Pierre-Damien Vaujour, CEO of Loft Orbital, is making space simple for 2 new $100M+ customers
Learn how Loft Orbital is changing the space industry and Pierre-Damien's personal passion for exploration.
Loft Orbital makes space simple by letting customers use Loft’s space infrastructure to operate payloads and satellite constellations. In this interview, CEO and co-founder Pierre-Damien Vaujour talks about how Loft Orbital is changing the space industry and his personal passion for exploration.
Can you sum up what Loft Orbital does in one sentence?
Loft Orbital is a space infrastructure company, and we let customers deploy their missions on our infrastructure.
Tell us more about Loft Orbital’s product.
What we are providing to customers is very simple and affordable access to space that can take two forms:
Customers can either give us a physical instrument, like a camera or radio, that they want to fly in space and we handle this entirely for them
Or customers can give us a virtual payload which is software, and we let them load their software into our computers in orbit.
Essentially, we get customer-deployed missions into space, whether those missions are physical, where they give us a piece of hardware, or virtual, where they give us a piece of software (which could be AI for computer applications in space).
What is the story behind the founding of Loft Orbital?
I was previously working in another startup, and I wanted to start my own company. I enjoyed working with co-workers Alex and Antoine, the two other Loft Orbital founders, and what we saw was that for the first time we were starting to have mass manufacturing available for satellites. This was a time when companies like OneWeb and Starlink were created.
We saw an opportunity to change the space industry, where instead of designing satellites as a custom one-off, we could use standard satellite buses and then configure them for different applications. We are turning an aerospace engineering problem into a software engineering problem, and the way we’re doing this is that instead of designing a satellite every time, we use a mass-manufactured satellite bus, and then we configure it with our modular payload adapter, called The Hub. The Hub enables us to host different applications or sensors, and turns the configuration into a software problem. After the payload is integrated, it is operated using Loft's mission-agnostic satellite operations platform called Cockpit. The key here is that software engineering scales dramatically better than aerospace engineering.
Was there anything you tried before landing on the right product?
We started with the deployment of physical missions to space, but then we realized there was even more demand for virtual missions. There was more demand for people who just want to build software, load it on the satellite, and deploy it, exactly as if you had a virtual machine and the virtual set of sensors in space but you can access it remotely - as if you were “AWS for space”. Interestingly, Sunil actually was the one who coined the term “AWS for space” when talking about Loft.
So, we expanded the concept of infrastructure to the full extent by pushing the virtualization of hardware to its maximum, which means we evolved our concept from providing a physical mission to a virtual environment where you could deploy software. That is something that we didn't start with and that came over time as we realized there was a need. We wanted to make it easy for anyone to just deploy software on the satellite the same way people deploy software on the cloud.
How do you know customers love your product?
We know customers love us because we talk to our customers every week - that remains a number one priority. We know they like our products, because they are actually using it a lot, and every day we can see how many requests they make and how much they're using it. When they aren’t loving it, they tell us immediately and we fix it! Someone will say, “I love what I can do, but I would love to be able to do this also.” So there is an iterative loop where we can bring new features to the product as well. We also see them talking about what they have achieved, which is the most important validator of our technology.
When did you first get into this particular area of space infrastructure?
I’m an aerospace engineer by education, and I've been in the space industry for my entire career. I wasn't a kid that loved space, but I think it started at university and then starting to choose my first job. I started working in what we call “private space exploration” - which is almost like space tourism - at the XPRIZE Foundation. I really loved the experience there, as well as the people and the energy, and so that's where I decided to spend the rest of my career in space.
I went to the International Space University (ISU) - that’s actually a thing! - and I met with one of the NASA Center directors who wanted to bring me in. Of course, as a French person in my early 20s, working at NASA was a fantastic opportunity so I was very happy about that, and then that’s how I started and stayed in the space industry.
Do you recall any identity-forging moments?
I think the first one was at the XPRIZE Foundation meeting with Anousheh Ansari. Anousheh is an Iranian-American woman who has flown on the International Space Station, and she was the one financing the first XPRIZE. Seeing her, and seeing what it’s potentially possible to do in the space industry - even with limited means but with the right level of energy and mindset - was very inspiring. She’s been an inspiration in many ways.
The second one is that I was one of the first employees at Spire, which is another startup in the space industry. I was there when the company had raised around $100,000 on Kickstarter. So I think seeing that you can take a group of five or six people and then actually turn it into a successful startup was an experience for me that made me realize it's actually possible. When you put two and two together, that's really why I am where I am today.
We think of nerds as people who are obsessed with something. What are you nerdy about or obsessed with?
The thing I’m nerdy about in general is exploration and the unknown. If I try to tie the personal and the professional, before the startup I was doing a lot of traveling exploration and leading expeditions. These were trips to places where no one has gone before, like remote Alaska, or where people don’t really see a lot of foreigners, like Myanmar. I also was doing a lot of mountaineering, jungle trips, and deep diving, and exploring places that are still somewhat unexplored or still remote. Another related hobby is that I’m a coach for zero-gravity flights through the Zero-G corporation, which provides flights where you fly in zero gravity inside the plane. It’s kind of the same thing - I call it exploration because it's unknown territory for humans, because it is very unusual to be floating in zero-g in an airplane.
To me, all of that is exploration, and the same goes for the professional side which is exploration of space, which is the final frontier. So it's both exploring what can be done by going to space and putting satellites up, but also exploring things on Earth from space. Looking at how the climate is changing, how the Earth is moving over the years…all of that is interesting to me.
What have you gotten out of your relationship with Ubiquity Ventures?
First, I think Sunil is the best investor I’ve ever met - I absolutely think he's exceptional. He's smart, sharp, concise, an excellent communicator, and he’s completely genuine. I think the relationship with Sunil is what I value the most.
Secondly, it would be a community of other like-minded founders. Sunil organizes events in the spirit of a safe space and a community with other founders. As a founder and as a CEO, you can’t share everything with everybody so you kind of have to behave in a certain way, and it's really nice when you have a safe space with other people that encounter the same challenges as you. I think it’s great.
What keeps you going during tough times?
I think it's a sense of responsibility for everybody using Loft. Once you start you wonder, what if we stop? And then you look around you at all the people who have made a lot of sacrifices to join Loft and who are really looking forward to what we're doing, and you don't want to let them down. I think that's really what drives me.
What advice would give your past self?
I would say take it slow. When you're growing a bit and when you're building a venture-backed startup, there is a need for growth because you need to raise capital, and your ability to raise capital is driven by your work. There is always a price for very fast growth, and it’s always good for the short-term benefit but not necessarily for the long-term benefit.
I would say: hire very deliberately people that you want to be the ambassador of your culture. For me, culture is what is most important.
What’s your advice to budding technical founders who haven’t yet taken the leap to launch their new company?
Go for it anyway because there's so much learning in doing this. This is going to be the fastest learning curve that they will ever have, and so it's very valuable no matter what. Either they like it and it's successful, and that’s great, or they don't like it and/or it's not successful and then they have no regrets.
If you don't do it, you will have regrets your entire life. If you do it and you don't like it, then you don't have regrets that you didn't do it. There’s a quote along the lines of, “The things you regret in life are the things you haven’t done, not the things you have done”, and I think that’s very true.
Ubiquity Ventures — led by Sunil Nagaraj — is a seed-stage venture capital firm focused on startups solving real-world physical problems with "software beyond the screen", often using smart hardware or machine learning.
If your startup fits this description, fill out the 60-second Ubiquity pitch form and you’ll hear back within 24 hours.
Thanks for reading Ubiquitous Thoughts! Subscribe to receive new posts.