Students vs. Startups Episode 35: Innovations in New Space

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Featuring Hawkeye 360

Read Time: 15 minutes

Welcome to Episode 35 of Students vs. Startups. This week, moderator John Gilroy talks with the VP of Hawkeye 360, Russ Matijevich. Russ spent 22 years in the Air Force learning how to be a problem solver, which translates perfectly into his new role- figuring out how to effectively use the radio-frequency spectrum to geolocate targets, and implementing this technology in a variety of use cases.  Read below to find out what Russ and his team have been able to accomplish.

 

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Transcript:

John Gilroy: Welcome to “Students vs. Startups Showdown at the Potomac.” My name is John Gilroy, I’ll be your moderator today. Let’s have a round of applause for podcast number 35. Yeah baby, yeah, yeah. Well, if you heard this before, you know the drill. We have a conference room at the offices of Eastern Foundry, we have a table here. One side of the table we have three students. The other side of the table we have a poor startup. We have a little 26 minute conversation and we all walk out of here fast friends. What I do is I’m going to start off and introduce the students first.

Now I normally have students from Georgetown University. We’re going to have an actual student from the University of Maryland. Her name is Katherine Dunn. Katherine, tell us about your background please.

Katherine Dunn: I recently graduated from Maryland, and I’m currently working in business development and sales for Foresight CFO with this guy and learning a lot and here I am.

John Gilroy: Oh good, that’s good to hear. Our second student, actually he’s a graduate of the Technology Management program at Georgetown University, Scott Thompson.

Scott Thompson: Scott Thompson. Been through a couple of these with John and everybody, it’s exciting stuff. Now I’m in deep, deep in finance at Foresight, I’m one of the partners there. We tend to look at a lot of companies.

John Gilroy: Fore, F-O-R-E sight CFO.

Scott Thompson: Yes.

John Gilroy: Just for the listeners, want to notice that. Our third student is Connie Chen. Connie, tell us about your background please.

Connie Chen: I’m currently a student still in the Technology Management program in Georgetown. By day, I work as a clinical data scientist for big pharma.

John Gilroy: Well, so we got some brains on this side of the table, Russ. Our startup today, the company’s called HawkEye 360. We have the Vice President there, his name is Russ Matijevich. Russ, how are you?

Russ Matijevich: Doing well.

John Gilroy: Well, I usually have one note card for our startup here, but there’s so much in Russ’ background, I have three. There’s tons and tons and tons of aerospace this, aerospace that, I ran out of ink talking about all the aerospace background he has. Let’s start off with 22 years in the Air Force and then it piles on top of that. Russ, tell us about our background and maybe a little about your company, HawkEye 360, please.

Russ Matijevich: Certainly. I like to tell people that from an education perspective, I’m an engineer, but from a vocation perspective, I was an operator for the majority of my military career. What that did was it created the ability for me to become a professional problem solver. Be it a technology problem or a systems problem or a tactics problem, I could figure out how to work thought it and get to the results that we needed, so that served me well for 22 years in the Air Force. Got into industry, and carried that same attitude towards industry, and worked with SAIC, with Northrop Grumman, had my own consulting company.

Then I joined HawkEye 360 about 18 months ago. We are a very young startup. We’re just post series A. We will be two years old in September. We are going to help folks visualize how the radio frequency spectrum is utilized, both from just a loading perspective, but also from interference detection and geolocation perspective. Then once we start geolocating certain types of emitters, then we can contribute to different mission areas like maritime domain awareness, support the search and rescue, interference detection, geolocation, that type of stuff.  

 

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Russ Matijevich, VP of Hawkeye 360

 

John Gilroy: Essentially, there are satellites around the earth, and they send off an RF, radio frequency, signal and what you can do is you can optimize that for end user experience. Is that essentially what …

Russ Matijevich: It’s a little bit more subtle than that. We do have a network of small satellites. We’re basically taking a mission that required a Ford Expedition size satellite, and we’ve been able to shrink it down to the size of a microwave oven. We fly these little microwave ovens in three ships, formations at low earth orbit.

Much like your brain does when you’re geolocating a sound, if you imagine yourself standing on stage in an auditorium, you could close your eyes and be able to point in the general direction of somebody talking or clapping, and you’d hear those sounds, and your brain is using something called “time difference of arrival.” You can do the same thing with radio waves, where our three spacecraft are playing the roles of your two ears. As we hear these radio signals, we can understand the time difference it takes to get to each satellite. From there you backwards calculate the math, kind of like GPS in reverse, and we locate where on the earth the signal comes from.

