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Data Sheet—Why the Satellite Market Is Getting So Overcrowded

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MIT has been holding its entrepreneur-focused New Space Age Conference for four years, and it’s notable how quickly things have changed. For one, the first iteration fit in a smaller room and lacked the giant and delicious mid-morning doughnuts supplied for the 2019 conference. But more importantly, the focus has shifted in two ways.

doughnuts offered at MIT space conference

Way back in 2016, Boeing was the big incumbent, the company that had dominated the space economy for decades, offering its wisdom to all the startups and would-be startups in the audience. But Naveed Hussain, who headed the company’s R&D skunkworks, sounded a bit defensive as he insisted: “We are ready to compete.” Portentously, just the day before the conference, Elon Musk’s SpaceX landed one of its reusable rockets on a barge floating at sea. In hindsight, it’s obvious that a changing of the guard had occurred.

At this year’s New Space Age conference, SpaceX was the big incumbent and its rocket technology has now moved from the demonstration stage to the workman-like commercial phase.

Shattering the cost of putting satellites in orbit has allowed dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of new startups to attract funding and go into business, kicking off a new space race. Van Espahbodi, managing partner of the Starburst Aerospace Accelerator funding many of those startups, may not have realized the irony of his statement that “ten years ago there would have been executives from Lockheed and Boeing in this room.” (It was only three, Van.)

But Espahbodi also sounded another common refrain from the 2019 edition of the conference, one that marks the second shift from 2016. While back then startups were still trying to figure out how to woo Silicon Valley, now it seems they may have succeeded too well. Espahbodi worried that too much money may have flowed into too many startups all chasing the same few satellite opportunities. “There’s lots of not so smart money out there,” he quipped.

The most impressive CEO on stage may have been John Serafini from HawkEye 360, which is launching satellites to track all manner of radio frequency signals on the ground. The company’s satellites could help stop “bad actors in a maritime environment” from creating billions of dollars of “negative externalities,” he explained. What? They’re going to catch pirates!

Aside from the excess financing chasing too few ideas, Julien Cantegreil, the CEO of SpaceAble, offered a unique reason why startups in the space market may start crashing out–literally. There’s actually a limit to how many satellites can go into orbit before debris and collisions become a big problem. “We cannot continue to send more objects to space,” he warned. “At some point we need to stop and think about the low earth (orbital) environment.” Hopefully there won’t be any actual examples of that problem to discuss at next year’s conference.

***

Lyft priced its initial public offering at $72 a share giving the company a stock market value north of $24 billion. It’s expected to be the first of many mega-startups going public this year, as my colleague Danielle Abril reports. I’m not into the false precision of many Wall Street metrics but I do like to compare startups to others in their neighborhood. Software maker Atlassian is valued at about $26 billion, Internet infrastructure operator Verisign at $22 billion, and Check Point Software at $20 billion. Lyft has the most annual revenue and the highest growth rate, though both Verisign and Check Point are already profitable. You’ll have to do your own due diligence on Lyft’s business prospects, but I’m here to say that its initial valuation isn’t crazy.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Into darkness. Heavy users of Twitter may appreciate the company’s new iPhone app features enhancing dark mode. In addition to its existing blue-gray dark mode, Twitter added a “lights out” mode with a pure black background and an option to turn dark mode on and off at preset times. Twitter also said it is considering labeling offensive tweets from important public figures (like the president) that violate its standards but are not deleted.

First contact. Sick of scammy robocalls? Then you won’t be surprised to learn how little regulators have done to stop the scourge. All those fines you heard about being imposed on the nasty, rule-breaking callers? Turns out the Federal Communications Commission has collected just $6,790 of the $208 million it imposed since 2015. The Federal Trade Commission did a little better, collecting $121 million out of $1.5 billion since 2004. On the brighter side, Verizon said it would begin offering a robocall blocking service to customers for free, after previously offering a fancier filter for $3 per month.

