The Democratization of the Final Frontier
A Chronicle of Satellites, Swarm Technologies, and Sara Spangelo
From the earliest myths of capricious, celestial gods to the brilliant theories of Hypatia, Copernicus and Galileo, the stars above have proven to be our greatest fascination and opportunity. Today, the scientific pursuit of the heavens above has been refined into the paragon of academic enquiry. Sara Spangelo, Swarm Technologies co-founder and CEO, discovered her own passion for outer space as a young girl, when she attended space camp and left wanting to be an astronaut. Her parents, teacher, and mentors supported her dream and gave her the motivation to take her first steps on a path toward the stars. Today, her deep-rooted interest in space has provided the foundation for her career and company.
“When you look out at the stars and realize we’re just specks on the globe, it’s truly fascinating,” Sara said. “It gives me a sense of curiosity and wonder.”
Upon earning an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and a pilot’s license, Sara matriculated to the University of Michigan College of Engineering to earn her PhD in Aerospace Engineering.
“My University of Michigan PhD was rewarding, and it essentially changed the course of my life.”
She describes her Michigan experience as one the most challenging and personally fulfilling experiences of her life. Originally drawn to the University for a masters degree, she soon discovered that a Doctor of Philosophy was the appropriate choice, and pursued it with fervent tenacity.
“My time at Michigan taught me to be an independent researcher and thinker, along with the importance of advocating for my ideas,” she said.
With her PhD, Sara became a systems engineer for NASA and eventually, for X Development LLC (X), previously known as Google X. X operates as Google’s semi-secret research and development subsidiary organization, and is a self-proclaimed “moonshot factory.” X aims to solve several of the world’s most pressing issues including global hunger, protecting oceans without feeding humanity sustainably, and converting mere beams of light into internet signals.
In her time at X, Sara was a Systems Engineer on Project Wing, which aimed to create an autonomous drone delivery system. The genesis of the project is an alarming statistic: 28 percent of greenhouse gases come from transportation (Source: EPA “Carbon Pollution from Transportation). With this critical issue as their charter, Sara and her team worked to engineer a sustainable solution that could quickly be scaled to the global market. The end result was an air delivery system that is faster, safer, and more ecological than ground transit.
“I got to experience an incredible experience,” she said. “It was quite the adventure, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
The project has now graduated from X, and currently operates as an independent Alphabet subsidiary company, aptly named Wing. While Wing took flight as a budding company beyond Google’s R&D accelerator, Sara decided to forge her own path by founding her own venture. This is the birth of Swarm Technologies.
Founded in 2016, Swarm’s mission is to make global connectivity both accessible and affordable by launching a constellation of powerful, miniature-sized satellites. Approximately 100 satellites have been launched thus far.
“The satellites transfer small messages anywhere on the planet,” Sara said. “They’ve been applied to agricultural sensors, maritime vessels, buoys, container ships, and energy grids.
“Each of these machines are not connected to cellular service grids, and need a way to connect.”
In years past, satellites have been notoriously expensive to produce, deploy, and purchase. For example, a legacy weather satellite weighs hundreds of kilograms and costs around $290 million USD (NASA). These expenses often are passed to the end consumer, and have rendered satellite technology inaccessible to households, medium-sized businesses, and other entities with budget constraints. Sara’s company upends this cycle, as Swarm brings the price down to a record breaking $5 per device per month.
“As the launch cost is directly proportional to the size of the satellite, we’re able to make these satellites more affordable simply because they’re smaller,” she said. “The economics are just so favorable, we’re able to offer a low cost service.”
Additionally, Swarm Technologies is completely vertically integrated, enabling an optimized supply chain, thus further reducing the cost of Swarm satellite services. The entire constellation of satellites was launched for less than Swarm’s $25 million dollar Series A investment.
Sara Spangelo’s work to create accessible satellite technology for small and medium businesses of all sectors is a step toward democratizing outer space. She hopes to soon bring her technology to consumer markets.
In a mere five years, Sara has fully developed her company and created an exit for her investors, as SpaceX officially acquires the firm later this year. According to Business Insider, the capabilities of Swarm Technologies could be deployed to buttress Elon Musk’s Starlink, a low latency internet venture. By all definitions and accounts, this exit is an entrepreneurial victory lap. Whether she elects to remain as CEO after the acquisition or pioneers a new, groundbreaking venture, Sara Spangelo is a true entrepreneur, driven by an astute understanding of human need and an unwavering passion for the stars above.