If you think about butterflies, the first image that comes to mind is how colourful they are. What makes them really distinct from other living beings is that not only are they colourful, but they can also see the widest range of colours than anyone else on the Earth.
That said, Bengaluru-based space tech startup Pixxel raises the bar by a notch or two, as it can capture satellite images with the most vibrant set of colours you have ever seen.
Four-year-old Pixxel is perhaps the only Indian company that can create hyperspectral images of the Earth from space. Hyperspectral imaging is a technique that captures images in hundreds of wavelengths and has 50x more information compared to other images.
Founded in early 2019 by two BITS Pilani engineers, Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal, Pixxel provides these hyperspectral images to companies in sectors spanning from mining and agriculture to oil and gas. They count Indian, US and other organizations across the globe among their customers. Their customers include Google, which participated in its USD 36 million series B round in June 2023, along with existing investors like Blume Ventures, Radical Ventures, GrowX, Lightspeed, Sparta, and Athera.
We aren’t overstretching when we say that even though the rocket emoji may be ubiquitous in startup circles now, no company exemplifies that emotion better than Pixxel.
25-year-old Awais Ahmed spent a large part of his childhood dreaming about going to space. He even had a checklist of things he would have to do for his dream to come true.
Like any teenager, his career aspirations kept changing. But all of them had one goal—to go to space. From becoming an astronaut to an astronomer, and then an astrophysicist, he dreamt of it all. Suffice to say that none of these career choices made sense for space travel as these involved bureaucratic hurdles as an Indian.
While he still harboured the dream to go to space one day, he surmised it wouldn’t be through any of these career options.
Cut to college. His desire to go to space was rekindled when he went to BITS Pilani in Rajasthan for higher studies in 2015.
In the first year of college, Awais learned a bunch of his seniors were running a student satellite team. Needless to say, he joined them and soon learned how to build satellites from scratch. The team also had a few scientists from the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) helping them understand the ins and outs of building satellites.
It was a pivotal moment for Awais as, for the first time in his life, he took a practical step toward space travel. The second time that Awais surprised himself was in 2017 when his team was selected by Elon Musk’s SpaceX for the Hyperloop Challenge.
Awais and his team developed the design of the Hyperloop Pod that would run inside the mile-long vacuum tube in Los Angeles.
“When we started, the idea was just to be able to meet Elon Musk. We didn’t really consider ourselves as serious contenders,” Awais says. They got selected as one of the 20 finalist teams among 2,500 applicants.
In three months, the team built the pod and took it to the US to participate in the competition. The best part of this trip for Awais was visiting the SpaceX factory.
“I think that was when my love for space that I'd always had, really reignited...I had a moment of clarity that I want to work in space technology one way or the other,” says Awais.
While it was clear to Awais that he would work in the space sector, he still wasn’t clear on which direction to take. After all, space is vast, pun intended.
Manufacturing rockets wasn’t unique and required a lot of capex, the same was the case with building space stations, and he couldn’t have joined NASA or SpaceX because ITAR restrictions allowed only US citizens to work there.
But Awais found a ray of hope in satellite data. It was accessible to the public so he could explore that area.
When he started analyzing satellite images, he realized that there was scope for building better imaging technology.
Before we go ahead, let’s do a crash course on satellite images.
When we talk about satellite images, there are three types of resolutions: spatial, temporal, and spectral.
Spatial resolution is the normal resolution, which determines how much one can zoom on the Earth from space. The quality of the spatial resolution will determine whether you can distinguish between things like a car and a tree.
The second is temporal, which determines how frequently you can see something from space. Temporal resolution indicates how much time a satellite takes to come back to the same spot. If you can see Bangalore at, say 8 am today from a satellite, and the next day at 8 am you are again able to see it, then the satellite’s temporal resolution will be 24 hours as it’s able to revisit its original spot within a day.
And the third is spectral resolution, which is how much wavelength spectra you can see. Human eyes can only see the visible range and a very limited one at that, but there are a lot of things happening in the infrared range and other spectrums.
When it came to spectral resolutions, satellites could capture multispectral images. Spectral images refer to the range of wavelengths that can be captured by a satellite from space. Multispectral imaging could get 10-20 wavelengths or bands across the visible and infrared ranges.
Awais saw a future where the technology could be further enhanced so that hyperspectral imaging, which includes hundreds of bands in and beyond the visible range, could be captured. And could be used to gain deeper insights from the data collected from such an image.
