Meet Else, the Thuraya-backed smallsat startup that wants to connect things with cubesats

WASHINGTON — By cost, Swiss startup Else is the smallest
low-Earth orbit venture to have partnered with an established
geostationary operator as the prevailing industry mindset
shifts from skepticism to opportunity. The company estimates it
can build, launch and operate a 64-cubesat constellation for
less than $50 million to provide low-data-rate
communications.

Dubai-based mobile satellite services provider Thuraya,
in the midst of designing its own next-generation geostationary
constellation called Futura, partnered with Else in April to
collaborate on technical and regulatory fronts, along with
combined sales and marketing of products.

Else’s team of 15 people, split between Switzerland and
Portland, Oregon, is building a constellation called Astrocast
to enable L-band machine-to-machine connectivity. Fabien
Jordan, who helped build SwissCube, Switzerland’s first
satellite, co-founded Else with other SwissCube team-members in
2014. The company intends to launch two 4-kilogram
demonstration cubesats next year, one through smallsat launch
aggregator Spaceflight, for which a contract is already signed,
and another with a different aggregator the company has yet to
pick. Both are likely to launch on either SpaceX Falcon 9
rockets, or Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles.

Jassem Nasser, Thuraya’s chief strategy officer, told
SpaceNews by email that the partnership “will factor into our
‘new wave’ IoT and content service offering, one of three
primary focus areas for Futura.”

“I think the right way to describe it is that we have
been open to partnerships and alliances and we do not believe
in doing everything on our own. As a company, Thuraya has
always been keen on partnering with organizations that share a
common vision and goal for technology, commercial and service
opportunities,” he said.

Kjell Karlsen, who led Sea Launch for 14 years before
parting ways with the company in 2014, is Else’s chief
financial officer.

SpaceNews spoke to Jordan and Karlsen about Else’s plans
for the future.

Your first satellites are scheduled to launch in 2018. What
do you hope to learn?

Jordan: These two satellites will serve as
demonstrators not only for the space segment, but to
characterize the radio frequency link between the objects we
have on the ground for the demonstration and the satellites. We
are involving a couple of pilot customers who want to put the
terminal on their equipment and test with us.

With a non-geosynchronous satellite system, there will be a
lot of motion between both moving terminals and satellites that
all need to be tracked.

Jordan: We are not going to track the satellites
with the terminals. We don’t need a permanent link with the
satellite. We will have eight operational satellites per
orbital plane, and eight different orbital planes in
sun-synchronous polar orbits. We will communicate when the
satellite is available. The more satellites we have, the more
often you can communicate with the terminal, but we do not
guarantee real-time. There will be a latency that depends on
the number of satellites, ground stations,
etc.

At the terminal level we have something extremely simple
to reduce the cost and power level. We have a very small
terminal basically the size of a stamp, and the antenna is also
about the same size, so it can be used with a battery or a
local power source and integrated into any type of outdoor
equipment.

Fabien Jordan, co-founder of Else. Credit: ElseFabien Jordan,
co-founder of Else. Credit: Else

Do you have a ballpark estimation for the
latency?

Jordan: Our objective for the full constellation
is to reach less than 10 to 15 minutes latency for the time you
need for the message to reach the customer from the
terminal.

What are some markets that would desire low bitrate
satellite communications?

Jordan: What we discovered is there are a lot of
industries interested in very diverse applications because we
are solving a simple problem that is common to a lot of them.
To give a couple of examples, we have been approached by the
automotive market, the companies that are systems integrators
for cars, trucks and heavy machinery.

We have also been approached by companies that
manufacture buoys and companies that make smart water meters in
the Middle East. There are a wide range of applications and
every week we discover new ones. It is exciting.


Karlsen: Through the letters of interest we have
interest for more than 1 million terminals once we become
operational.

How much capital has Else raised, and what is your
target?

Karlsen: We are in the midst of closing our seed
round right now. So far we have raised capital through Swiss
grants, we have some early angel investors and we’ve also
received some commitments from venture capitalists in Europe.
We anticipate we are going to close with $3 million-plus in
seed round, in addition to the funding we received through
Swiss grants. In addition to that, we also have a European
Space Agency contract that is in place through the ARTES
program. All of that combined gives us enough room with our
current burn rate to get us through the two demonstration
missions.

After that, our plan is to go into a Series A funding
round that, if everything works as anticipated, will close
around the time of the launch of the first satellites.

We’ve found in the early stages it’s been easier for us
to raise capital in Europe than it has been in the U.S. … When
our seed round closes and people see who the European investors
are, I think it will be easier also to get U.S. investment
onboard for the Series A.

What is your goal for the Series A?

Karlsen: We are looking to raise between $8 and 10
million. To date, 20 percent of that is committed from seed
round investors.

Kjell Karlsen, Else's chief financial officer. Credit: ElseKjell Karlsen, Else’s
chief financial officer. Credit: Else

With Thuraya you have a memorandum of understanding. What is
it that both sides bring to the table?

Jordan: That is a collaboration on several
aspects, including the distribution network. Thuraya has a
great distribution network that we can benefit from and we are
extremely excited to work with them.

We cannot go into the details of the different aspects of
collaboration, but we are really happy to have this
collaboration in place.

Karlsen: I have a lot of experience with Thuraya
having launched all three of their satellites while I was at
Sea Launch.

Does the Thuraya partnership include any investment from
Thuraya into Else?

Karlsen: That’s too early to discuss. We haven’t
really broached that subject other than agreeing that it is a
discussion we will have in the future. Of course, we would be
very delighted if Thuraya decided, as part of the
collaboration, to become an investor in Else.

Do you have a planned deorbit system for your
satellites?

Jordan: We are going to launch them at an altitude
which will be lower than 650 kilometers, which means that
naturally they will deorbit before the 25-year guideline from
ESA. We do have propulsion on board to separate the satellites
and to spread them on the orbital plane, but we will also be
able to use that propulsion for collision maneuvers. If we have
enough propellant, we might also use it for deorbiting at the
end of life.

Karlsen: We hope we can get three to five years
out of them.

What’s the minimum number of satellites needed to offer
commercial service?

Jordan: Technically we can do business with one
satellite. We know that, but we are going to start the
operation with eight satellites on one orbital plane in
2019.

Then we will launch more satellites on more orbital
planes, and this will allow us to reach other applications
where the latency is more critical. But there are lots of
applications where the latency is not critical and you can
offer a good service with only a few satellites.


Karlsen: We will launch a couple of spares each
time we launch, so if we need eight satellites in an orbital
plane, at least for the first few launches we will launch
10.

There are other constellations targeting the M2M and IoT
markets, and not only startups. What will make Astrocast
unique?

Jordan: The unique aspect is the fact that first
we have an extremely cost effective solution, and second that
we have a direct link with the object. It is not a backhauling
solution where you have a network and then you have a gateway
that goes to a LEO or GEO satellite; we really have a direct
link between the object and the satellite.


Karlsen: It’s hard to compete with a nanosatellite
solution where the satellite price and the launch prices are on
a completely different magnitude than what you see from some of
the larger players with their larger satellites. Also on the
terminal side we can keep costs down to where it becomes really
cost effective to generate new customers that may not even have
a satellite solution because they can’t afford it. We think we
can bring a lot of those customers to the market as
well.

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