Nine Satellite CEOs to Watch in 2021

Unlike Via Satellite’s 10 Hottest Companies or Executive of the Year award, Nine CEOs to Watch focuses on leaders who are taking on significant business or technical challenges throughout the next year. Each of the following CEOs has a unique mission — from building new space systems to challenging commercial satellite standards. These are the executive leaders to pay attention to as we move forward into the future space economy.

Unlike Via Satellite’s 10 Hottest Companies or Executive of the Year award, Nine CEOs to Watch focuses on leaders who are taking on significant business or technical challenges throughout the next year. Each of the following CEOs has a unique mission — from building new space systems to challenging commercial satellite standards. These are the executive leaders to pay attention to as we move forward into the future space economy.

Rajeev Suri, CEO of Inmarsat

Rupert Pearce had been CEO of Inmarsat for nine years when he was replaced in February by former Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri, a change that seemed to come out of the blue. Since then, Inmarsat has made sweeping changes to its management team and Suri is responsible for taking Inmarsat to the next level.

He becomes CEO during a time of change at Inmarsat. Competition in Inmarsat’s core markets such as maritime and aviation is likely to be fierce over the next few years. Inmarsat is leaning into the competition with its recently announced plans for a Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) network called Orchestra to combine LEO, Geostationary Orbit (GEO), and terrestrial 5G networks.

Suri has yet to give any interviews, but at the recent Space-Comm Expo in the United Kingdom, he urged the U.K. space industry to broaden and deepen its national supply chain to ensure long-term health.

Any time a CEO from the telecoms sector comes over to the satellite sector, there is a great deal of interest. Suri is not the first to tread this path, but it will be fascinating to see what he makes of the Inmarsat challenge. Pearce’s abrupt departure seemed to indicate that all was not well behind the scenes. While it may be going too far to call Inmarsat a restoration job, there are high expectations for Suri.

Neil Masterson, CEO of OneWeb

The CEO of OneWeb is a role that comes with a spotlight. Few companies have garnered as many industry headlines as OneWeb over the last two years. Now under the ownership of the Bharti Enterprises, the U.K. government, SoftBank, and Eutelsat Communications, the company has been given a dramatic reboot, post-Chapter 11. Earlier this year, Sunil Bharti Mittal called OneWeb a hidden gem in an interview with Via Satellite. It will be up to Masterson to polish this gem and make it sparkle.

Masterson spoke to the satellite industry for the first time at the SATELLITE 2021: Digital LEO Forum earlier this year, where he admitted to joining the industry with a degree of humility as he doesn’t have a background in engineering. While he comes to the industry with a non-satellite background, he said he “could smell a strong B2B opportunity when he sees one.”

He takes the helm of one of the most talked about companies in our industry at a key time. OneWeb is preparing to start initial commercial service, and working to launch the first tranche of its constellation. The challenge for Masterson will be to sell this capacity, and demonstrate commercial viability for the LEO constellation.

Tiphaine Louradour, CEO of ILS

For those of us who have been in the industry for more than a decade, it’s easy to remember when the battle in the launch industry took place between ILS and Arianespace. SpaceX has changed the economics of access to space over the last few years, and there is more competition in the market.

In March 2020, Tiphaine Louradour became the CEO of ILS, after a 13-year career with United Launch Alliance (ULA) — just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world. Louradour is tasked with making sure that ILS remains a relevant force in this market.

Reliability when it comes to launch is always a key barometer and it is something that ILS has struggled with, as the Proton has been beset with a number of launch failures. However, things are changing. The company has completed its last 20 missions without a failure, which seems to herald the fact that the company has turned a corner.

One of the challenges for Louradour is to keep this going. She told Via Satellite in a Thursday Morning Conversation that sharing information about what ILS has done to bring about this reliability is key. Louradour is faced with one of the most interesting challenges of any relatively new CEO in our sector. ILS has been around over 25 years, and is one of the oldest players in the launch market. Thanks to a quality improvement plan, the company is turning a new page. Can Louradour lead it successfully into its next chapter?

David Bettinger, CEO of SpaceLink

David Bettinger is one of the most well-known engineering and technical minds in the satellite sector. Earlier this year, he became the CEO of SpaceLink, a new company that is building a constellation that will continuously transmit user data to the ground for immediate access via the internet, private cloud, or other secure delivery. Intersatellite links between the relay satellites allow data to be sent directly to wherever the customer wants it on Earth, without the data landing elsewhere.

Previously, Bettinger was at OneWeb for more than six years helping build that constellation and system. He also had an almost two decade-long career at iDirect. SpaceLink represents an exciting new challenge for Bettinger as for the first time he becomes a CEO of a major satellite company. Can he bring his technical experience from OneWeb and iDirect to successfully commercialize an emerging technology at SpaceLink?

