Why We Need To Democratize Space And How Sen Will Do This With Real-Time Space Television
Tell us your background and about Sen
After school, I did a law degree at London University and qualified as a barrister. I particularly enjoyed studying media, human rights and constitutional law but I was always keen to run my own company.
After qualifying as a barrister, I started an internet business called Nasstar which I listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2005. I stepped down as CEO of the business in 2014 in order to focus on Sen. Nasstar at the time had a market cap of around £25 million, and it has now grown to a market value of over £70 million.
The idea for Sen came to me in my last year of school in 1990 but my interest in space began when I was a child. Growing up under the dark night skies of North Yorkshire in the north of England, I was able to gaze up at the stars in wonder. I always imagined looking at Earth from space thinking that such a perspective makes you think differently about how we govern ourselves and look after the planet and that everyone should have the opportunity to see Earth from space.
That idea, that everyone should have the benefit of seeing unique perspectives of Earth, is at the core of Sen’s vision.
Sen’s business is streaming videos from space for humanity. Our vision is to democratize space by streaming unique video perspectives of our ever-changing world and future in space to inform, educate, inspire and benefit all humanity. Sen’s mission is to stream real-time videos from space to billions of people.
That idea, that everyone should have the benefit of seeing unique perspectives of Earth, is at the core of Sen’s vision.
Sen is opening a new B2C market for Earth Observation, analogous to how GPS was transformed from military use to civilian mass adoption location-based services. We will do this by creating a new B2C app, streaming videos from space to consumers.
Our business model is a freemium service, with a free version of the app for citizens and premium data services for partner organisations who will benefit from the information to help with natural disasters, humanitarian crises, displaced people, sustainable development and weather. We will also work with partners who specialise in analysing satellite data to derive valuable insights for a range of challenges faced by humanity.
We are an executive team of 8, plus two non-executive Directors.
How did the idea for Sen come about and what was it like getting started?
At the age of 16, I started thinking about what type of business I wanted to start and spent a couple of years thinking deeply about what I wanted to create. I considered building houses and tried to buy a plot of land in the village where I lived. The fact I was offering to buy the land whilst still in my school uniform must have made the agent doubt my credibility!
After two years of soul searching, I discovered my original instinct to create a business without boundaries in space or time. It was 1990, my last year at school, and I remember being very excited by the vision I had. I expressed it as ‘gathering news and information about space and broadcasting it’, a business that I thought would be relevant and could scale ad infinitum. I imagined satellites manufacturing satellites in space so they could keep on going and filming the Universe forever, building an electronic version of it to share with people. I called it ‘space TV’ which is still a tagline we use today.
I found confirmation for my vision when I looked up at the night sky and observed TV written in the stars, the T could be seen from Orion’s belt and sword and the V from Hyades. The truth is I saw what I wanted once I had formed the view that creating space TV was my destiny. I have since worked my entire adult life toward the goal of building Sen.
Although the idea came in 1990, the technology wasn’t ready for what many (*everyone*) called my crazy idea. It was before the Internet and before ‘new space’. I wasn’t quite sure how to go about my dream so I did a sensible thing, obtaining a law degree and taking the Bar exams.
During my degree, the Internet emerged and a paper I had written for my media law studies in 1995 was published on how broadcasting regulation was going to change because anyone would be able distribute videos on the internet. I could see that publishing videos on the internet was going to be the best way of achieving global reach for video content.
Having qualified as a barrister in 1997, I was keen to start my own business and decided to set up an Internet company. Originally, I called it Space Internet and the plan was to gain experience of Internet video by offering to make videos for websites. However, at the time – 1998 – I soon discovered that no one was interested in Internet video. The bandwidth simply didn’t exist to make it usable.
So I focused on hosting web sites and changed the name to Nasstar. I was operating from my bedroom for the first year, building and hosting web sites. In the early 2000s, I expanded from hosting web sites to hosting desktops and software as I could see the next wave of computing was delivering everything online.
