The July/August 2023 issue of Optics & Photonics News featured the magazine’s biennial feature spotlighting 10 Entrepreneurs to Watch. Here, we offer an interview with one of those entrepreneurs, Eric Ingram, cofounder and CEO of SCOUT Space. SCOUT is developing and commercializing vision-based systems that combine optical sensing and machine learning for space-domain awareness and space traffic management.
In a nutshell, what is SCOUT Space doing, and why do you think it’s important?
Eric Ingram: Space is an increasingly important ecosystem, and an increasingly utilized ecosystem. And it will become saturated the next few years. Our means of tracking things in space, our means of performing complex operations in space, just won’t be able to keep up.
So what SCOUT is working to do is provide more vision-based capabilities and knowledge of the orbital ecosystem. We’re working to provide vision systems for satellites for autonomous navigation, and also for data collection about what’s going on in space. That goes into, on the governmental side, space-domain awareness, and on the more commercial side, things like space traffic management. The object is to basically try to complete the data set on what we need to understand what’s happening in orbit.
Let’s unpack that a little bit—particularly this idea of satellite autonomy. What goes into satellite autonomy? What are the components you’re working on?
The space industry today is heavily built upon legacy systems—things with a lot of flight heritage, a lot of experience. So for most of the operations and maneuvers we perform in space, there is actually human in the loop for almost all of it. Rarely is full autonomy utilized in space. And that is on the cusp of changing—especially since, as technology becomes more capable, people get more able to trust it.
What we’re doing at SCOUT is predominantly software as far as our intellectual property is concerned. There are three pillars of the system that we call See, Learn and Act. We take in data using, currently, RGB CMOS sensors. We run that through our software, which includes computer vision and machine learning to understand what we’re looking at. And then, based on the mission requirements, we make decisions off of that.
You’ve talked about the software control—what about the optical side?
We are trying to get more sophisticated with our optical systems and with the components we select. We aren’t specifically looking for space-grade hardware or things with flight heritage. And we’re looking at ways to increase our optical and sensor capabilities as much as possible.
For some of our future products, we’re looking at having non-resolved imaging capabilities of up to 60,000 kilometers. That is not a simple task with a small system. So we are working with some optical consultants and investigating lens types that will enable a wide array of observation capabilities with as simple a design as possible.
It seems that SCOUT is envisioning both onboard vision payloads on government and commercial satellites, to aid their autonomy, and also a fleet of “traffic cop” satellites of its own. Could you talk about that?
Absolutely. We’re beginning with payloads that go onboard other spacecraft, as basically either plug-and-play relative-navigation capabilities or plug-and-play space-domain-awareness capabilities. We have been pushing forward on a product we’re rolling out this year called Owl, which is an independently articulating stereoscopic vision system. So without having to maneuver the spacecraft, you can independently observe an entire hemisphere, which unlocks a great deal of utility and operational capabilities.
“[W]hat SCOUT is working to do is provide more vision-based capabilities and knowledge of the orbital ecosystem.”—Eric Ingram
Our OVER-Sat system, the fleet of traffic management satellites, is something we will be building up to over the next few years. So between distribution of the Owl systems and the OVER-Sats, it’ll be a hybridization of both hosted payloads and our own spacecraft—but initially weighted towards the payload side just because it’s a lot cheaper.
It seems like this kind of coverage opens up some opportunities beyond just space traffic management.
Yeah—we’ve accidentally created a bit of a “Swiss Army knife” of a capability. And we’ve had several different kinds of customers approach us for different use cases.
For us as a business, the most important thing is data collection—ultimately, we want to be the number-one provider of on-orbit space-domain-awareness data. So what we’re able to do is enable other people’s missions and desired capabilities with those systems, and essentially dual-purpose them for mutual benefit.
I’d like to step back and talk a bit about your own background, and how you got to this point. When and how did you first become interested in science and in space travel? I sense that it must go back a ways with you.
Yes—I’ve always been interested in science and technology; always wanted to go to space as a kid. But it really wasn’t until high school that I started exploring that—being in the space industry—as a real possibility.
So I took as many science classes as possible [in high school], and went to Old Dominion University, in Virginia, to get my bachelor’s in physics. I worked in an atomic-physics laboratory while I was there, did research into continuous-wave lidar systems, and did most of a master’s in electrical engineering at University of Houston, studying mainly photonics and the RF side of electrical engineering.