“I reached out to a few people on Linkedin who were working with satellite data to ask if my thesis was right. They confirmed that it was and that they would be willing to pay for hyperspectral, a more premium data set,” Awais remembers.
And that's how the idea of Pixxel was born in 2018.
He soon found a co-founder in his game-mate and batchmate Kshitij Khandelwal, with whom he used to regularly play FIFA and discuss his aspirations about going to space.
Once Awais and Kshitij charted the path for Pixxel, it was time to build satellites that could go into space and take hyperspectral images. The only hiccup was funding the building process.
Manufacturing satellites requires money, which as college students, neither of them had at that time. So they tried everything at their disposal to get started, in some manner.
Awais managed to put together about INR 3 lakh from his savings, which was barely enough to create a prototype. Later, he also borrowed about INR 10 lakh from his father. But manufacturing satellites costs big bucks.
They tried to get sponsorship from phone manufacturers like Sony and OnePlus. The offer that the duo made to the phone manufacturers was interesting: sponsoring the satellite expenses in exchange for taking their phones to space and taking pictures with them, which they could use later. Sony and OnePlus didn’t bite.
At that point, figuring out how to build a satellite seemed easier than raising funds.
“You could figure out the technical bits related to satellites by talking to people at ISRO or through the internet, but until we could get the money, we couldn't start anything,” Awais recalls.
Just like how his experiences at BITS Pilani were instrumental to starting Pixxel, once again, his connections at his alma mater took him out of the funding drought.
In late 2018, the alumni of BITS Pilani were hosting an annual event in Silicon Valley where Awais thought he could pitch his idea. But he didn’t have money for travel. Awais took a chance and opened up to the head of the mapping company he was working with temporarily and asked if his company would be willing to fund his travel for this event.
Impressed by what Awais and his team were doing in the space tech sector, his boss personally sponsored the travel tickets in lieu of a future investment opportunity.
Like a good startup founder, Awais made the best of this opportunity and networked left, right, and center. His tenacity was rewarded as he managed to convince a bunch of his alumni to put in a small amount of money.
Back home, Awais and Kshitij pitched their startup to GrowX Ventures, which decided to invest in them. In July 2019, they were selected for Techstar Space Accelerator, a Los Angeles-based accelerator that focuses on space tech companies. Pixxel was the only Asian company that made it to the club.
The company collectively received pre-seed funding of USD 700,000, which gave it a lifeline.
Awais says it was all about survival in the beginning. The founding team kept aside about 90% of the money to build satellites. Pixxel worked with NASA and the US Air Force during the accelerator program.
By early 2020, when it seemed that everything was going well for the company, things took an ugly turn. Awais and Kshitij had a syndicate of investors who were willing to write them a seed check, but weeks before they were supposed to sign the term sheet, COVID-19 hit.
The funding winter, thankfully, didn’t last long for Pixxel. Sanjay Nath, co-founder and managing partner at Blume Ventures, met Awais and Kshitij on the BITS campus during an event. They left such an impression on Sanjay that he closely followed the company for one and a half years and in August 2020 led the round with Lightspeed Venture Partners.
Pixxel raised $5Mn from Blume Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners, along with GrowX. A few months later, Omnivore participated as well, taking the total investment to USD 7.3 million.
“We had spoken to a few people who worked with them earlier, and we heard nothing but high praise. They also have a knack for punching above their weight with the kind of talent they attracted. This includes ISRO executives, folks who worked at NASA, and data imagery companies in the US,” Sanjay says.
While it might sound natural for a company to eventually raise money from VCs, this was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill fundraise. Pixxel was led by young entrepreneurs in their early 20s and was delving into an industry that was a little over a decade old. In human years, you can say that space tech is a toddler, which is still learning to walk.
It takes a lot of courage for investors and entrepreneurs alike to put their bets in a fledgling industry where you don’t have a set path and don’t know which road to follow and which to avoid.
This was particularly true for hyperspectral satellite imagery, which was uncharted territory when Awais and Kshitij launched Pixxel. But they were ready to pave the path for themselves.
Soon after Pixxel sorted out their funding woes, the team got to the business—sending their first satellite into space.
By February 2021, they were ready to launch their first satellite called Anand. The team was excited. But then they realized one of the vendors involved in manufacturing the satellite had goofed up testing of one of the components.
