Theresa Condor of Spire

Theresa Condor of Spire

Listening from space

Theresa Condor, the Glasgow-based executive vice president of corporate development at Spire Global, explains to BQ Scotland editor Peter Ranscombe how satellites in space are changing lives back on Earth.

Listening from space “I’m pretty sure my parents think I’m dead,” says Tin Lin Tun, a 25-year-old enslaved fisherman rescued from a vessel off the coast of Indonesia. He is one of more than 2,000 fishermen saved in the country’s waters during a period of just six months in 2015 – and he has tracking technology to partly thank for his freedom. Human trafficking and forced labour are directly tied to the US$23.5bn (£18.5bn) illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing industry, which affects every sea and ocean on the planet. Spire Global, a satellite-powered data company based in San Francisco, is tracking the movements of fishing boats in order to help the authorities with enforcement.

“We have the largest ship-tracking network of nanosatellites in orbit,” explains Theresa Condor, executive vice president of corporate development and a member of the board at Spire. “We collect data where no-one else can.

“The information we assemble can only be collected by nanosatellites. Our users need it on a global basis in high volume.

“We perform many of the tasks involved with designing, building and operating nanosatellites, but at the end of the day we provide a data service to customers. We collect our data by ‘listening’ to the Earth through radio frequency signals, as opposed to ‘looking’ at the Earth by observing visual images or ‘talking’ to the Earth through communication satellites.

“The type of data we collect is for areas of the world that are covered by the oceans or are remote. That means ship tracking, plane tracking and weather data.”

Condor has been working with Spire since its earliest days. The company was founded in 2012 by chief executive Peter Platzer, payload architect Jeroen Cappaert and technical architect Joel Spark.

The trio met at the International Space University in France and launched the business through Lemnos Labs, a technology incubator in San Francisco. The idea for the company grew from the thesis that Platzer wrote for his master’s degree, which involved looking at the business ecosystem for nanosatellites.

“Nanosatellites are on an exponential technology curve and there’s a gap between people’s perception of the capabilities of nanosatellites and their actual capabilities,” says Condor. “Looking at that gap, there’s a business opportunity in there.”

Condor joined the company in 2013, having been involved informally with the creation of the business. She was part of the team that raised some of the early seed funding for the business and in recruiting some of its first customers. Having cut her teeth on microfinance initiatives in Bangladesh and shipping in the Mediterranean, Condor joined Citibank in New York where she worked in trade finance for emerging markets in Latin America. Her role involved financing the commodities and goods that were loaded onto ships and sent around the world.

“One of the things we do at Spire is ship-tracking, so we’re tracking a lot of the goods that I was financing at Citibank,” says Condor. “I know from my time at Citibank how difficult it could be to get accurate information about what’s happening out on the oceans.”

Since those early days, the company has grown and now has four offices – in Boulder, Glasgow, San Francisco and Singapore – and around 115 members of staff. All the firm’s spacecraft are manufactured and tested in Glasgow, where the company has recently expanded into larger facilities at Skypark, the business centre in the city’s trendy Finnieston district, with about 40 engineers, satellite operators and business development staff working in the office.

“Within six months of joining the company, I was already travelling the world and it became clear very early on that we would need a presence in Europe and in Asia,” Condor remembers. “Access to talent is crucial for us and so we were attracted to Glasgow because it has great universities and great engineering universities.

“Engineers are a scarce resource in Silicon Valley. Having multiple locations gives us access to the best people anywhere in the world.

“When we looked at Glasgow, we were impressed with the space infrastructure that already existed within Scotland and the UK and the speed with which other companies in the space sector interacted with us. Our staff love living in Glasgow too.

“We want to get even more involved with the community in Scotland and want to create more jobs here. Everyone focuses on what goes on in Silicon Valley but there are amazing things going on in the UK and Europe too.

“Diversity is really important to Spire. We have a lot of women in senior positions and we want to encourage more women to think about careers on both the engineering and the business development sides.

“Engineering is still a very male-dominated environment, as is Wall Street, where I came from. But, having been at Spire since the beginning, I think there are lots of opportunities for women to get involved with our company.”

Condor points to the impact that satellite data has on people’s lives around the world, whether it’s tracking ships and aircraft or using nanosatellites to follow storms or assemble other weather data. Weather-related disasters cost US$95bn a year, highlighting the need for accurate forecasts.

When it comes to shipping, ground-based monitoring systems can usually only track boats within 50 miles of port. Working with the existing hardware already installed on most vessels, Spire’s nanosatellites can track ships’ movements far out at sea, collecting data on their identity, position and heading.

Oceans, deserts and other inhospitable places cover around three-quarters of the Earth’s surface, highlighting the opportunities available to Spire. Further international expansion lies ahead of the company.

“Operating on a global basis – whether it’s working in our offices around the world or working with our customers around the world – is what excites me most about working with Spire,” adds Condor. “I’ve never been more optimistic or excited about the opportunities that lie ahead for our business.