'Houston, we have a question': José Achache on the future of Earth Observation, space startups and their challenges

All photos by esa.int, if not stated otherwise
At Dotphoton, we're truly lucky to be surrounded by world leading experts and mind-blowing scientists. So we decided to start a series of interviews, asking them less obvious, not frequently asked questions, but the ones truly burning, important for the industry and the society.

We called these series 'Houston, we have a question'. There will be 6 questions prepared specifically for an expert to be interviewed, and 1 question at the end that will remain the same for all the guests.

It was hard to think of a better expert for the first interview than our newly appointed Chair of the Board José Achache (link). We hope you enjoy the read and the video of José in conversation with Dotphoton's CEO Eugenia Balysheva on the challenges of startups and big companies in space, innovation in the industry, its future, and the upcoming focus for the society.
What are the main innovation trends in the Earth Observation industry now and how will they change in 5 years?
For me, there are two areas, which are going to be the keys to innovation in space in the near future.

The first one is free space optical communication. So it's not an observation, it's telecommunication, but it’s telecommunication using photons, whatever it means.

Then the second domain where innovation is going to be extremely fast is indeed Earth observation and very specifically within Earth observation: imagery. As we'll see later, Earth observation is a little bit broader.

In imaginary, I see a number of innovations coming where actually Dotphoton can play a significant role. First of all, it is all the domain of image improvement. Imagery acquisition improvement. Obviously number one is resolution: we want to see smaller and smaller details. And, last month we heard of a new startup in Silicon Valley that wants to do 10 centimeters resolution in satellites. This is not even allowed today by regulation: 10 centimeters is restricted to military applications, yet there's this startup which wants to go in this domain. So the race for higher and higher resolution, which has a number of constraints - is not very easy to achieve. There's a significant role for Dotphoton in this domain.
Second, is spectral enrichment and we tend to look at the Earth with images in the visible. And sometimes it's only RGB, in three colours. We know that we have to look into many different wavelengths separately, because by recombining those wavelengths we get much more information than what we see with the standard images. So we are not going to be looking at images like postcards anymore, at least in space.

Next of course is video, which if you can have high resolution, you want multiple frames and you want to go towards video because in the end what you really want is real time observation. Permanently looking at some place on Earth because there's a risk of a flood. And you want to look at the event, which will be targeting the disaster. So in real time there's more than Earth observation. There's also telecommunication of course. So that's one domain of innovation, it's image improvement.

The second one is image analysis, and this is what artificial intelligence will bring to Earth observation. Today, we're looking at images in many cases with our eyes. Tomorrow we will use artificial intelligence to analyse images. And we're seeing that in many domains. Computers are much more efficient at analysing images than our eyes. So to substitute the human eye by the computer - is the next innovation.

And finally, the third domain in which we will innovate in the near future is the use of Earth observation. What’s going to be the benefit? Why are we going to be doing this? There it's less clear. I guess sustainability is going to be driving the show. We talk more and more about sustainable companies, ESG, environmental and social goals for production, but also environmental changes, climate change, biodiversity reduction. All these phenomena are critical to our future. And Earth observation can make a big difference. I started Copernicus because this was really obviously a big target. It's even worse today. We need this very, very badly. And that includes not just imagery, but all the Earth observation, including altimery, including radar, including chemistry analysis in the atmosphere. And there is going to be a lot of innovation.
What do you think will be the next breakthrough in the Earth observation? Will it be linked to one of the sectors you have already mentioned?
I wish I knew. Again, this is not new: it's the killer app. What is this killer application, which suddenly will make Earth observation as necessary as navigation. I mean, mapping, Google Maps or your driving applications, Waze or the likes. These were the killer apps which pushed the positioning systems, GPS, Galileo, and the others.

We haven't gotten this killer application in Earth observation so far. So that's going to be the real breakthrough.

I think it's going to be in disasters, it’s going to be driven by disaster prediction. It's not acceptable that we have floods coming as a surprise. Floods should not be a surprise. It's a disaster. It's going to be painful, but we should know when there's a flood. There's no way it should come by surprise. And the insurance is interested in that, and they may be driving these new applications, but if there's a breakthrough, it's going to be coming from that. It's not acceptable that we're still living under so many hazards. They need to be controlled.
Do you think there are blockers that don't allow the industry to move as fast as it can?
Not really. Except for what we just said, which is you need money to develop a sector. So a domain will develop if there is a demand and the demand will be driven by the needs of people. Or it can be driven by marketing, but in this case it doesn't apply. There has to be a real need.

The main use today of Earth observation is surveillance, security, and military applications. And it's difficult for a small company to develop in these domains, until there's really going to be those big applications, which will represent a significant business. It could be sustainability, it could be floods, it could be other things.

And this is really what is blocking or what is making the development of a company in Earth observation specifically difficult.
Do you think there are some business practices or a technological practice that can be brought from other industries to the Space or to the Earth observation sectors?
I guess being multinational is absolutely essential. It's essential in any business. Successful businesses are the ones who really go multinational immediately. Don't develop where they specifically are.

In space it's even worse. It's kind of mandatory because space is transnational by nature because of the celestial mechanics, satellites go around the Earth, you can't keep a satellite at a fixed point, or it is very far from the Earth, but if it's close and doing imagery, it's covering the whole Earth.

You're looking everywhere by definition. So it has to be a global approach. It has to be multinational. It's an important business lesson. Being transnational, being multinational, looking all over the planet.

And then the second is probably, but again, this is a bit trivial, it's what user needs. Try, always try and address some real needs expressed or upcoming future needs. If you're not responding to a specific requirement or to a specific need of a specific one particular community, then, you're useless. So these are the two main drivers.
What could be the secret that allows startups sometimes to outperform big companies, having significantly less resources?
I wouldn't say that startups outperform big companies. Startups create innovation.

