Growing up in Yerevan, Armenia, Rema Matevosyan and her amateur astronomer grandparents enjoyed heading outside in the middle of the night, paper map carefully marked, to observe the stars. Now as CEO of geospatial data startup Near Space Labs, her technology takes her close.
While the billionaire space race has helped spur a wave of interest in companies looking to travel, manufacture and mine off-planet, Near Space is focused a little bit closer, in the stratosphere. There, Matevosyan’s startup collects geospatial data through small autonomous robots attached to weather balloons, a contraption it calls “the Swifty,” capturing up to 1,000 square kilometers of imagery each flight from more than 60,000 feet up.
The process is cheaper—and carries a much lower carbon footprint—than flying a special plane or launching a satellite, Matevosyan says. But its data sets could prove just as valuable to insurers, governments, disaster recovery and autonomous vehicle operators alike.
“We are a very rebellious Earth-imaging company when everyone is launching satellite constellations,” Matevosyan says. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re beautiful devices. But with the rapid adoption of our product and our rapid growth wherever we’ve deployed, it speaks to the dire need for this data that we are providing.”
Now, with more than 150 flights completed, Brooklyn- and Barcelona-based Near Space is raising a $13 million Series A funding round led by Crosslink Capital, with Toyota Ventures and existing investors Leadout Capital and Wireframe Ventures joining in. The funding brings Near Space’s total funding to $16.8 million so far, and comes as the business is looking to hire more than a dozen roles to expand its customer base across the U.S. The startup plans to launch 500 flights in 2022.
After moving to Moscow to conduct funded master’s degree research in mathematics, the trilingual Matevosyan (she’s currently trying to pick up Spanish as a fourth) met cofounders Ignasi Lluch, Near Space’s CTO, and Albert Caubet, its chief engineer, while starting to earn a Ph.D. and working as a junior research fellow studying complex aerospace systems, specifically how satellites communicate with each other.
Her research took her to launches in remote parts of central Russia in December—an activity she does not recommend—and convinced her that some applications of geospatial data would be impossible to cover effectively through satellites, even with billions of dollars pouring into space tech.
Originally founded as Swiftera in late 2016, Near Space Labs was admitted to New York-based accelerator Urban-X, a five-month program operated by MINI and Urban Us that invests $100,000 in two cohorts of ten urban tech startups each year. Matevosyan abruptly relocated to Brooklyn, initially crashing on a friend’s couch, and got a working prototype running before the program’s completion.
A few months later, in June 2018, the company raised $2 million from Leadout, the VC firm founded by former Facebook executive Alison Rosenthal, Wireframe Ventures and others; it added another $1.5 million last year, with Matevosyan appearing on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for manufacturing and industry in between.
Near Space launched its first major commercial rollout in July 2020, slowed a bit by the pandemic. While Matevosyan operates out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, an emerging hub for frontier tech and hardware startups, her cofounders and much of the hardware R&D is located in Barcelona. (Despite interest from Europe and Southeast Asia, especially, Matevosyan says Near Space’s immediate focus is on the U.S. market.)
The startup operates several business models, sending up Swifty platforms on a contract basis as needed for custom projects, while also launching them regularly from its own launch sites to maintain coverage for a fresh data set of geospatial data. “The idea is that we will have a global constellation of our Swifties, and then people will be subscribing to this data set and using it,” says Matevosyan.
The device itself ships in a small box; operators on the ground switch them on, attach them to the weather balloon and Near Space manages them autonomously from there. “Everybody wants to come to a launch site, which is also great for our sales, because it’s a very exciting event,” Matevosyan admits.
At new lead investor Crosslink, partner Phil Boyer says his firm was excited to back Near Space due to its familiarity with the geospatial market—it’s also backed Arturo, Descartes Labs and Enview—and the differentiation of Near Space collecting its data cheaply from the stratosphere. The potential for recurring revenue from a large market for such data, Boyer adds, meant the firm saw Near Space’s economics only improving over time. Particular growth areas of interest include real estate, disaster recovery and providing updated map information for autonomous vehicles—which helps explain Toyota’s venture arm on the cap table.
That was more than enough for the VC firm to overcome any hesitation about betting big on balloons in an age of rockets. “When you say the word ‘balloon,’ you certainly get a couple of odd looks, like, you invested a balloon company? What does that mean?” Boyer says. “But it wasn’t a huge leap of faith for us.”
Near Space is rooting for its peers in satellites and rockets, too, says Matevosyan, arguing that more activity in the category generally is good for all players. As for taking balloons seriously? “The questions drop when I show them our data,” she says.