Muon Space raises $25M Series A for Climate Intelligence from Space: Interview with CEO Jonny Dyer
Learn more about Muon Space's satellite constellation for gathering climate data and how CEO Jonny Dyer came to this solution.
This morning, Muon Space just announced their $25M Series A, led by Radical Ventures. Ubiquity first invested in Muon Space’s mid-2021 seed round. Here we interview Muon Space CEO Jonny Dyer on the need for more climate data and how his lifelong passion for space is solving this gap.
Can you sum up what Muon Space does in one sentence?
We build remote sensing constellations focused on climate issues.
Tell us more about Muon Space’s platform.
Getting sensors in space at scale has historically been very challenging for a number of reasons. Our platform makes that process much easier for customers who have a need for science-grade data collected from space but don't have a team of rocket scientists to go build it themselves. That includes things like a simulation toolset that allows us to really understand the detailed interactions of complex hardware/software systems that are required to deploy these satellites, as well as the actual spacecraft and instrument hardware and software that we pull together into missions for customers.
What is the story behind the founding of Muon Space?
We - myself and two of my co-founders - were involved in a project called MethaneSAT, which is an Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)-driven global methane monitoring satellite. It’s meant to drive significant reductions in methane globally by bringing more awareness to the emission sources in oil and gas and other places.
In the process of advising and participating in that project, we were inspired by the fact that this is a very interesting case of a non-government entity doing an impactful, hard science mission to collect really valuable data that is targeted at climate change. We also observed a lot of the challenges that have come about in trying to bring that project to fruition, specifically around pulling together a lot of disparate parts of the space instrumentation software supply chains and integrating those into something that can actually be executed.
We saw that there were a lot of commonalities to missions like this that really shouldn't need to be reinvented every time somebody wants to collect a new dataset from space. We understood that there was a real opportunity to try and build some reusable platform pieces that would enable organizations like the EDF to do this more repeatedly on shorter timelines, and without having to take on nearly as much of the complex aerospace engineering as they have.
How did you notice the need for an Earth remote sensing satellite platform?
If you look at what we currently observe from space about Earth today, it’s very limited - especially when you think about the scientific sensing of things, like the atmosphere for weather or climate forecasting, oceans for ocean forecasting, etc. These measurements are very sparse and are collected infrequently because they've largely been done by a small set of very large and very expensive government-driven satellite missions.
And at the same time, if you look at a lot of the needs of stakeholders that are trying to make decisions around climate, there is a key gap in much more frequent, higher temporally-sampled data. That - coupled with the fact that there's been a huge amount of progress in things like space launch that have substantially lowered the barrier to getting things into space - showed us that the missing piece is the sensor platform that enables us to scale that up dramatically and put many more sensors in space, allowing us to collect more densely-sampled, near real-time datasets to support a lot of these climate issues.
What failed attempts did you and your team try before getting to the current solution?
We spent a lot of time looking at very specific measurements. We thought, for example, that maybe we should start a company that was focused on atmospheric measurements of temperature for climate or greenhouse gasses and orient everything we were doing to a single observation that we would take vertically, productize, and build a business around.
In going through those exercises, we realized that there's no “silver bullet dataset” out there, and that most of the problems that need to be solved in the climate arena rely on a diverse set of different datasets coming together. We also realized that until we fixed the problem of how hard it is to get a new science sensor in space and then scale it into a constellation, we would be fighting ourselves in terms of trying to go vertically down any particular mission direction. That really moved us from “Let's go build a single narrow vertical climate data product!” to “How do we build a platform that enables many such products to exist?”
How do you know customers love your product?
A lot of it is just from direct feedback and continuing to work with the customers that we start with. For instance, we've been working with Google since essentially the company's founding and continue to have a really tight working relationship with the group there.
Similarly, we knew the Environmental Defense Fund prior to founding the company, and they're now a customer of ours. We're very hopeful - and it seems likely - that we will continue to work with them in a deep way.
A lot of it really comes from continuity. When we work with a customer and provide them value, do we see them continuing to seek us out and work with us on an ongoing basis?