“Most of a master’s”?
I did all the coursework, and I did most of the research for my thesis, and then got a job. I was like, “Oh, I’ll just finish up the thesis while working.” That was eight years ago …
What was the job that took you away from it?
Initially, I was an engineer at an asteroid-mining startup called Deep Space Industries. And then, following that, I worked at the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation, doing licensing and regulating. So I’ve worn many different hats in in the space industry and done a lot of things.
Talk a bit about how the SCOUT Space idea first gelled, and how you and your founding partner came together.
I met my cofounder, Sergio Gallucci, at Deep Space Industries, while we were both in the same engineering team there. We kind of went diverging paths after that, and then reconnected when I founded SCOUT.
But space is a super-important ecosystem. We interact with it daily, whether or not we realize it. And as we go forward, it’s going to be more crucial to the advancing society and all the capabilities we’re using. Through my insights, working in different jobs, including at the FAA, I saw an increase in launch cadence, an increase of people using the space and basically, getting to orbit and using those systems—but no real increase in the infrastructure to support that.
And as a person who really wants all the fun things I saw in sci-fi growing up to happen, I want to make sure space is preserved as an ecosystem that everyone’s able to safely use. Being able to increase the knowledge of what’s going on in orbit—to be able to track the bad guys, to be able to track the good guys, and make sure people were following rules of the road—is the only way that we can really decrease risk enough to enable more complex operations.
So that, combined with autonomy—removing human in the loop for complex maneuvers and things like satellite repair and on-orbit servicing of space stations—all of that is going to be vital. I saw this gap in what was going on and a need for it, and started kind of skating to where the puck was going when I founded the company back in 2019.
And it seems that at the start you were funding it out of your own pocket—I saw a recent LinkedIn post where you were celebrating finally paying off your credit cards.
Yeah, that was a big accomplishment! I didn’t quite max my credit cards out. But I did burn through my savings, and funded the company for about the first year and a half. I founded it in January 2019, and ended up going full time that October. It was very poor timing to start a company. We started our initial fundraise around February 2020, about a month before the pandemic started.
“I didn’t quite max my credit cards out. But I did burn through my savings, and funded the company for about the first year and a half.”—Eric Ingram
So it was just a rough time. We were fortunate enough to win some R&D contracts from the state of Virginia, and get some initial investment from a VC firm in the state. And we really just churned away at developing our capabilities, building up a customer base, trying to get wins where we could.
It all finally kind of coalesced in June 2021, when we both launched our first mission to space and started the TechStars Space Accelerator—in the same week, I think. So it was about three years of building, without a ton of commercial traction, and then things started moving in the last year or so.
So the revenues are coming in.
Yes. I’d say we’ve generated more revenue than we brought in in investment so far.
That’s seems like a good position to be in.
It’s a great position to be in. It’s rare these days, especially in the space industry.
You mentioned the Tech Stars Space Accelerator. Were also a participant in the Luminate Accelerator in optics, photonics and imaging in 2022. Could you talk about the importance and value of those of those experiences?
We’ve tried to be very strategic with the accelerator programs we’ve gotten involved in. Obviously, TechStars is a very well-known brand and comes with a lot of gravitas. But we specifically applied only for their space accelerator, to get access to the expertise in the space industry.
Similarly, with Luminate, since we are developing complex optical systems, we wanted more access to that knowledge base, that experience, and to potential hires in that ecosystem. And Luminate was able to really open a lot of doors for us as far as that’s concerned. We are now working with some consultants there; we have two employees working in New York State. And we’ve been to get out of that what we intended, which was to really gain more expertise and connections in that sector.
Let’s talk about a few other issues related to SCOUT’s operations. One thing that occurred to me as you were talking about space as an “ecosystem” is that space is not owned by any one country. It’s a common resource. It must be an interesting challenge, having to figure out how to approach and deal with different governments and stakeholders.
Absolutely. I will say that there’s been a lot of cooperation in space over the decades. There are international treaties, which most [countries] have signed up to. There’s a lot of intergovernmental coordination at the international level. There’s the UN COPUOS—Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, in the United Nations.
From our perspective, we’re trying to just influence the development of the regulatory ecosystem that will define what they call space traffic management. And that is still a new and evolving concept and a new sector of the market in general. And so we are reaching out to our representatives, our senators, talking to state governments, talking to national governments. We have relationship with the National Space Council, which reports directly to the vice president. I also have a regulatory background. We’ve also spoken to different friendly foreign entities about that.
