Planet Labs team in the Cupertino, CA garage where they started their business
From country New South Wales to building satellites that orbit Earth, Chris Boshuizen’s fascination with space has launched him on a professional journey of creative discovery. The award-winning physicist has designed lunar landers and tiny satellites for NASA, and set up a satellite start-up in San Francisco.
Boshuizen doesn’t fit the image of a high-flying, big-spending, start-up executive. Yes, he lives in downtown San Francisco, California, but his home-office is a tiny one‑bedroom apartment. “My net worth is tied up in the Planet’s success,” explains the 38-year-old Australian physicist turned expat entrepreneur.
He’s not just speaking metaphorically, although helping to solve climate change or feed the world’s population helps get him up in the morning. When he talks about the ‘Planet’ he is also referring to Planet Labs, a space start-up venture he co-founded in 2010.
The business - located in San Francisco’s trendy South of Market district - builds and launches micro-satellites the size of a loaf of bread. It sells the imagery and data collected by a network of these satellites.
Clients use the information for applications as diverse as monitoring crops, forestry and maritime operations, and planning urban and transport projects. The images also provide critical intelligence for disaster response, crisis management and humanitarian aid.
Planet Labs has a flock of 60 ‘doves’, as they call their satellites, orbiting 400 kilometres above Earth – the world’s largest network of Earth-observing satellites.
Not satisfied with monitoring the planet 24/7, in 2015 Boshuizen moved on from Planet Labs, which was up and running successfully.
Boshuizen joined Data Collective, a San Francisco-based venture capital fund that invests in entrepreneurs building big data companies. He says these funds invest in activities ranging from creating large, complex databases, and faster processing of information from diverse sources, to applications that identify novel data patterns.
Boshuizen is Entrepreneur in Residence. He’s one of what he calls the “council of wise men – with money”. It’s not his money, but it’s real money, and it’s his job to find companies that are worthy of support. “I give the thumbs up or thumbs down on funding tech and hardware companies,” he says.
Boshuizen is also a former NASA scientist and winner of the Advanced Manufacturing Award at the 2014 Advance Global Australian Awards. He also made it to number 73 on the BRW Young Rich list in 2014, on the back of Planet Labs.
In 2015, the company announced that it had raised US$95 million, bringing its funding to more than US$160 million.
It’s little wonder then, that in December 2015, Boshuizen became a ‘rock star’ of innovation. Knowledge Society and the Office of the Chief Scientist listed Boshuizen as among the Knowledge Nation 100 Australians. The list honours people at the cutting edge of innovation and science in Australia.
Phonesat 1.0, NASA © Carter Dow Photography
Knowledge is Key
And to think it all started in Tumbarumba in New South Wales. “It’s a really small town,” says Boshuizen. His parents – a chemist and the foreman of the biggest sawmill in the southern hemisphere – exposed Boshuizen and his three younger sisters to the world of ideas, including space.
“I was always interested in space,” he says. “I don’t know how it got in my head, but I remember being really young and watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I got to stay up late, so it was special.”
Boshuizen followed his obsession with space through high school, then on to the University of Sydney for his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in mathematics and physics. His supervisor, Professor Tim Bedding, gave him some important advice: “When you get near the end of your PhD, go to a conference in an area you want to work in.”
The young space-mad physicist followed that advice, attending an industry space conference near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. “I met a whole bunch of really cool people,” Boshuizen says. “I felt I’d found my people – people who love space.”
From Houston, it was one small step to the Space Generation Advisory Council, a global not-for-profit networking organisation representing university students and young space professionals. Boshuizen soon became Executive Director.
Phonesat 1.0 ©NASA Ames Research Center
Just before Christmas 2008 NASA called. Would Boshuizen be interested in working at the space agency’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley? Boshuizen flew over, was interviewed and started two weeks later.
“I sold my entire household on Gumtree – $2,000 for the lot,” he says. With his parents’ good wishes and two suitcases, Boshuizen took up his post as a Space Mission Architect, working on a lunar lander.
Meanwhile, NASA boss and engineer Pete Klupar inspired Boshuizen and his fellow tinkerers, Will Marshall and Robbie Schingler, to kickstart another project. “He joked about his phone being smarter than most NASA satellites.” We took him seriously.
The result was PhoneSat, a ‘cheap as chips’ satellite built from a smartphone. “It was the brain, eyes and ears of the satellite,” Boshuizen says. “We put it in a box, launched it and took a picture.” NASA paid $500 for the launch aboard an Antares rocket.
“Now NASA’s enthusiastic about low-cost satellites,” says Boshuizen proudly. “Before, nobody believed it would work.”
Work it did. So well that in 2011, Boshuizen, Marshall and Schingler took a big breath, and quit their jobs to launch Planet Labs. Not bad for a boy from Tumbarumba.
First published on www.australiaunlimited.com.
Author: Leigh Dayton