Austin, Texas / Broomfield, Colorado
Communications payloads for satellites
Following 24 years with Lockheed Martin in New Jersey, Sabripour decided it was time for a change and moved from New Jersey to Austin.
He started CesiumAstro in 2017 after a stint as CTO of small-satellite manufacturer Firefly, but the proverbial lightbulb first flipped on in the 1990s.
"I saw where the technology was headed for telecommunications and the role of satellites in telecommunications in general," explains Sabripour. "Lockheed's a great company, but I wanted to bring this technology to the masses."
The technology is driven by ongoing trends in satellites. "In general, satellites are going to be smaller and more agile, meaning, more software-defined," says Sapripour. "If you look at large satellites the way they're built today, they're very bespoke and built for a certain customer and they last a long time. I felt that telecommunications was going to take a new shape. . . . Satellites are becoming more software-defined and agile, shorter durations, less custom-made, and more available to many companies than ever before."
The move to smaller, cheaper, and faster mimics other industries: Sabripour likens CesiumAstro's technology to terrestrial cellular networks. "If you look at the transition from 1G to 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G, and beyond, to serve Austin, Texas, for example, you could put a very tall cell tower that has a line of sight across all areas of the Austin metropolitan area," says Sabripour. "You would very quickly saturate that beam and run out of frequency and run out of power and lots of other parameters that would limit the number of people who could make a phone call at the same time."
That dynamic leads to the cellular infrastructure that exists today. "Your cell phone searches for the next frequency and you don't notice a difference," he continues. "You end up serving a lot more people because you use the same bandwidth, the same frequency allocation, many times over."
Sabripour continues, "A very similar thing happens in satellites, and you want to have more beams and smaller beams, and you want to put the beams where the customers are, and that's what our technology does. It allows you to serve many more customers, allows the satellites to be reusable and programmable in orbit so if your business plan changes, you can just change the format of the beam, the amount of power that goes through it, you can change the frequency. Bottom line, it makes satellites a lot more software-defined, just like going from a mainframe to PCs."
The ROI opportunity for the company's products is huge. "Ultimately, it's dollars per bit," says Sabripour. CesiumAstro's technology could deliver a cost that's just 10 percent that of legacy technology. "The cost of infrastructure -- everything you can imagine from cell towers to electronic equipment to antennas, everything -- there's a [metric of] dollars per bit of information. I think these technologies will drastically reduce the cost."
The company launched a satellite, Cesium Mission 1, in September 2021. "It's an experimentation satellite for us," says Sabripour. "It allows us to get to space and prove a couple of our pending patents. We are already shipping our products to a lot of customers, but this allows us to get to space sooner. These small satellites are now a commodity item, so we purchased a satellite bus and put all of our phased array technology and software-defined radio technology in it and we launched it. It just allows us to provide some experimentation for ourselves and our customers."
A few of those customers: NASA, the U.S. Navy, Blue Origin, and Northrop Grumman. CesiumAstro's first launch on a customer's spacecraft should take place in early 2022, likely on a NASA mission.
While CesiumAstro designs its products in-house in Austin, the company currently uses Flex for contract manufacturing locally. "They've been a good partner for us and we're building all of our products there," says Sabripour.
CesiumAstro is also investing in a company-owned production facility in Bee Cave, he adds. The facility "allows us to build prototypes and new products very quickly from concept to a fully qualified product."
The company opened a second location in Broomfield, Colorado, in early 2020 to focus on satellite design and manufacturing, then planted a flag with a small European office in Berlin for business development and R&D in 2021. Like Austin, the Colorado location was chosen largely for "access to talent," says Sabripour.
"It's growing really well," says Sabripour, citing forecast CAGR of 200 to 300 percent in 2022 and 2023. "Market adoption has been very good. Our customers want this. One thing I've always believed is when you build it, they will come -- and they've come in full force. Every customer we meet is: 'When can I have it and how much is it?'"
It all goes back to managing a natural resource. "Radio waves, the electromagnetic spectrum, is a natural resource," says Sabripour. "How you use it really matters. Ultimately, all of us want all of the bandwidth and all of the throughput we can get."
Challenges: "Getting talent on board," says Sabripour. "Both Austin and Denver are competitive markets, and we're always in need of top STEM and engineering talent. I think that's a challenge for all companies, and it's certainly a challenge for us."
He says a third location coming soon to El Segundo, California, is designed to maximize recruitment possibilities: "We want to have access to talent, and that's one of the reasons we're starting offices in various locations. . . . We want the best of the best, and we want our employees to build the company right along with us."
Opportunities: Upending the telecommunications sector with innovation. "Our products serve a wide range of markets," says Sabripour. He sees the company's market as roughly evenly split between defense and commercial aerospace.
"All of us want more data, and we want it in our cars, we want it on our cell phones, we're going to have autonomous vehicles, we're going to have drones and air taxis, commercial aircraft need connectivity," says Sabripour. "All of these things require a new generation of connectivity that won't be served by just one mode of telecommunication. In other words, you can't serve it by 4G LTE or even 5G or fiber-optics alone."
He adds, "Autonomous vehicles will not happen unless you have resilient connectivity, meaning you cannot just rely on 5G alone. You have to have multiple connectivity paths to the car if it's ever going to be safely autonomous."
But CesiumAstro's opportunities aren't relegated to a single planet: "I think we're in an incredible era for telecommunications. If you look at everything happening in space as we become hopefully a multiplanetary species -- as several large companies in this business are calling it -- we will also need telecommunications from here to the Moon to Mars and beyond. We need telecommunication that covers the entire Earth for a new generation of autonomous vehicles and air taxis and really expanding the knowledge base across the globe. We're very excited that we're part of this next generation of revolution. . . . I think the next 10 years will surprise people how much this next generation of telecommunications will transform our lives."
Needs: Employees. If the forecast holds, the company will double in size by the end of 2022. "Our employee counts are growing in Broomfield and Austin," says Sabripour. "We're trying to get to 200 people by the end of next year -- and maybe even higher than that if we can get them -- and we want to double the year after."
While Sabripour terms the company as well-funded, capital is an ongoing need. "We have incredible venture investors behind us, but we're always in front of it," he notes.