Awais and Kshitij decided that they would build a handful of demo satellites so that they don’t pin their hopes on one satellite only. “Finally in April of 2022, the first of our satellites [Shakuntala] went up to space and started beaming down data,” Awais says. In the following months, Pixxel launched two more demo satellites including Anand.
The company has been on a hyper-growth path ever since. It has grown from a 30 people team to about 130+ plus in the last 12 months. With three satellites in space, it has started selling hyperspectral images to companies as well.
Pixxel’s customers include Rio Tinto, one of the world's largest mining companies, DataFarming, which is an Australian agricultural analysis company, and the government bodies of the US and India.
One major step that Pixxel took in 2022 was that it started working on six satellites that would be launched in a cluster so that they could remain in space for about 10 years. The current three satellites in space, including Anand and Shakuntala, have a lifespan of about three years.
“The six satellites that we're calling Fireflies will be our flagship commercial constellation. They'll be bigger. They will have propulsion on them. They'll have higher-resolution cameras. And they'll have more collection capacity,” says Awais.
Parallely, Pixxel is also working on another constellation of satellites called Honeybees, which will be larger than Fireflies.
“The purpose of Honeybee is to increase the resolution of images and the wavelength range of our satellites. It will essentially expand our hyperspectral offering,” Awais says.
In total, Pixxel is looking at sending 24 satellites by 2025. Phase one of both of those constellations will go up in 2024. By 2025, phase two of Firefly and Honeybee is scheduled to launch. There will be a total of 18 Fireflies and six Honeybees, Awais says.
Before there was hyperspectral imaging, the industry was making do with multispectral imaging, which is a fancy way of saying that companies were using images and data sets with fewer details.
Pixxel’s competitors are limited to multispectral imaging. “The difference between them and us is that the quality of our images and data is much superior. Others are attempting to do hyperspectral but haven't yet proven that they can do it,” Awais says.
Hyperspectral imaging has a long list of use cases in diverse sectors and industries. Data from Pixxel’s satellites will be critical in helping global organizations closely monitor emissions, water pollution, gas leaks, oil spills, soil composition, forest biodiversity, and crop health in unprecedented detail and at faster speeds. You could call it the health monitor for the world.
Hyperspectral images of farmland captured by Pixxel can show soil nutrient content as well as areas with crop infestation and disease. Multispectral images of the same area can’t detect these things.
Details like crop infestation and identifying soil nutrients from hyperspectral images require analyzing complex data sets. To help its clients make sense of this data and expand the revenue model, in May 2023, Pixxel launched Aurora, a SaaS tool that will decode complex data for companies.
An oil and gas company can use Aurora to detect methane gas leakage or oil seepage. Similarly, a mining company can use it to keep a close watch on ongoing mining operations.
“Satellite data imagery and observation plays have been led by government and defense demand, but recently the cost savings and efficiency gains of oil, mining, and agriculture companies have emerged as use cases. I think there is a lot of room for revenues to be gained not just in the US but also in emerging markets considering how important data coverage is in this avenue,” Sanjay says.
As Pixxel slowly sets its foot firmly in the space tech industry, it wants to build the health monitor for Earth with the world’s highest-resolution hyperspectral satellites.
"I don't think people realize how perfectly timed their move into hyperspectral imaging is. Since they are an Indian company, this makes them stand out from other Enterprise/B2B plays that come out of India. Pixxel started right at the cusp of the paradigm shift towards hyperspectral imagery. Most competitors have built scaled businesses on the back of multispectral data which is inferior to hyperspectral," said Swathi Dhamodaran, who was in the team that lead the deal at Blume.
In the coming years, Pixxel is evaluating different use cases for its hyperspectral data. Awais is exploring ESG (Environment, Sustainability, and Governance) as one of the use cases. Carbon credits is also in the pipeline.
“We are seeing a lot of uptick in the carbon credit market with more people buying and selling carbon credits. There needs to be some way of actually evaluating how much carbon is sequestered and hyperspectral data can help with that,” Awais says.
As his way to pay it forward, Awais wants to put some of that data as free and open source to help create an ecosystem where students, researchers, and scientists can come in and build models for climate change and global warming.
Although limited, putting hyperspectral data as an open source, has the potential of creating a butterfly effect and impacting billions of lives around the world.
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