Orbital Insight raises $50M to track economies from space

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(Bloomberg) -- Orbital Insight Inc., the startup betting on using big-data analysis of satellite imagery to give investors a more accurate and timely view of the global economy, raised $50 million from U.S. and Japanese investors to bring its total funding to $78.7 million.

The Series C funding was led by Sequoia Capital, one of Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms, and additional investors included Geodesic Capital and Japan’s Itochu Corp., Orbital said in a statement Tuesday. The four-year-old company’s valuation wasn’t disclosed.

The fresh capital will be used to expand its partnerships, increase its analytics products, and build bigger international sales operations in Europe and Asia, Orbital said. The Mountain View, California-based company founded by former NASA scientist and Google engineer James Crawford also will step up recruiting in engineering, data science and design.

Falling satellite launch costs are helping make geospatial imagery a bigger and better source for economists and investors tracking everything from China’s manufacturing to the number of cars parked outside Wal-Mart stores. Venture capital investment in space companies jumped to a record nearly $1.4 billion last year, bringing the total since 2000 to $13.3 billion, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said in a report last month.

‘Spy-Movie Stuff’

"I’d met with a lot of satellite and rocket launch companies prior to our investment in Orbital. One of the things I didn’t see was the big data, machine learning piece," said Sequoia partner Bill Coughran, who formerly worked with Crawford at Google. "There’s a big change taking place. That old spy-movie stuff where you have people hovering over an image will go away, with computers doing a lot of the work."

Envision Ventures, Intellectus Partners, and Balyasny Asset Management also participated in the Series C investment, Orbital said. Orbital has received past funding from Bloomberg Beta, a venture-capital unit of Bloomberg LP.

Orbital buys satellite and drone imagery from commercial providers including Airbus SE, DigitalGlobe Inc. and Planet Labs Inc., then uses advanced image processing and machine learning algorithms to track trends visible in cars, farms, and buildings. Customers include financial firms, U.S. government agencies and non-profit organizations.

Geodesic invested in Orbital after working with it to assess the Japanese market, according to Nate Mitchell, a partner at the Foster City, California, firm, which has a Tokyo subsidiary. Japanese banks, insurers, retailers, manufacturers, and tech companies are looking to space imagery for better understanding of daily business and broader market forces, Mitchell said.

Oil Tanks

Last year, Orbital calculated from photos showing the depth of shadows cast by floating lids of giant oil tanks in China that the world’s largest energy consumer may have stored more crude than official government estimates. The company has also teamed up with World Bank researchers to help better identify areas of extreme poverty.

Analysts see the space business beginning a broader transformation, led by companies like Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin LLC. Commercial space will be a multi-trillion dollar industry within two decades, Goldman Sachs analysts led by Noah Poponak in New York said in an April 4 research report.

"The second Space Age has begun, and the forces of innovation and disruption are overtaking formerly stagnant industries," they wrote. "We are witnessing an inflection point in the significance of the space economy, where it becomes central in providing Internet access and basic services to more than half the world’s population, compounding growth."

--With assistance from Ashlee Vance and Stephen Stapczynski

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