John Gilroy: Sounds like a dream come true for an aerospace engineer, huh?

Russ Matijevich: It is, it is. It’s a whole lot of fun.

John Gilroy: Let’s say you’re sitting on the Metro talking to someone, and they say, “What business problem does HawkEye 360 solve?” What’s the business problem that you essentially solve?

Russ Matijevich: Well, as we all hear about, I mean we all have these smart phones, we’re running around, and we’ve got the Internet of things and the interconnected houses, and we’ve got satellite this and satellite that, and broadband here and broadband over there. Almost everything that we do in our daily lives is enhanced or enabled by the electromagnetic spectrum, but it is a very finite resource. The more you load into that spectrum, the more congestion you get, the more collisions you have, the less capabilities that you can have. That’s why your WiFi all of a sudden goes from 54 megabytes per second to a couple kilobits per second, and you’re pulling your hair out, why is it so slow?

What we’re going to do is be able to look at that and see how the different systems out there are interacting together. Now there are some challenges being up in space. We’re not going to listen to your cell phone, we’re not going to listen to your home WiFi router, but we will be able to map out cell phone network topographies and say, “With these towers, maybe you’re getting an interference wave off this land feature, and that’s causing you to have poor service in this particular area of the world.” From a satellite communications perspective, we can do the same exact thing. Identify where the spectrum is loaded up, where it’s not as loaded and maybe that’s where you roll out the new service.

John Gilroy: Scott, this seems like a real focused target audience, doesn’t it?

Scott Thompson: It is, and it’s really interesting because I mean we’re using more and more stuff, right? Saturating, as we would all look at it, there’s just tons of waves and tons of stuff out there. I’m interested to see how you guys are thinking about targeting of all this noise and stuff, and what you exactly want to do with this, and where you guys really want to go. It would be really interesting.

 

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Scott Thompson

 

Russ Matijevich: Well it’s, we’re … There is a tie-in to competitive sailing, which is one of the reasons I got into this.

John Gilroy: I know you’d work it into the conversation somehow.

Russ Matijevich: Which is, as we’re building out this network, we can also do search and rescue support. There are rescue beacons that you can go out and buy right now, go to REI, wherever, and buy something called a personal locator beacon. You register it, and then that’s all you have to do. You register it, you don’t have to pay a subscription fee.

Then if you’re out hiking, let’s say that you decide to do the Appalachian Trail, and you’re hiking out there, and you’re going to do this solo walk from Pennsylvania down to North Carolina. Somewhere along the way, you’re looking at this beautiful scenery, and you decide to take a selfie, and you slip off, and you fall down into this canyon. Now what do you do? Your cell phone doesn’t work because you’re so far away. Well, you would light off your personal locator beacon, and there is a program of record out there that does collect it, but it’s old, it’s aging.

“Our systems would be able to find you very quickly, and very accurately, and then notify the search and rescue people that you’re in trouble. We have a broad waterfront of capability that we can support.” Russ Matijevich  

John Gilroy: Connie, selfies, satellites, a pretty wide range of stuff here, huh?

Connie Chen: Yeah. I also wonder, if you don’t have this beacon to send out, is there a solution that your company can offer?

Russ Matijevich: We can. It really depends on what you have to be able to transmit something, that’s the key thing. That’s what we bring to the table, is the ability to hear a radio transmission. If you’ve got that, then we can help find you. If you don’t have that, then there’s not much we can do. We are working very closely with other parts of the commercial satellite world that do imagery systems, so electro-optical imagery, synthetic aperture radar imagery. We’re looking at tipping and cueing so we can bring a holistic approach to solving a problem.

John Gilroy: Russ, I’m looking at you, and behind you is a sponsor, it’s a logo, it’s the Radiant Group, so you must have heard of the Radiant Group, haven’t you?

Russ Matijevich: Just a little bit, yeah.

John Gilroy: I’ll give them a little plug there too. Katherine, do you have a question, please.

Katherine Dunn: Yeah. Is anybody else doing this?

