At first, Ithaca-based Ursa Space Systems was going to be a satellite company, that’s what two of its founders knew. Technically, it’s still kind of a satellite company. But now, instead of building the satellites themselves, Ursa specializes in utilizing satellites to collect data which can be used to help organizations make more informed decisions. Want a better view of where there’s flooding after a big storm? Ursa can help. Track deforestation? Ursa can help. Catch people fishing illegally? Ursa can help.
About four and a half years ago Adam Maher, Ursa founder and CEO, was living and working in Silicon Valley working on satellite technology. At the time, the technology was advancing and the hardware was becoming smaller. Maher noticed that customers using the expensive technology were frustrated that it was stymied by something as everyday as the clouds in the sky. They loved the idea of being able to use the technology to collect information from around the world, but the data sets were unreliable.
“When we started this originally, we were like ‘Hey, we’re going to go build satellites, and we’re going to build a particular type of satellite called radar which sees through clouds, sees at night, and really helps with the reliability aspect of it,’” Maher said.
When he began building his team, he managed to convince a California co-worker to join him all the way on the other side of the country. Now, Derek Edinger is a co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer. But before Edinger, Maher convinced Julie Baker to join as Chief Operating Officer. At the time, Baker was leading Architecture Technology Corporation, New York, a local business, but was looking for new challenges. Since this early trio the business has grown exponentially to a team of 50 people (at the end of last year it was at around 10 people), large enough to move out of their small office in the Gateway Center in downtown Ithaca, to a much larger space in the Hilton Garden Inn just a few blocks away.
When they went out into the market to start selling satellites, they found that it wasn’t the hardware that people needed, it was the data that was collected and data interpretation that was needed.
When building the business, Maher was contacted by representatives at Rev Ithaca Startup Works, a business incubator connected to Cornell University. So, why Ithaca, not Silicon Valley, for a tech startup? Maher said that one of the big draws to the area is the wealth of untapped talent coming from local schools like Cornell.
“My biggest fear with going to Ithaca was there wasn’t going to be an entrepreneurial community, because that’s so important when you start something like this, is having a community of supporters,” Maher said. “The mentors [Rev] had and the access they had to both Cornell and Ithaca College, and even TC3 supports that, the access to the various professors that work at those institutions, and the community that they were developing around entrepreneurship, that was really important.”
Without the training and mentoring from Rev, Maher said Ursa wouldn’t be where it is today. Rev is how Maher and Baker were connected, and although she knew nothing about satellites, she had complimentary skills to what Maher brought to the table. When she left ATC-NY, Baker was looking for work that had more personal meaning to her. She had loved her job at ATC-NY, but wanted something that could potentially make more of an impact or solve problems.
“I think our journey is really the most exciting to me because it has turned into building this very powerful system and infrastructure to solve major problems in the world,” Baker said. “Right now, we’re doing a lot of things to provide information to the finance and energy sectors, but it’s the infrastructure and the long term that will hep us meet problems in the humanitarian space.” By connecting with a variety of different companies who use satellites in countries around the world URSA collects data from practically everywhere. It’s likely that the company has access to the largest network of radar satellites in the world.
“I really like the holistic view of ‘What’s a problem we want to solve?’” said Edinger. “Not be like a tech company that’s a solution looking for a problem. We could build these satellites but what does it really do for the world?”
The company has found several opportunities to follow that path. After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Ursa used its satellite network to do real-time flood mapping and gave the data to the Weather Channel, as well as some of the businesses Ursa has worked with in the past that are located in Houston. It was all made publicly available on the Ursa website as well.
Looking ahead, Maher expects to see the company continue to grow at a fairly significant rate. Demand for Ursa’s services is already high and continuing to grow. At this stage, the high demand but limited resources is one of the challenges the company is facing. One of the areas of business that the company has become well versed in is the international oil trade, and tracking the oil industry. Maher wants to take the model they have created that has made that pursuit a success and apply to more areas.
As a mechanical engineer, Maher never expected to be running a software company or to be heading such a successful business that he built himself. Edinger, who has a similar background to Maher, feels similar. For Baker, taking a new, unexpected path was exactly what she was looking for. Working with satellites was a bit of a surprise. None of them really know what the future holds for Ursa, but they know they’ve found a home here in Ithaca.
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