From student team to space startup: Interview with Awais Ahmed, CEO and co-founder of Pixxel
We’ve created the #knowyouroptions series to feature NewSpace entrepreneurs and inspire more people to join the space race. This time our guest is Awais Ahmed from Pixxel, the former student whose team is currently preparing for the launch of the first in-house built EO satellite. The whole constellation is to come.
AM: We are continuing our series of interviews with entrepreneurs who entered the NewSpace industry. Today I am here in sunny California with Awais Ahmed, CEO and co-founder of Pixxel, company based in India.
AM: Awais, we just wanted to talk and hear your story of how you got to space industry and what is going on right now with your company. Please, tell us a few words about yourself, your background, Pixxel.
AA: I was interested in space ever since I was a kid. The Voyager missions, what NASA was doing, the Columbia Shuttle, all of it was very inspiring. So ever since I was a child, I wanted a career in space. But then the world happened, and I sort of got buried down. When I got to the university, in my first year, I joined the student nanosatellite team, where we were working with the Indian space agency. That rekindled this flame of working with space technology. That’s where I’ve learned to build small satellites, what goes into them.
AM: Did you actually build it and launch it?
AA: We didn’t launch the satellites, but we were working with the company that was vending the satellites, for the production phase. We did the design, the review, we did the simulations and some small prototyping of the subsystems. The satellite hasn’t flown yet, but it will in a few years. That was my first brush with working with satellites.
AM: And when was that?
AA: This was in December 2015. For the next two years, I was a part of this team. Then I was one of the founding team members for Hyperloop India – SpaceX has this competition called the Hyperloop SpaceX pod competition.
AM: That’s for these magnetically levitated vehicles inside of a vacuum tube…
AA: Yeah. They had one long vacuum tube, we had to build a vehicle that could travel at the speed of sound. Out of 25 hundred applicants, 25 finalists were chosen, out of which Hyperloop India was the only Indian team. It got us to building a vehicle that could travel in a vacuum, that could levitate. When we finally transported the pod to SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles, visited the SpaceX facility there, that again rekindled that flame. After this, the studio of whole Pixxel came into being. We wanted to participate in the IBM Watson AI express competition. My co-founder and I started working on AI models that would analyze satellite imagery.
AM: But how did you pivot from Hyperloop to the AI?
AA: There were a lot of technologies that we liked. One of them was space technology, the others were artificial intelligence, health tech, genome editing, all the sci-fi technologies that seemed cool when I was reading science fiction back when I was a kid. I wanted to explore those once I grow up.
AM: Then, the question is how to combine them?
AA Exactly, yeah. So, we decided to spend time on artificial intelligence and space. We started building these models to work with satellite imagery. That’s when we found out that the type of data that we needed, and the resolution, and the frequency which we needed, were not really available to us.
AM: Where did you take the satellite data from?
AA: The satellite data that we used was mostly open-source – something that European Space Agency provided and NASA science data sets that were free – because we were students, we didn’t have money to pay. But this was a good enough start for us to learn how to deal with satellite data. Later we found out that even with the commercial satellite data providers and with the open-source data, it is just not good enough for the analyses today. With that background in satellites and Hyperloop, we thought, “Yeah, if no one else is providing the type of data that we want, why don’t we build the satellites ourselves?” Thanks to the miniaturization of electronics, thanks to the CubeSats standard, thanks to easy access to the supply chain – we thought we could build our own satellites, deploy a constellation and then beam down the data that we needed to work with. That’s how Pixxel started.
AM: Where did you find the gap? The idea of launching CubeSats for Earth observation is not new, and there is already plenty of companies in space – so where did you see the gap for yourselves, for your business?
AA: Yeah, you can order things on www.cubesatshop.com, or you can go to Clyde Space, and you can have a satellite built. The difference you have is the camera that you make and put in your satellite. There are various types of datasets: there’s optical, multispectral,there’s radar if you go on to the active side. And with most of the satellite data, it was either very frequent but with no high resolution or it was a good resolution but not with high frequency. And that’s where we will operate, we will provide it with good frequency, and we will provide it with sufficient quality that can be useful for analysis – that’s the gap that we’re looking at. Moreover, because we are based and manufacturing in India, we can build our satellites for at least ⅓ of the cost that anyone else can. That is what gives us an advantage that no one else has.
AM: So Pixxel is actually the company that is building the satellites? Then you have to launch the satellites, then you have to make it beam the data down to Earth, basically to your office, right? Then you process the data, and then you apply your smart algorithms to analyze them and to produce the data for… who is your client by the way? It seems like a long journey to build the product.
AA: Our one-line model is to make satellite imagery data useful. This is why we process the data once we have it beamed down from the satellites. Once the data is ready, there are a lot of companies that have the knowledge of how to analyze satellite imagery. There is Orbital Insight, there are precision agricultural companies, hedge funds that buy this data to extract the insights from this. They are going to be our customers. We will be working with banking institutions, agriculture, mining companies, oil and gas companies, defense organizations. All of them are going to be our customer base.
AM: And how far are you in developing your satellites in your company?
AA: The genesis was made in 2018, last year. Since then, we have raised a round of funding, we started manufacturing this January. Our design simulation was done, and the actual ordering the components and the manufacturing of printed circuit boards, and the electronics and the microcontrollers started.
AM: Nothing difficult 🙂
AA: This was in January. By now, we have manufactured half of our subsystems – the control subsystem, the onboard computing subsystem. By the end of August, we will have the satellite bus integrated, and after that, it’ll undergo regress testing in space conditions on the ground to have it ready for launch by December. After which we will hopefully launch it into orbit and beam down the data.
AM: And how big is your team now?
AA: It was just two of us (my co-founder Kshitij and I) when we started and then we had two more people to join us. So, it was a tiny team of four, but now it is seven people in India who are working on this project on the ground to get the satellite up and running.
AM: So, you can have a satellite company with less than ten people, it is amazing.
AA: What we see is that the space industry is developing pretty much like the IT industry did in the 1990s. In the 1990s people started these companies in garages – we had Google and Apple, we had Microsoft. Most of those people dropped out of colleges. As you see, in the space industry we are recent college graduates, we all basically work out of a garage. It is a very small team of ten people. And seeing the IT having revolutionized the world, we think the space industry to also gonna do the same.
AM: Right. And what will be your advice to the people who are dreaming of creating that sort of garage-based startups for space, for space technology?
AA: The advice would be – if you have a passion and if you really want to do something, want to change the world – the one piece of advice is just to start doing it. You can read and read, and you can plan and plan. But unless you start doing, you won’t go anywhere. A lot of problems will come up. But if you have that vision, you have that passion to perceive it, it is going to be there. You just have to keep solving these problems one after another. So, my main advice will be – if you are interested in doing something just do it, just keep pushing.
AM: What kind of background do you need for that – like skills, mindset?
AA: I personally don’t think there are special skills that are needed to start something. If you are interested, there is the Internet, you know, you can learn anything in the world. The Internet has democratized information so much that you can pick up anything and learn anything and start building it. You can order components on Amazon, you can read up on it on Wikipedia, you can read others PhD thesis online. So, there are no skills that you need to start something, you need that passion to learn things. Apart from that I think that the one personality trait you need is to keep going no matter what because failures are a part of life and they will keep coming.
AM Yeah. And I always say space is hard.
AA: Yes, you will have failures but keep pushing.
Many thanks to Awais Ahmed from Pixxel for the interview.
If you are thinking of launching a space venture — we are here to help and navigate. Look ahead for our next article in which we are going to tell you about 20+ ways of how to send any payload to space.