24 years had already passed since I came up with the idea at school. I funded the business myself in the early years taking no salary for years – it is all part of the pain in pursuit of a dream!
We launched hosted email and desktop services, hosting a range of business applications and Microsoft software. After growth, I floated the business on the London Stock Exchange in 2005 under the ticker symbol NASA – a small nod to my passion for space. All this time I was keen to get on fulfilling my space vision but, by the mid-2000s, I knew that I would have to create a new venture for space TV because Nasstar was now a publicly quoted cloud computing company.
I therefore started looking for a brand for the business in 2007 and after a year of searching acquired Sen.com with Sen being an acronym for Space Exploration Network. I spent a lot of time finding the right brand because I wanted to build a global consumer brand, I had to have a simple brand and the dot com domain. However, I couldn’t do much about Sen because I was still founder and CEO of Nasstar plc and wanted to ensure that that had a successful future and delivered for shareholders and staff.
I got permission from my Nasstar Board to undertake some background work on Sen whilst still running Nasstar. For example, I registered trademarks for ‘sen’ and obtained the social media assets we would one day need. From 2010 to 2015 we provided space news on sen.com. I just wanted to get on with doing something with the domain and build up a following. That period also enabled me to understand the new space market better, and work out the best way to go about building Sen.
In 2014 I was able to step down as CEO of Nasstar having acquired a business that provided the same service. That acquisition enlarged the business and benefitted from an outstanding management team that could do a better job than me of growing the business.
After a few months of handing over to the new management, I was free from mid 2014 to focus on Sen. Time flies, but 24 years had already passed since I came up with the idea at school. I funded the business myself in the early years taking no salary for years – it is all part of the pain in pursuit of a dream!
It took me 18 months learning about the space sector, thinking how best to execute the plan, and then hiring our first space engineers to start working on the technical plan. We spent a lot of time on designing and then developing our core video streaming technology, and then got an opportunity for spaceflight to demonstrate our technology on orbit.
How did you fund the company initially?
I funded the early stages of the business until I felt I had a clear proposition that was attractive to angel investors. I started with investors who had backed my last venture, and networked from there. The UK Enterprise Incentive Scheme (EIS) provides very attractive tax relief for investments in startups, and that definitely helped with angels. Since then, we have raised an additional £1.1m from private investors for a total investment of £1.25 million. We are now generating some early revenues by providing our video streaming platform for self-inspection of spacecraft.
The initial funding enabled us to get a team together, plan and design the video streaming technology, and in fact get it built and launched into orbit.
It is great to have so many supportive investors. There will be future funding rounds and opportunities for new investors to come aboard until we reach the point when the business is sustainable from profit.
Why is the problem you are solving important and how does it help human space exploration?
We’re addressing the need to democratize space to address some of humanity’s biggest challenges including natural disasters, humanitarian crises, displaced people, climate change, sustainable development and, as we expand life and the economy to the Moon and beyond, the need for an independent media for humanity.
There is no accessible, useful or independent media about our ever-changing planet and future in space. In short, there is no media to inform, educate and benefit the people.
The problem and the solution can be considered as having two components. First, there is no real-time video of rapidly evolving events such as natural disasters and humanitarian crises because current solutions are designed to monitor change over longer periods of time and are not designed to show movement of people or the natural world. Second, there is nothing for the people. There is no accessible, useful or independent media about our ever-changing planet and future in space. In short, there is no media to inform, educate and benefit the people.
The solution is twofold. First, capture videos from space focused on humanity’s big challenges facing our ever-changing planet and future beyond Earth, leveraging video’s unique attributes of movement and story-telling power. Second, make the information accessible by everyone so that video’s unique attributes can help change the way people think, feel and act. Democratizing space in this way can change the outcome of our present and future - it truly is for the benefit of all humanity. #DemocratizeSpace.
What are some achievements you're proud of?