Russ Matijevich: There are a couple of folks out there doing similar things. There are several companies out there that will collect the automated identification system. It’s a Safety of Life at Sea broadcast that is mandated by all large ships that go out on the open ocean. It was originally created to help prevent them running into each other. Because the last thing you want to do when you’re at sea is exchange paint with somebody. They have this signal out there, and someone figured out, “Well, I can collect it with a satellite.”

There are companies that will collect those signals, and that’s all well and good if the ship’s master is law abiding and he’s following the rules, he’s not trying to be deceptive. We’ve seen many cases of real world situations where someone is trying to do something illegal. Say he’s fishing in a game preserve and he wants to get those choice fish, turns the AIS off, or he adds an offset on the self-reported location. He can make it look like he’s thousands of miles from where he really is. Most of the world will fall for it. Some of them can say, “Oh, there’s something hinky here.” They may be able to get you within several tens of kilometers. We however will get you to within about 500 meters.

John Gilroy: Scott.

Scott Thompson: It’s interesting. Your company’s rather unique, so what’s the culture? Obviously, you have a team of very smart people. Do you guys butt heads? Put a lot of egos in a room, sometimes it’s … Very smart ones to be at that.

Russ Matijevich: That’s an interesting question. This is something that I kind of … It was a shock to me when we figured it out. I’m the oldest employee.

Scott Thompson: Interesting.

Russ Matijevich: 51-years-old, I’m the oldest employee. We’ve got a lot of young, smart kids. I call them kids because they could all be my kids. We have a very collegiate environment. We will have passionate debates, but there’s no yelling, there’s no screaming, there’s no shouting. We sit down and we just nub through the problem, and everybody’s got a perspective. It’s really a very collegiate type team-based environment. Really happy to see that in a startup.

 

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Russ Matijevich, VP Hawkeye 360

 

John Gilroy: Connie, you work with some pretty smart people too. Kind of tough to tangle with a bunch of aerospace engineers, isn’t it, huh?

Connie Chen: Yeah, there’s a lot of things about the industry that I don’t know of, and so all these questions are popping up as we’re going along. You mentioned satellite, and locating vessels through satellite, but is it possible that some vessels on the water are not documented? First of all, is there a law that says these vessels need to document their location and report their location?

Russ Matijevich: Yes.

Connie Chen: There is.

Russ Matijevich: If they’re a large enough vessel, yeah.

Connie Chen: Would you ever be interested in knowing the location and existence of vessels that are smaller?

Russ Matijevich: Yes. It really comes down to what problem you’re trying to solve. For us, we don’t really want to go after the law abiding vessel. There are companies out there that are doing it today. It’s a very crowded playing field, lots of people. You can go to a website called www.MarineTraffic.com and you can see where all these vessels are.

John Gilroy: Wow.

Russ Matijevich: It is an AIS aggregation site, and it takes messages from satellites, messages from terrestrial stations, messages … I mean you could become a producer of data for them if you just created your own AIS receiver system that you can either buy or build. If you sat on the Chesapeake Bay, you could become a data feed. I don’t really care about the law abiding, what we’re looking for are the people who are up to no good, so doing illegal fishing, doing human trafficking, illegal oil bunkering. All of those activities have something in common, they don’t want to get caught.

When you’re out on the open water, remember I said the first thing you want to do is you want to avoid exchanging paint. If you’re up to no good, the last thing you want to do is inadvertently run into somebody, so you’re going to have your radars on. If they have their radars on, we will hear them and we will find them, much like Liam Neeson did in “Taken.”

John Gilroy: I’m pretty sure that Scott, on his business card, it says “up to no good,” but I could be mistaken about that. Katherine, question for our guest here.

Katherine Dunn: Yeah, so as you mentioned, you’re a young company, but what are your current or future sales looking like so far?

 

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Katherine Dunn, Scott Thompson

 

Russ Matijevich: We’ve got a couple of contracts right now that are bringing in revenue. We’ve got a very generous set of venture capitalists and investors. We just went through our series A, as I said. We had a $10 million goal, which we did not meet, we exceeded by almost $4 million, so it was a good startup problem to have.

John Gilroy: Oh, you lured us into that one, didn’t you? Look at that. We don’t have any donuts at all, four dozen donuts. This guy’s luring us in, Scott.

