, Berkenstock is in the office at Skybox, with 55 other employees. But he doesn’t feel guilty taking a break, even if it means he’s still thinking about work. “I've learned how important it is to take actual vacations, he says. “When you turn off your phone and computer you need to trust your team to keep everything going while you're recharging your batteries.”

Student life: Berkenstock is currently on leave from a PhD program in Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University. (He did complete a masters from Stanford and an undergraduate in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan.) So many years of the student lifestyle helped him jump into entrepreneurship, he says. “Being a student gave me the freedom and flexibility to juggle building a business plan and pitching investors with my studies. That's a lot harder when you have a full-time day job.”

Software first: Skybox is building both software and hardware, but “we do look at ourselves as a software company first,” explains Berkenstock. “Google is a software company, but it has data centers everywhere that they don’t put on their front page. Satellites are the infrastructure of our software company, but the customers will just see the web portals,” he says.

[Image: Flickr user peretzsub]

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