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Satellite imagery specialist ICEYE continues U.S. expansion, with $50 million in contracts last year

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Key Points
  • ICEYE, a specialist in synthetic aperture radar satellites, signed $50 million in contracts last year.
  • The Helsinki, Finland-based company continues to grow, with steady expansion in the U.S. and hiring multiple new executives, including a former Tesla leader.
  • "Our 2021 plan really is to upscale the constellation and grow the manufacturing capability in order to maintain that base, because we have to answer the market demand," ICEYE CEO Rafal Modrzewski told CNBC.
Three ICEYE satellites, the trio of silver cube-like spacecraft visible near the top of the stack, on SpaceX's Transporter-1 mission in January 2021.
ICEYE

Finnish satellite imagery firm ICEYE continues to expand its business in the U.S., announcing Wednesday that it signed $50 million in contracts last year for its services while hiring multiple new executives, including a former Tesla leader.

ICEYE co-founder and CEO Rafal Modrzewski told CNBC that last year's total sales growth was "an unexpected result" given the COVID-19 pandemic, and represented contract growth of nearly 10 times what the company signed in 2019.

"It was definitely above expectations, and we see this trend continuing," Modrzewski said.

The company's business is based upon combining a special type of imagery, called synthetic aperture radar (or SAR), with a form factor the size of a suitcase – reducing the cost of launching multiple satellites to create a network that can image places on Earth multiple times a day.

ICEYE's not alone in pursuing the SAR imagery market. San Francisco-based Capella Space recently deployed its own SAR satellites in orbit to capture of a piece of the Earth intelligence market, which is estimated to be worth about $60 billion.

"We see the fastest growth, in terms of percentage ... in the revenue coming from the commercial sector," Modrzewski said.

The company is now working to scale its revenue further, Modrzewski said "from tens of millions of booked contracts to hundreds of millions." That's necessitated the hiring of more executives at ICEYE to "be able to handle that hyper growth phase," he said, with the company's global headcount now reaching 280 employees.

"Our 2021 plan really is to upscale the constellation and grow the manufacturing capability in order to maintain that base, because we have to answer the market demand," Modrzewski said.

Launching 10 more satellites this year

ICEYE

Modrzewski's company, founded in 2015, has raised more than $150 million in venture funding to date, with 10 satellites launched to orbit.

But ICEYE plans to double that this year alone, with plans to put another 10 satellites in orbit on three different upcoming launches. The satellites will represent a next-generation of capabilities for ICEYE, with Modrzewski noting the first will be technology demonstrations.

"Usually why we call those satellites demonstrations is because because they're the first ones – we do not guarantee full commercial capabilities from it, even though of we are going to aim for that 100% of the design. And then the follow up missions are most probably going to be of that generation but on a commercial basis," Modrzewski said.

While ICEYE's next-generation satellites feature multiple improvements, Modrzewski highlighted the addition of a "multi-spot capability" – being able to fly over a location only once but deliver multiple images at once.

ICEYE's new satellites also feature the ability to capture over 100 kilometer swaths, "even better resolution" than its current 25 cm offering, and faster delivery of imagery to customers.

How long it takes ICEYE to deliver an image after receiving a customer order is a key metric for its satellites.

While ICEYE is able to get a satellite in view of most parts of the world "within 12 hours on average," Modrzewski expects that process – called "tasking" a satellite – to be cut down to "somewhere closer to six to five hours" on average by next year.

Then, after capturing the image, ICEYE has enabled its next generation satellites with the capability "to perform simultaneous download and acquisition" – meaning ICEYE aims to deliver within 10 minutes of the image being acquired, rather than a couple hours later.

ICEYE previously expected to build a constellation of 18 satellites in orbit, but Modrzewski thinks the company will launch more satellites now, having invested more in manufacturing last year. The number of satellites needed in orbit is "always demand driven, so it's very hard for me to say," he noted.

Expansion continues

Modrzewski said that the company's U.S. office, which ICEYE announced last year, is growing very quickly. ICEYE now plans to expand it to "almost match" its U.S. presence with the company's headquarters in Helsinki, Finland.

ICEYE announced five executive additions to its leadership team Wednesday, to help its further growth. The company brought on Susan Repo as CFO, who previously worked for Tesla for five years, including as CFO of Tesla Finance.

The company added three new ICEYE vice presidents: former MDA chief systems engineer Alan Thompson as vice president of engineering, former EagleView data science director Shay Strong as vice president of Analytics, and Marita Markkula – the former marketing lead of cybersecurity firm F-Secure – as vice president of marketing.

ICEYE also brought on Steven Scheers, who has a background in human resources across multiple growing companies, as the company's chief people and culture officer.