When did you first get into this particular area of Earth remote sensing science?
I joined a company called Skybox Imaging very early on. It was the first “new space” satellite constellation remote sensing startup back in 2009. I got hired by a bunch of friends of mine that I went to grad school with to be the chief engineer for the company and lead a lot of the technical development of that constellation. I went through a really awesome trajectory with that company where we ended up deploying 22 very high-resolution satellites, got bought by Google, and then operated there for several years before they sold it again. That’s how I got started.
Were you interested in space as a child? Do you recall any identity-forging moments?
I've always been a space geek. When I was a kid, I spent a ton of time reading science fiction stuff, and I was really into rockets. I lived on two acres in Texas, and I would build solid rockets from scratch using stuff you could buy at the drug store and launch them in my yard. I scared my mom multiple times with loud booms coming out of the garage!
I’ve always had a passion for everything space and space-related. I didn’t really think about satellites as much back then - I really liked rockets. I actually started my career more in rocket propulsion, but I do think it’s all highly related.
One thing that I have always found interesting is that both of my parents are artists. I'm clearly not an artist, but I do think that growing up in that environment has been very influential on a lot of things about how I approach the world, and even engineering. I think there's a lot of art to it in an interesting way; the whole creative process around these things has a lot of similar aspects to it. Just having grown up in that environment - and being encouraged to think in very open and creative ways, experiment, and work with my hands - was very formative.
We think of nerds as people who are obsessed with something. What are you nerdy about or obsessed with?
I'm very interested in sensors and data and making measurements of the world. That has always been an interest of mine going all the way back to very simple embedded sensors and weather stations that I built as a kid. Now I think it extends into what we're trying to do at Muon Space.
What have you gotten out of your relationship with Ubiquity?
Sunil is great - he’s a great networker, and I seek advice from him on a regular basis. I think his wisdom and then also the network that he brings in terms of the other company CEOs. He hosts events regularly where we all get together and exchange knowledge; that's been really valuable, especially given the kind of community that Sunil has built. It’s a set of really good people. The connections he has in fundraising, tech, tech recruiting, and other areas have all been super helpful, too.
What keeps you going during tough times?
I have three kids, and when I started this company, one of my biggest priorities was doing something that I was really proud to tell my kids about. I think that's a really strong motivation for working through things when they get hard. It's worth it to work through the challenges if you know that what you're doing is meaningful and it's something you can leave behind, hopefully.
I also highly value the people I work with, and just being surrounded by high-integrity, very intelligent, thoughtful, and reflective people. I like having that environment of coming into work everyday and being able to engage in a very tight community of people who are motivated by a common goal, and who are willing to trust and be honest with each other and challenge assumptions. In any difficult endeavor, it helps so much to wake up and want to get out of bed and go to work with the people you work with every day.
What would you tell your past self if you could give them advice?
Have more patience. I still probably need to tell my current self this too, but I tend to be pretty impatient. I think I've gotten better. A lot of things just take time and can't be solved or fixed overnight, and my general bias is towards “see problem, fix problem”. Patience is probably something that I would tell my former self to have more of.
What’s your advice to budding technical founders who haven’t yet taken the leap to launch their new company?
Be very thoughtful about what skills the company will need and which of those you can and want to actually fulfill, as well as those you either can't or don't want to. Make sure to find strong people that can fill the gaps. As a founder, initially you have to do everything - there's no other choice - but you can't do that forever.
The thing that I have seen a lot of founders struggle with - and I think I've struggled with at times - is finding yourself in places where there are certain things that have to get done. You have to do it, of course, because the buck stops with you, and you haven’t really anticipated that well and so you're not necessarily happy doing it. It’s important to have a good, honest self-reflection on the things that you're good at and the things you like doing, and how that maps to starting a company and how you build that company.
Are you a founder working on a “software beyond the screen” startup? Let’s talk!
Ubiquity Ventures — led by Sunil Nagaraj — is a seed-stage venture capital firm focused using “software beyond the screen” to bring real-world physical problems into the domain of software, typically through the use of smart hardware or machine learning.
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