An Ottawa company that’s already one of the brightest stars in space technology has landed millions of dollars in new funding to commercialize software it hopes will soon help fix satellites in orbit, produce pharmaceuticals for astronauts and clean up space garbage, among other uses.
Mission Control says it’s raised about $2.4 million toward its goal of closing a $3.25-million equity seed round this fall. Toronto-based GreenSky Ventures is leading the round, with participation from other angel investors.
Mission Control CEO Ewan Reid said it’s the first time GreenSky, whose portfolio includes marketing platforms, fintech firms and heath technology specialists, has dipped its toes into the space-tech sector.
But that’s fine by him. Praising the Toronto firm’s “deep diligence process,” Reid said GreenSky had about 10 meetings and calls with Mission Control’s leadership team before putting a term sheet on the table.
“It took some time for sure, but I think that was good for both sides to get comfortable with each other,” he explained.
“We’re a space company, so you might think, ‘Oh, we need an investor that’s got a lot of experience investing in space companies.’ But it’s actually not true at all. We know the industry back to front. Where I need help is … I’ve never run a 50-person enterprise software company. I’m about to. So if I can have people on the cap table that have been involved in scaling that kind of venture many times and have learned how to get through those challenges and that person is there to support me, that’s exactly what I need.”
Launched in 2015, Mission Control makes a software platform called Spacefarer that acts as a user interface to help operate robotics technology during space missions.
Factoring in the latest seed round, the Little Italy-based startup has raised more than $10 million, including grants from organizations such as the Canadian Space Agency and the National Research Council of Canada, to develop the platform and other artificial intelligence-powered software.
Reid says the “low-hanging fruit” for Spacefarer is the burgeoning lunar exploration market.
With countries such as Canada, India, China and others vowing to put vehicles on the moon within the next few years, Mission Control’s founder says outer space represents the ultimate greenfield opportunity for his firm, which expects to grow from 35 employees to about 47 over the next two years.
“There is a huge new kind of space race going on with companies and countries from around the world rushing back to the moon,” Reid explained. “We’re very well-positioned to be supporting many of those.”
Beyond the moon, however, the software could be used to help robotics applications and other autonomous technology perform a range of activities above the Earth’s surface – for example, repairing satellites, manufacturing products such as drugs for space station inhabitants and scooping up the growing array of outdated satellites and other debris gathering in low Earth orbit.
In addition, Mission Control is also developing AI-powered software that will help lunar vehicles detect obstacles and use advanced algorithms to scour the reams of data collected during space missions and determine what’s worth really digging into from a research standpoint.
“Space generates a huge amount of data. We can’t send it all down,” Reid noted, adding the software could also potentially be used to help satellites monitor communications infrastructure and other vital systems here on Earth as well as activity such as wildfires.
Mission Control’s obstacle-detection technology has already been deployed in a lunar mission, although things didn’t quite go as planned.
Reid said a “navigational glitch” caused the lunar rover designed in the United Arab Emirates to crash before it could safely land earlier this year, meaning Mission Control didn’t really get a chance to take its AI for a proper test drive on the moon itself.
Still, the CEO said the software did everything asked of it right up until the moment of the crash, adding Mission Control will have plenty of other missions to show what its AI can do.
“It’s more in the category of missed opportunity” rather than a setback, he said. “But we are going back to the moon, and we’ll certainly get that chance.”
After initially expending a lot of energy chasing contracts from clients such as the CSA, Mission Control has more recently focused its efforts on R&D. Reid said the firm’s aim is to build Spacefarer into a subscription-based platform that can be easily adapted to a broad customer base.
While its annual revenues have been holding steady at around $1 million for the past three years, Reid believes the company is now ready to capitalize on a market opportunity that could be worth “many, many hundreds of millions of dollars” as space exploration ramps up.
“Hopefully, it becomes very scalable and repeatable in terms of its sales,” he said of Spacefarer. “Robotics and AI are at the heart of a whole slew of new space businesses that are about to emerge. The world is our oyster.”
Still, he knows Mission Control needs to step up the pace if it wants to maintain its first-mover advantage.
“There are a lot of big players looking at edge computing in space and deep learning in space,” Reid said. “So we’ve got to stay on the cutting edge.”