I am proud of the team we have, their talent and hard work is extraordinary. Our engineering team is Jonathan, Matt, Ed and Brian, and they have a lot of space experience and a broad set of skills, both hardware and software. We have recently begun expanding the team, with Elena joining as Director of Business Innovation, Fernando as Head of User Engagement and Kristy as a Senior Project Manager. Please see our website to read more about our focused and talented team.
The biggest highlight for Sen is seeing Earth from space with our Ultra High Definition video achieving world firsts using our 4K video and steerable cameras. The team had to work extraordinarily hard to deliver the technology in time for the launch of the host spacecraft. The video streamed back is stunning and extremely rewarding to see.
What have been some of your biggest challenges? How did you overcome them?
One challenge in the early days was securing external funding at a time when we needed the faith of investors to believe we could deliver on the plan. When you have nothing to show and only an idea, it is always difficult raising money but especially so when you are doing something that has never been done before. It is what one well-known investor called Peter Thiel calls vertical progress or ‘zero to one’ and, as he says:
“Vertical progress means doing new things. Vertical progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done.”
As a result you need visionary investors, which might be individuals or institutions, and I have been fortunate to find such investors. Having a track record of building a successful business before has helped. I am told that investors feel more confident because of what I achieved before and investors who meet the team can only be impressed by their knowledge and skill.
We still have many challenges ahead. I think it is important to be realistic that creating something extraordinary takes time and is never easy. But the key ingredients exist to make this happen: the technology is doable and we have a great team that can deliver it; the demand for our service exists, and the demand and the costs of delivering are such that we can build a sustainable business model. We just have to go through a process, step by step, with skill and determination, and we will make Sen’s vision a reality.
One challenge in the early days was securing external funding at a time when we needed the faith of investors to believe we could deliver on the plan.
What are exciting milestones coming up for Sen?
Sen is now working on the next version of our video streaming payload for installation in both hosted cameras and our first satellites. We will launch the service by 2021. There are some innovative features of our first satellite and distribution platform that we are very excited about, but we have to keep the details confidential for now.
What advice do you have for aspiring space entrepreneurs?
I read once, and agree, that a CEO has 3 tasks:
- Communicate the vision (which I interpret as communicating to everyone – the team, investors, media and of course end users;
- Raise the capital to make it happen, and
- Hire the talent to deliver it.
To these three tasks I would add an essential number (4): Solve problems (that is the polite way of putting it). Expect problems all the time but take joy in overcoming each hurdle.
As a CEO you are a problem solver, so enjoy the challenges. If not daily, then weekly you will face problems, and the key is to expect them and relish trying to solve them. Although my vision is long-term, I still focus on one day at a time and to do my best to make that day a good one.
I also recommend you try and enjoy the journey because you can’t build a business overnight and it takes years to develop and get right. This is easier said than done as I have spent my whole life living in the future imagining how Sen will be when the service is fully operational. I now try harder to enjoy the journey milestone by milestone.
Try and enjoy the journey because you can’t build a business overnight and it takes years to develop and get right.
The lessons learned include that it is impossible not to continue making mistakes and learning from them. I would do some things differently but I can’t advise others what they are because they are specific to the journey I and the team are on. Every entrepreneurial journey is unique and never a straight line.
How can the public support you with your mission?
We are a people business and our end goal is providing a service to the public, so when the service launches everyone can help by downloading and using the app. Until then, please subscribe to our mailing list on sen.com, follow us on twitter (@sen) and Instagram (@sen) and post as many positive comments as possible so we can show stakeholders there is a huge demand for what we are doing. You might also like to buy some Sen merchandise – we will soon have merchandise via Space Store, so please go and buy a T-shirt and wear the Sen brand with pride!
Lastly, where can people find out more about Sen and follow along?
Please visit our website where you can sign up to our mailing list for updates and watch our first video highlights. Please also support Sen by following our social media channels: Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube.
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