Russ Matijevich: Now going forward, our first satellites launch in February. If SpaceX can hold to schedule, we’ll go up in February. Then our next series will go up in mid-summer. Then we’ll have another series going by the end of 2018, and then 2019 we continue to launch. Eventually, we’ll have a worldwide constellation that will give us access to any spot on the globe, every 25 to 45 minutes. With that infrastructure, then we can actually provide a very valuable service that is very much of interest to the sat-com community, the fishing community, the maritime community. There are elements of U.S. government and other foreign governments that are interested in what we can do.

Scott Thompson: Scott. You mentioned Series A, and I think it’s important, startup community everybody’s always, of course, series A, “Yay!” Right? It’s a good sign. Can you provide some input as to, now that you’re working with venture capitalists, you’ve gone through series A, I just think it’s, a lot of people don’t reach that point, so it would be interesting to hear your insight.

Russ Matijevich: Well, we had a great effort from our CEO, John Serafini. He comes from the venture capital world, and knows how to talk to the investors. Then, the team worked really hard at putting together the business plan that shows, “Yes, we can close our business plan.” The real key thing for us is being able to take advantage of the advances in small SAT technology. In years past, you couldn’t really do what we’re doing for the budget that we have, but now we can. With that, we can close the loop. A lot of the venture capitalists, they very quickly caught on the fact that we’re doing that something that really nobody else is doing.

If you think about the VC space world, space 2.0 companies, everybody is doing some sort of imaging system. “I’m taking a picture of this or a picture of that.” We’re different. We’re not taking pictures. We’re sensing something that you can’t see with your eyes, and we’re making it visible. In fact, that’s one of our tag lines, “Taking the invisible and making it visible.” Being able to provide insight into various industries that depend on the electromagnetic spectrum.

John Gilroy: Connie, this is an exciting time to talk about satellites. There’s a whole world of startups just involved in the satellite business, so there’s all kinds of stuff going on here. Do you have any questions for our guest?

Connie Chen: I was wondering if you were thinking about branching into national security.

 

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Connie Chen

 

Russ Matijevich: Well, we are a commercial-based company. We have a commercially viable business plan. As we go down that path to build this infrastructure, there’s definitely capabilities that the national security community would be interested in. That’s one of the things that I worked, in my military career. In fact, I retired as a Deputy Director of Space Policy, and worked those types of issues. If you read the 2010 National Security Space Policy, it says, “Hey, we need to make better use of the commercial space industry.” We provide one of those new capabilities that hasn’t really been available to the U.S. government at the commercial level. For those government users that are either geographically challenged or priority challenged, we can provide assistance.

John Gilroy: Katherine.

Katherine Dunn: I’m curious to know what your biggest challenge has been thus far.

Russ Matijevich: Biggest challenge. I think the biggest challenge right now is just getting hardware on orbit as quickly as possible. Because, Scott, as you know, there are startups all over the place. Lots of PowerPoint companies out there.

John Gilroy: That’s a good line.

Russ Matijevich: You want to differentiate yourself from the other PowerPoint companies. For us, the biggest thing we wanted to do was show that we’re more than just PowerPoint, we’ve actually got hardware. Satellites take a finite amount of time to build, and then another finite amount of time to get them on orbit, so we knew that was going to take a while.

The first thing that we did was, we went and got prototypes of our payloads, temporarily installed them on some very high-tech aircraft, some Cessna 172s from the Manassas Airport, and went out and flew them over the southern Chesapeake Bay, and demonstrated that our magic actually works. Now we have actual test results of our payload, of our algorithms to show that the geolocation calculations that our system will generate match the predictions that the math and theory says you should be able to do. That’s our biggest challenge right now, is showing credibility that what we say we can do, we can actually do.

John Gilroy: Scott, HawkEye 360 is selling magic it sounds like, huh?

Scott Thompson: Yeah, I mean it’s crazy. There’s tons of opportunity for them. I was in the military as well, so it’s definitely an interesting space to be in. I’d be, interesting to hear with a long development time, you guys are actually producing something, which a lot of people don’t, as you mentioned. How do you guys make sure you stay on time and on track? I feel like a lot of people struggle with that, so it would be interesting to hear your thoughts.

Russ Matijevich: Well, we are very focused. It’s a good question, and that’s a very good point. I mean that’s, when you’re in the startup world and you’re trying to do something, it’s like, “Oh, I want to do something that I like and enjoy.” It’s like okay, if it’s not monetarily viable, just because you like it doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful. For us, we are staying very focused on what it is we do. We jokingly say that we’re not really a space company, we’re a big data company, but to get to the big data that we want to play with, we had to put these satellites on orbit to access the data. In doing that though, we’re not building the satellites ourselves.