The undiscovered country. In the ever popping podcast market, the BBC said it plans to add third-party programming to its popular Sounds app. The focus will be on British offerings. “We would like to make Sounds a platform that serves British audiences and British creativity,” BBC exec James Purnell wrote in a blog post. The BBC made waves earlier in the week when it pulled its shows from Google‘s podcast platform over a dispute about app search results in Google’s Play store for Android.

The voyage home. Back on Wall Street among companies worth slightly less than $24 billion, old friend BlackBerry reported fourth quarter revenue grew 9% to $255 million. BlackBerry’s shares, already up 25% in 2019, jumped another 7% in premarket trading on Friday.

The wrath of Khan. I admit that I am losing track of all of the venues where Apple and Qualcomm are battling over appropriate royalty fees. But Bloomberg reports that Apple CEO Tim Cook and Qualcomm CEO Steven Mollenkopf are scheduled to testify in a federal jury trial starting April 15 in San Diego. That case is hearing the direct lawsuits that the two mobile giants filed against each other, as opposed to all the related cases that regulators are considering around the globe. Hopefully, no one will be stabbing from hell’s heart.

(Friday headline reference explainer, if you need one.)

FOR YOUR WEEKEND READING PLEASURE

A few longer reads that I came across this week that may be appealing for your weekend reading pleasure:

On the Trail of the Robocall King (Wired)
Fred Garvin set up shop in a quiet corner on the third floor of TripAdvisor’s headquarters, flanked by whiteboards and a bay of screens, preparing to track down the mystery robocaller.

Is Apple Saying Goodbye to Fashion? (New York Times)
When Apple introduced the Apple Watch five years ago, the whole tech industry began to flirt with style. But interest in wearables has cooled.

What Winning $250,000 at Poker Taught Me About Money (The Cut)
When Maria Konnikova took up poker for the first time in 2017, she wasn’t in it for the money. Instead, the author and New Yorker writer—who also has a Ph.D. in psychology learned the game as research for her latest book, The Biggest Bluff, which comes out later this year. Here’s how her winnings have changed her life — and how they haven’t.

My Cat Allergy Is Killing Me, but Cupcake Stays (Wall Street Journal)
Pet lovers endure runny noses, watery eyes, rashes and difficulty breathing to keep their animals close; ‘there are no boundaries’

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Amid all the controversies and scandals swirling around the major Internet companies, you may have missed this tidbit about just how far their reputations have fallen. (I know I did.) Last month’s British parliamentary report (PDF link) referred to “companies like Facebook” as “digital gangsters.” For a piece in the Harvard Business Review, computer scientist and Kennedy School fellow Dipayan Ghosh delves into what he thinks should happen next in the regulatory arena:

The United States now stands at a crucial crossroads. The internet industry and our national policymakers can let other nations like Germany or Malaysia write the rules that will apply to the leading U.S. technology firms—which would almost necessarily be more stringent than any rules that might be adopted in the United States—or they can, once and for all, earnestly come together and negotiate a fair regulatory regime for the industry that effectively protects the consumer.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Finland Is Using Inmates to Help a Startup Train Its Artificial Intelligence Algorithms By Alyssa Newcomb

Warren Buffett on Tim Cook’s Services Push: ‘Apple Should Do Some Things That Don’t Work’ By Kevin Kelleher

Job Applicants With a ‘Comprehensive’ LinkedIn Profile 71% More Likely to Get Interviews, Study Says By Laura Stampler

How This Female Fintech Exec Conquered Her Imposter Syndrome to Succeed In Silicon Valley By Kevin Kelleher

Huawei’s Perception Problem Deepens as U.K. Spies Identify Security Risks By David Meyer

BEFORE YOU GO

Does all this talk about space intrigue you enough to pitch in and help? NASA and the European Space Agency are looking for volunteers to spend TWO MONTHS in bed as a part of a study on the effects of weightlessness. Participants in Agbresa, as they are calling the “Artificial Gravity Bed Rest Study,” get paid $19,000. Not bad for just lying around.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.