You know that old stupid saying that you would never invent electricity by trying to improve the candle. So big companies can only improve candles because they are big, they are slow, they are strong. They have a know-how, they have customers. And they will improve these mechanics. They will try to fit the needs of their own customers. They will try to improve their technology.

But having a breakthrough, a real unconventional approach can only come from individuals. These people usually come from universities, PhDs, who have an idea and have an understanding of how this idea can be translated into something real new.

This is exactly what happened to Dotphoton. And to many other startups. It's based on the idea of one or a few creative people. And this is something you cannot have in a big company. So innovation will come from startups. But then the question is will startups overcome? And be more efficient than big companies?

It's difficult. Sometimes you have new companies, startups, which really disrupt the domain and kill the existing companies. In space we haven't seen that, for the time being.

The only real success story in space is of course SpaceX. And SpaceX is just doing the same. Innovation in SpaceX is in the implementation, not in the product. They're building the same rockets as others, as Arianespace. But the process to build rockets has been completely disrupted by Elon Musk. And that's what made this company successful. Then if you look at space in general, there are not that many companies which have managed to disrupt the domain.
Planet is also a very successful company, but it's heavily subsidised by the American government and it has not disrupted and killed the other producers of images. So I would be cautious. We are seeing a number of companies which are growing, which seem to be developing well by building, providing subsystems or some elements. But are there that many disruptive companies which have changed the landscape in space? If we make a real analysis - not that many.

So I think innovation will continue to come from startups like Dotphoton. And now the big guys are turning to us and saying," Oh, this is what we need. We thought this was impossible, but it's going to be really interesting, and we want to work with you and we will grow like that."
But, as for disruption, I’m not sure.
Maybe we haven't emphasized enough the value of Dotphoton in this domain, because I really think that Dotphoton can be disruptive, because if we go back to what we were discussing at the beginning, what are the innovations in the near future: very high resolution, spectral enrichment video, real time, and artificial intelligence.

This requires two things: it requires compression, and it requires noise reduction. And it's really interesting that the technology of Dotphoton is bringing exactly these two things, noise reduction in the images and incredible compression without losing information so that if we want to go towards VHR or very high resolution or spectral enrichment, we need compression. If we want to use artificial intelligence, we need noise reduction. So I think we have the tools to indeed be disruptive in this domain. That’s really where Dotphoton can be disruptive.
You are a Chairman and Board member of many successful companies and startups, what is the key to a successful relationship between a startup and the Board? How do you think it should be structured?
Essentially the Board and the Chairman - it's just an old guy who has a lot of experience, but is not directly involved in the day to day business, in the technical developments or let's say in the executive activities of the company.

My recommendation is: use it. Use your Board. Abuse your board. It's difficult for the Board to go and say: do this or do that, go in this direction. You’re a startup. You do that with a big company. As a startup: ask for advice, discuss the options. This is the way I'm working with most of the companies.

Some of them have daily interactions with the CEO, who wants to check something. I think the Board should be used as a sparring partner: check your ideas. Should I go in this direction? Yes? No? Why not? And the Board is here to discuss your ideas in light of the experience of all the Board members. But the ideas will always be the ideas of the CEO and the company. And it's the company which could go to the Board, and challenge, and ask. That's why I'm saying: use your Board or even abuse your Board.
If you could pick one theme that will describe the society in the next few years, what could it be?
My take from the current situation is the following: with this COVID period we're seeing the limits of digitization. We've been thrown very quickly into a fully digital world, which we were supposed to reach in 10 years. And the brutality of this transition has allowed us to see the benefits, but also the pain of a fully digital society. So that's, for me, that's one dimension.
Photos by GettyImages and vintagemanhattanskyline.com
The other dimension is a lot of people today are talking about the 'Roaring Twenties'. One century ago, exactly, there was a big pandemic after the World War I, the Spanish flu. And what came out of this and the war: there was ‘un effolle’ as we say in French: the roaring twenties. People were enjoying life, innovation was incredible: there was radio, cars, airplanes... Those were 10 years of incredible joy and innovation or innovation and joy and ‘insouciance’, which ended really badly, with the crisis in 1929 and then Stalin, Hitler, Franco, Moussolini and all the nightmares of the middle of the 20th century. So we don't want to go in this direction. And so these are elements today to be taken in perspective. And I think the main debate today is between privacy and transparency.

So the word for me to characterise tomorrow is going to be this: it's not going to be one word. It's going to be two words competing with each other, which is ‘privacy’ and ‘transparency’.

We need transparency because we see the benefits in society, when a number of inappropriate behaviors are being exposed, but also need global transparency from a satellite perspective to understand climate change and to understand global biodiversity changes, we have to monitor the destruction of the forest in the Amazon and Indonesia and central Africa. And this requires transparency, global transparency.

But we don't want Facebook live. It's exactly the battle that we're seeing today between Apple which pretends to be providing privacy and Facebook which is about total transparency and openness.

We see the benefits of digitization. We see the medical data are going to be extremely useful. But we don't want them to be distributed and exploited beyond what we need. So again, this is a challenge of broad digitization, between transparency and its benefits, and privacy. So for me, the two words of the future are ‘transparency’ and ‘privacy’.
Dotphoton
Dotphoton provides innovative image compression solutions for big image data. Dotphoton’s unique set of algorithms and cutting edge approach to camera calibration enables file size reduction by a factor of 6—10, while preserving the raw quality of images. Dotphoton's deep understanding of latest insights from the quantum information field ensures it stays ahead as the highly reliable partner, trusted by the European Space Agency, Bosch, and the leading biomedical centres across the world.
Contact
Eugenia Balysheva
Dotphoton AG
news@dotphoton.com
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