We are owner, operators, much like an Intelsat or HughesNet or somebody like that where they pay the satellite industry to build the satellite, deliver it on orbit, and then they take delivery on orbit and they operate it. That’s what we’re doing, and that allows us to push a lot of that risk from our shoulders to our spacecraft prime, and now they have to worry about launch schedules and delivery and that everything works correctly. We take delivery and we go run with it. It’s allowing us to stay focused on what our goal is, the differentiation that we bring to the market, and be able to successfully deliver.

John Gilroy: Connie, I went to Twitter and I typed in “satellites” and I have all kinds of good quotes. Here’s a quote that technology is changing real fast, here’s a quote, “Step out boldly and grasp the new technology.” There must be so much stuff. This is just the tip of the iceberg what’s going on. Isn’t it exciting? There’s so much stuff out there.

Connie Chen: Yeah.

Russ Matijevich: I do, everybody gets so enamored with technology, but there’s an awesome quote from Admiral Tuttle, when he was in the navy and basically was running the Copernicus architecture. He said that, “Technology without operational context is merely engineering curiosity.” If you think about it, it really comes down to the discipline. That’s where, when you have a whole room of engineers, and they get all excited, and they’re just running off like a bunch of cats going, “Ooh, I can do this, I can do that.” Someone’s got to come in there and say, “Hey, wait a minute. That’s all great, but we need an operational problem. We need to show value. There’s got to be a reason for doing this other than it seemed hard, and it’s a challenge, and I like doing that.”

There are lots of hard problems out there that we can solve, but you want to solve the right hard problems that will bring revenue in, that allows the company to grow. Then as the company grows, you can do more IRAD, (Internal Research and Development). Then that allows your engineers to go off and do more science projects. You got to start that flywheel of having technology that is attractive and something that you can monetize, and get that revenue coming in so that you can grow the next increment, and then you just keep growing from there.

John Gilroy: Katherine, in my world, there’s this open source software movement. This is, what it sounds like to me, it sounds like he’s taking advantage of some of the open source material. Does it sound like that to you?

Katherine Dunn: Yeah, it does. I saw on your website that you currently have four applications and, obviously, you need more internal research and development, but have you guys discussed any future or other applications that you guys currently don’t have listed or on your website that you think you can do with this technology?

 

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Katherine Dunn, Scott Thompson, Connie Chen

 

Russ Matijevich: I think there’s going to be a ton of future applications of this capability. Some of it’s going to come from us, but I think a good chunk of it’s going to come from our customers. If you look at where the commercial satellite imagery world went from the very first images from IKONIS and some of the early companies, and now you see what geospatial analysis … My son took a geospatial course in high school.

John Gilroy: Wow.

Katherine Dunn: Wow.  

John Gilroy: That’s amazing.

Russ Matijevich: He was given a free copy of ESRI’s tool set.

Katherine Dunn: Wow.

Russ Matijevich: He was doing geospatial analysis in high school. The first time I ever heard of something called a food desert was at an ESRI users’ conference, and they were presenting, “These are my findings,” and satellite imagery was just a small piece of it, but that was the little kernel that got the whole ball rolling. As we start to bring out this new dataset to industry, we think that the user is going to start doing stuff and then-

John Gilroy: You can’t predict.

Russ Matijevich: Exactly. Then they’re going to come back and say, “Oh, what you’re giving me is great, but if you could give me this, it would be even better.” Then that will help guide our future investments and future application roll outs.

John Gilroy: Well Russ, we’re running out of time here. If someone listening to this podcast wants more information on your company, what website should they go to?

Russ Matijevich: Sure. They can check us out at www.HE360.com.

John Gilroy: If you would like to see show notes, links and a transcript, you can visit the OakmontGroupLLC.com.

I’d like to thank our sponsor, the Radiant Group. If you are interested in getting involved in geospatial projects, we just mentioned those, contact the Radiant Group.

We are hosted by the Eastern Foundry. It’s a community of government contractors who are bringing innovative solutions to the government marketplace. For more information, go to Eastern-Foundry.com.

If you would like to participate as a student or a startup, contact me, John Gilroy, at OakmontGroupLLC.com. Thanks for listening to “Students vs. Startups Showdown at the Potomac.”

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