Founders connected with the National Capital Region quietly build and deliver world-class solutions to complex, universal issues. One of these disruptive companies is Mission Control, which develops software for use on the Earth, moon and Mars.
It made history earlier this year with founder and CEO Ewan Reid at the helm.
In December 2022, a SpaceX Falcon9 rocket launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, carrying Mission Control’s artificial intelligence payload, MoonNet. Although that specific landing was not completed successfully, Mission Control was the first organization in the world to deploy deep-learning AI in lunar orbit.
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Deep learning in space marks a notable development in what many call the new space race. Traditionally, things are sent to space to either distribute or generate massive amounts of data. Once back on the ground, AI is then used to make sense of these large datasets; such as foreign military troop locations, forest fires, whale populations, illegal shipping activity, and so on. However, according to Reid, there’s an enormous market potential for AI use in the spacecraft itself.
“Let’s say you have a constellation of 20 hyperspectral satellites that are tasked with imaging Earth. You can use deep learning on the satellite to decide which data products aren’t worth sending down because they don’t have useful information or are corrupted,” said Reid. “In a constellation like that, you could save $4 million a year in downlink costs just by using that algorithm on board.”
The use of AI in space also paves the way for other space sector innovators to succeed, as many novel venture concepts rely on Mission Control’s emerging technology to work.
But Mission Control didn’t get here overnight. Prior to founding the company in 2015, Reid spent his career in the space sector. Out of school, Reid found employment with NASA contractor Neptec, where he was involved with a number of projects ranging from work as a mission controller out of the Houston-based Johnson Space Center, to work on the shuttles themselves out of the Kennedy Space Center.
Reid then found himself losing motivation when a proposed project between Canada and NASA, which would send a rover to the surface of the moon, was denied. In response, he began a program in France at the International Space University that reignited his interest in school and led to his enrolment in a master’s in technology and innovation management. Soon after, Reid left his job and Mission Control was born.
Within the first year, the Mission Control team was able to secure its first contract with the Canadian Space Agency, developing an AI system to help Mars rovers navigate more safely. Needing to test the AI system on a rover prototype in an analogue location — a place on Earth with geological features similar to those found on Mars — the team prepared to deploy to White Sands, N.M. However, the team had a rover, but no system to drive it and no “off-the-shelf” system was available for purchase.
“In response, our team created one, our own system with proprietary messaging protocol and the full stack to be able to operate this robot,” said Reid. “In doing this, we realized this was an opportunity to deliver something everyone was going to need in this paradigm of doing more frequent missions to the moon, Mars and beyond.”
That realization was the building block of what became Mission Control’s product Spacefarer, a platform to operate and engage with space-based robotics and advanced payloads, streamlining mission operations.
A similar product development process was utilized for the AI platform. When engineers became frustrated with inflexible, vendor-locked tools and embedded systems, the team took matters into its own hands and created a platform that would soon become Mission Control’s second product line, Spacefarer AI.
Today, Mission Control works with private companies and global space agencies to unlock the potential of new scientific and commercial opportunities, both on Earth and throughout the solar system. In addition to the attempted moon landing this past April, the team is about to launch an AI system on a European Space Agency satellite.
“When we founded Mission Control in 2015, my colleagues and I knew one thing: space was the future. We’re proud to be at the centre of this next wave of human discovery and advancement,” said Reid.
Since its founding in 2015, Mission Control has received support from Canada’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and, with the help of the Capital Angel Network (CAN) and others, has raised over $13.5 million of equity and non-dilutive funding.
“Being involved with CAN and other angel investment communities is so much more than a bunch of cheques. My cap table is full of individuals who each have their own way of bringing value to our team, whether that’s mentorship in the marketing department, advice on fundraising, advocating for you to other investors, or simply making introductions,” said Reid.
As the team works toward a world with thousands of robots, satellites and complex payloads in space leveraging the Spacefarer and Spacefarer AI platforms, Reid and the Mission Control team are aware of their potential impact.
“A big part of entrepreneurship is being creative and creating something from nothing; what you’re trying to do hasn’t been done before. It’s like having a blank canvas and starting to paint,” said Reid.
“Am I a rocket scientist? No, I’m an artist.”
Suzanne Grant is an entrepreneur who has built bootstrapped and equity-financed businesses in Canada, Australia and Qatar. Today, she supports business growth and positioning while sharing insights to demystify early-stage fundraising. Grant leads the Capital Angel Network as part-time executive director.