by Jeremiah Cotman
Adam Maher, President and Founder of Ursa Space Systems and Cornell alumni, spoke to students in the first eLab class and Speaker Series of spring. He shared what lead to his decision to start his own company, Ursa’s major pivot from satellite manufacturer to satellite data analysis, and what Ursa is doing now.
Prior to stepping out as an entrepreneur, Adam worked as a system engineer in a variety of roles for Space Systems Loral (SSL), one of the largest commercial producers of communications satellites and satellite systems in the U.S.
For a number of multi-million dollar satellites, Adam was one of the last signatures of approval before they were launched into orbit, never to be touched by a human hand again. By his own admission, his life was great. He had a stable career, a newly pregnant wife, and the picturesque rooftop patio in the San Francisco Bay Area, but he was determined to go for an idea beyond where SSL was willing to follow.
The itch to start his business brought him and his family back to Ithaca to found Ursa Space Systems. The original idea was to put a constellation of 32 synthetic aperture radar satellites into orbit. Synthetic aperture radar is able to view the surface of the Earth accurately in darkness and through cloud cover, giving it significant advantages over the standard camera. This was an undertaking that would cost over 60 million for the first satellite alone, a total cost no investor was willing to trust to the new Ursa team.
“As a new startup you have to be able to be scrappy and get started without a lot of funding,” said Adam.
Adam and his team took a close look at what they do well, paying attention to everything outside of manufacturing. They knew how to take raw satellite data and conform it into something useful and presentable, that the customer could understand. Synthetic aperture radar data is commercially available from existing satellites in raw form. Although it is no replacement for a complete system of satellites, it was enough to build a valuable product that clients wanted.
Overnight the company pivoted from a hardware business to a software and systems business.
Ursa has grown to over nine employees and is a member of Rev: Ithaca Startups Works, business incubator, located in downtown Ithaca. They recently tested one of their algorithms by monitoring parking for the Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, CA. Ursa continues to expand and will be tackling data gathering and interpretation for international clients in the near future.
The experience and insights of speakers are an important piece of the eLab curriculum. We are lucky to have Adam Maher so close by here in Ithaca and thank him for sharing his experience as an entrepreneur with us.
If you want to witness this year’s top Cornell student startups for yourself, join us for Demo Day, April 14th. Register Now for Celebration 2016!