And it’s going to be a collaborative development between industry, between government, and between multiple different governments. And it’ll be a process to evolve that into something akin to the air-traffic-management ecosystem up today. And of course, we will have to deal with outliers, such as countries that don’t necessarily follow what others say, and work through issues that surround that … It’s just a really complex time for space traffic management.
An interesting problem, though.
Yes. There are very few areas where there’s novelty in developing regulatory ecosystems. So if anyone out there is a policy wonk, this is an area where we’re literally creating the infrastructure for it. We’re not just updating rules; this is all new territory … We, at SCOUT, are just trying to position ourselves to make sure that whatever happens, everyone knows we have capabilities that can best enable that sustainability that we need for space.
Stepping back once more, and looking at your experience founding this company and moving it forward, what do you feel you’ve learned during this process? If you were giving advice to someone looking to walk this road, what sort of things would you tell them?
That’s a broad question. I mean, I’ve learned a million things. This is my first startup as a founder, though I’ve worked at one as an engineer. And I am now an expert and so many things I never wanted to be an expert in.
One thing I’d say is that if you want to start a business, test your theories before you dive in headfirst. I’ll talk to college students, and I’ll tell them, if you’ve got an idea, spend an entire weekend—take that entire 48 hours—and put a business plan together, think of potential customers, think of the business side of it, even if you have the technology side figured out. And then go talk to potential customers—ask them questions; see if it’s something worth pursuing. And test your theories as much as possible prior to diving in headfirst.
“One thing I’d say is that if you want to start a business, test your theories before you dive in headfirst … I’m not saying don’t pursue anything. I’m saying pursue things carefully.”—Eric Ingram
I’m not saying don’t pursue anything. I’m saying pursue things carefully. Which I think doesn’t go into a lot of founder stories you hear; it’s always, “Go for it; just try it and see what happens.” It’s a little bit more nuanced and careful than that. So that’s something I tell to a lot of people—go test stuff. Because you may have the technology, but technology without a business, it’s just a science project.
Your LinkedIn profile notes some of your activities with groups related to giving individuals with disabilities the opportunity to fly in space, and with supporting company founders with disabilities. Could talk for a moment about that part of your life, and how you feel it might have shaped your experience building this company?
Sure. I do have a physical disability; I use a wheelchair, and I was born with my disability—I’ve had it my whole life. And, obviously, going to space is important to me, and so I want to see that happen.
So my work with one of the organizations you mentioned, Astro Access, is making sure that when people have the opportunity to go to space, accessibility is not an issue that will stop them from being able to. We’re not necessarily figuring out the cost issue; that’s another problem. But we’re at least trying to put systems in place to make sure that the physical disability, hearing impairment, vision impairment—that those aren’t bars of entry not just toward experiencing space, but also toward being productive and useful in space. Because we don’t all just want to be tourists—we actually want to be part of that.
As far as my work with 2gether International: I am a founder with a disability, and they’re an organization that is providing resources to founders with disabilities. To my knowledge, they’re one of the only organizations that’s doing that. So I’m on their board of directors, just trying to advise as best I can.
As far as how it’s helped me start my company: Having a disability, I have to creatively problem-solve every day, for a myriad of things that most of the population would think are extremely trivial. And so being forced to think outside of the box, to constantly have to encounter and get over hurdles that most don’t, and being able to kind of do that in stride without it really negatively affecting me—I think that is extremely useful in starting a business.
Any final thoughts on SCOUT and its market?
One thing I’ll say is that space is an extremely rapidly developing industry, and there’s a lot of opportunities for advancing technology and capabilities. Not just the use case for SCOUT technologies; there’s also Earth observation, there’s optical communications, there’s a lot of interesting things going on from the optics and optoelectronics perspective.
“Basically every talk I give … I try to tell people: Check out space more often. It’s more than just SpaceX; there’s a lot of other stuff happening.”—Eric Ingram
Basically every talk I give, or every interview I do, I try to tell people: Check out space more often. It’s more than just SpaceX; there’s a lot of other stuff happening. Launch is only 5% of the industry. There’s a ton of moving parts and a lot of exciting things; we’re always looking for more people in the industry and there’s tons of companies hiring. So that’s kind of my general sentiment.