Naomi Kurahara, CEO of Infostellar

Naomi Kurahara founded Infostellar in 2016 and she is now one of the most respected new CEOs in the satellite sector. The company is a satellite Ground Segment-as-a-Service (GSaaS) provider, where it aims to provide a flexible and scalable ground station service enabled by its cloud platform. No one can accuse Kurahara of lacking ambition as she has talked about having the largest ground station network on the planet, and creating the Airbnb of ground stations.

StellarStation, which virtualizes ground station networks, is perhaps a sign of things to come in the ground segment. The goal is to lower the costs and barriers to entry for startups by offering access as needed to a ground station network, so startups do not have to build their own.

Recently Infostellar signed a deal with Amazon Web Service to make AWS Ground Station available within StellarStation. The aim is to give satellite operators more opportunities to communicate with their space workloads, downlink geospatial data faster and easier, and decrease the time it takes to get data to decision makers on Earth.

While there is constant talk about the new wave of satellite operators and new types of satellites, innovations in the ground area will be key to the industry’s successful future. Kurahara remains a thought leader in this area.

Flavia Tata Nardini, CEO of Fleet Space Technologies

The satellite industry is more global than ever, with companies all over the world looking to tap into space-based communications. Flavia Tata Nardini is the founder of Fleet Space Technologies, a company in Australia’s increasingly buoyant space economy.

Fleet Space, which was launched just over six years ago, made history when it launched Australia’s first four commercial nanosatellites in 2018. The company is focused on building a constellation of small satellites for Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) applications, and launched its fourth satellite on a recent SpaceX rideshare mission.

Australia is a great market for satellite communications, particularly satellite IoT connectivity, given its geography and dispersed population. It will be interesting to see how Fleet Space and Australia’s burgeoning space sector take off, and how Tata Nardini leads the company.

Peter Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab

Peter Beck is one of the most well-known figures in the space industry, but two launch failures have brought the Rocket Lab founder to what may be the most challenging point in his career.

In June 2020, the company experienced an anomaly during its 13th Electron mission, losing payloads for customers Spaceflight, Canon Electronics, Planet, and In-Space Missions. Less than 12 months after this failure, Rocket Lab experienced another anomaly during its 20th Electron mission, losing satellites for BlackSky.

Rocket Lab, which launches satellites and is working to become an end-to-end space company, has often been cited as a great example of innovation and progress in the industry. But the launch services market can be an unforgiving marketplace, and two recent failures mean the spotlight is on Beck and Rocket Lab like never before.

Any more failures in the near future will see the company fighting against a tide of being a reliable launch provider. As an operation, Rocket Lab has grown significantly in just a few short years. The challenge for Beck is to deal with its recent setbacks and come out the other side stronger.

Ali Al Hashemi, CEO of Yahsat

Ali Al Hashemi became the new CEO of Yahsat earlier this year, following Masood Mahmood, who had been the CEO of Yahsat for almost 10 years. Mahmood had led Yahsat to become one of the largest global satellite operators, not bad for a company that is just over ten years old.

Hashemi, formerly CEO of Thuraya, steps into the role of Yahsat CEO just after the company completed a successful IPO and is now a listed company. Its IPO was a landmark moment, not just for Yahsat, but for satellite and space companies in the region.

But Yahsat faces compelling challenges. The company recently acquired Thuraya, a mobile satellite services operator with a checkered history. Integrating and transforming the Thuraya business is no easy task, all while the company is already investing heavily in new capabilities.

There is no doubt the company will always have a strong stream of business coming from its home market in the United Arab Emirates. However, the company has long looked to move beyond this and will be judged on its ability to grow its business in target markets of Latin America and Africa. Yahsat has teamed up with Hughes for example in Latin America, and it remains to be seen how successful Yahsat will be in this region.

The IPO is truly the big news for Yahsat this year, the industry will be watching how the company performs on the stock market. For the first time, a Yahsat CEO will be judged on share price, making this a story to follow.

Adam Selipsky, CEO of Amazon Web Services

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is becoming a more talked about company in the satellite space arena as we look at the fusion between cloud and satellite services. In a series of stunning appointments earlier this year, Andy Jassy, who had been the CEO of AWS since 2003, became the overall CEO of Amazon, replacing Jeff Bezos, who wants to focus on philanthropy and his space company Blue Origin.

Adam Selipsky is now in charge of AWS, taking on one of the most high profile roles within Amazon. Selipsky is a former AWS vice president, and he had served as CEO of data visualization software company Tableau in recent years.

Amazon (and Bezos) have slowly become more of the fabric of the space industry in recent years, with the Project Kuiper constellation and Blue Origin — especially with Bezos’ recent spaceflight success. And AWS is making moves in the space sector as well.

AWS made quite a splash when it launched AWS Ground Station in 2019, a fully managed service that allows for the control of satellite communications. The company’s vision is to democratize access to satellites and the enormous amounts of data satellites collect. Then last summer, AWS launched a new business segment, the AWS Aerospace and Satellite division, dedicated to serving space customers.

Bezos is clearly a big believer in space. Now that he is no longer at the helm of Amazon, it will be fascinating to see how Selipsky and AWS work with the satellite sector going forward. VS

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