This idea popped up in my head, and it wouldn’t get out. I simply couldn’t stop working on it.
The night before this interview, we finished watching Inspiration 4, the story of how four normal people, like you and me, ended up on a three-day mission to space. We were pumped to talk about the future of satellite imagery, and Topher blew our brains out.
Topher is the CEO of Albedo, a startup developing satellites that will capture the highest resolution satellite imagery commercially available, and backed by a myriad of investors such as Initialized Capital. Before starting Albedo with his two co-founders, AyJay Lasater and Winston Tri, Topher worked at Lockheed Martin and graduated in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What did you dream of when you were a kid?
Oh boy, I have a long list!
From working as an undercover cop to becoming a mailman, I had quite a few changes of plans (laughs). On the side, I’ve always found space to be interesting. Although I never expressed my desire to become an astronaut, I was rather fascinated by the science behind it - how everything worked together.
How was your upbringing?
I moved around a lot, which had a strong impact on me as a person. I was born in Missouri, lived in Texas and Germany, before moving back to Texas.
Fun fact: I have videos of myself as a kid, speaking fluent German, but I have no idea of what I’m saying in all these videos, I’ve lost it all. Sights*
Overall, I have had a very happy childhood, marked by the constant need to make new friends and say goodbye to others. Moving around affected me a lot, both positively and negatively.
I ended up in a place called Friendswood where I did both junior and high school.
You studied engineering at the University of Texas at Austin— how was that experience?
I loved my time in college. I studied mechanical engineering, as I thought this would help me to better understand space applications.
One piece of advice for younger generations is that, as an engineer, you can go into any industry. You’re not bound to any specific field, but the one you get in during your first job is likely the one in which you will stay in the long term. So, choose wisely!
After school, I really wanted to move to San Francisco. I wasn’t solely focused on space but I ended up interviewing with Lockheed Martin. The person who hired me was originally looking for a much different profile than what I could offer, but, with a lot of energy, I showed that I was eager to learn. And he gave me the job!
He invested a lot of time in me, training me to become the system architect of remote sensing programs that Lockheed Martin has out in the bay.
That’s really when my passion for remote sensing satellite imaging started, both the engineering itself and seeing firsthand what it has done for our National Security.
From my engineering class, I was probably the only one to graduate without an internship, since I spent my college summers as a backpacking guide in Colorado. I was fortunate enough to find a mentor who hired me out of school and really invested a lot in me.
How did you find a mentor, and how did you nurture that relationship?
I was very lucky to have both a job and a mentor tied together. It was one of the key reasons I accepted the offer.
He proposed to invest time and energy in me. He offered to train me from ground zero, and that was invaluable.
It was all classified works. I didn’t even really know exactly what I was getting into, but having a mentor who’s ready to spend time and effort on you is key. Funny enough, we were fortunate to have him join as one of the first employees at Albedo.
My advice is to try to find someone who is really intriguing to you and put a lot of effort into the relationship. Run with his/her first piece of advice. Showing that the time the mentor is giving you is valuable is going to motivate the mentor to invest himself even more.
Your first job: Lockheed Martin. What were you working on?
I worked in remote sensing programs, the umbrella term for a lot of different types of optical, radar, and thermal imaging. There is one project that I’m authorized to talk about: the LUVOIR telescope, which is NASA’s next-gen Earth Observatory.
In essence, it’s a gigantic telescope, with a size like no other. James Webb’s telescope, which I’m sure you have heard of, has a six meters aperture. LUVOIR will have a 15 meters one. It’s an incredible project that will hopefully launch in the 2040s and help us find exoplanets…
How did you find your way into entrepreneurship?
I really loved working at Lockheed. Amazing people, amazing projects. But there is this whole movement in the new space, and technology is getting cheaper. This idea popped up in my head, and it wouldn’t get out. I simply couldn’t stop working on it.
Albedo. Can you provide us with the aha moment and how everything started?
It all started with a tweet from Trump. He tweeted an image from a classified satellite, showing an Iranian missile failure. The image was extremely detailed, and people soon realized that this was way higher resolution than any commercial imagery available at the time. We estimated it to be 10cm per pixel, measured on the ground (aka really freaking detailed).
In the industry, it sparked a whole conversation about whether it’d be feasible to do this commercially. Would there be a market for it?
I read about a panel of executives at other imaging companies explaining that there would be a gigantic market, but that it’d cost a billion dollars to build it, as the satellite needed to create those images would need to be the size of a school bus.
With my background, I started thinking about the architectural design, and how it could look like if we were able to fly satellites lower. Albedo was born.
What is the vision of the company, and how will you make it happen?
Our mission is to catalyze the satellite imagery market to its full potential. There are tons of applications it could be used for, but because the technology hasn’t been able to provide a good enough resolution, none of those applications have been possible so far. We want to bring ultra high resolution at an affordable price.
Aside from resolution, the other key piece to catalyzing the market is making the data from our satellites accessible, transparent, and easy to purchase. Buying high res imagery today is an outdated and painful process, but we are modernizing it with good APIs, immediate feasibility on ordering fresh imagery, and automating the entire process
We’re still in the early days, but I’m confident that we will soon throw our first satellite on a rocket and send it to space!
YC. How was your experience there, and what are your main takeaways from the program?
YC was amazing. I remember vividly the first meeting with our Partner, Eric Migicovsky who started Pebble. We had this ambitious plan to do an aerial demo, where we’d fly a drone and do all this technical stuff.
He told us: don’t do that. Go talk to your customers. And, that’s exactly what we did.
Outside of that, the YC community is great. Working through the same issues at the same time really helps founders bond together. You quickly get the feeling of belonging, it’s very hard to describe.
How did you convince Garry Tan to invest in Albedo?
A few days before YC demo day, I met up with Brett Gibson, one of the partners at Initialized Capital, and I pitched him Albedo. I could tell he was very intrigued, but they had never done any investment in space and didn’t know enough about the industry.
Two days after our meeting, he replied saying that he loved what we were building but that they didn’t have enough time to understand the technical risks and, as such, would have to pass on this one.
I impulsively responded that we would stop taking checks for a few days - demo day was coming up and we were starting to receive a lot of interest-, and let them talk to five of our advisors, who were space experts.
Less than 24 hours later, I was pitching Albedo in front of the whole Initialized team, and later that night, they decided to invest. What a roller-coaster it was!
Garry and Brett are legends, both have been immensely helpful
If you could change one thing in your journey, what would it be?
I would have started skateboarding as a kid, because I picked it up in my 20s and it’s way harder (laughs).
One regret I have is to not have invested enough in people, over products. I have worked really hard to get where I’m today, but there are times where I should have invested more in the people, and operated based on those relationships.
When was the time you felt the most vulnerable?
I’m 30, I’m a CEO but there’s still so much to learn. Fundraising comes with this constant pressure. Building that ‘grand vision’ is also not easy.
Being a founder brings insecurity around my ability to deliver.
Do you have an inspiring figure?
Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid Camera.
Seven Powers, a great book for engineers turned entrepreneurs.
One Twitter account?
If you were to start another company today, what would be your one-billion-dollar idea?
A lot of these commercial satellites, full of sensors, are going to go into space in the next few years. This will produce a ton of data that will need to be tied together.
Multiple problems are potentially solvable if we put the infrastructure in place for space imagery data analytics that are focused on specific verticals. Industries such as insurance, supply chain, or construction are verticals where this data will be applicable. It’s just a matter of picking one and fusing the data into that problem.
Inspiring story Topher, thank you very much.
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