Urban Sky Theory’s mission

Exploring the stratosphere is essentially uncharted territory
Tech Startup

Where: Denver
Website: urbansky.space
Founded: 2019

Initial Lightbulb: Just beyond commercial airspace around 60,000 feet above Earth, the stratosphere has not generated the interest or investment of points in either direction. Urban Sky Theory is looking to change that. Co-founders CEO Andrew Antonio and CTO Jered Leidich met while working on the StratEx project that resulted in a world-record skydive from a balloon at an altitude of about 136,000 feet in 2015. “That’s where our passion for ballooning and the stratosphere really developed,” Antonio says. “The stratosphere is a completely ignored or forgotten layer of Earth’s atmosphere that has immense potential value, and we really realized that at StratEx,” he adds. “You can count the number of companies operating in the stratosphere on less than two hands. It’s uncharted territory that has a ton of value.” After StratEx, Antonio and Leidich worked together at Arizona-based World View Enterprises. “At World View, we were building massive balloons,” Antonio says. “They’re like 400 to 500 feet tall, the size of a skyscraper.” That means they’re very difficult to fly and expensive – and not reusable. “We always asked the question, ‘Is there a way to build a reusable stratospheric balloon and drastically decrease the cost of reaching the stratosphere?’ So that’s what we did.”

In a Nutshell: “Our vision is to be the company that really operationalizes the stratosphere,” Antonio says. “The stratosphere offers a unique advantage where you have this almost space-like vantage point very, very high up. You’re way above commercial airspace so you can see very broadly, but you’re also lower than space, so you can see in much higher resolution.” Urban Sky’s reusable Microballoon – which was designed, manufactured and tested in the company’s first year in business – is less than a tenth the height of World View’s mammoth balloons. Antonio says it could create a new market for aerial imagery. “We’ve been able to collect imagery that’s on par with the best commercial satellite imagery you can get today,” he explains. “That’s huge for us, because at that time we were a few people working out of a little garage.” Test flights have used off-the-shelf cameras, and Antonio says the imaging will only improve as the three-employee company develops new systems in-house. The main competition is manned aircraft, not satellites. Without the need for runways and FAA clearances, the math changes and makes the Microballoon a compelling alternative. Made with “trade secret” materials, the Microballoon offers the same perspective at “a drastic fraction” of the cost of manned flight, Antonio says. “With our balloon, we can launch it and in a matter of minutes be looking at the entire city,” he adds. “You can get it off the ground with two people and a pickup truck.” Antonio says it fills a big void. “People want higher-resolution data, and they want it more often,” he explains. “This is a huge problem in the Earth-observation industry. If you think about collecting aerial imagery over entire cities and entire states, today that can’t be done by satellite, because satellites have very low resolution data. So generally the way it’s done is with manned aircraft, and those manned aircraft collect at best every three to four months in high resolution.”

The Market: “We need to focus first,” Antonio says. “We’re really laser-focused on finding one particular customer segment and a few customers within that segment to demonstrate significant value of high-refresh, high-resolution imagery.” Insurance might emerge as that segment; Urban Sky signed a contract with insurance analytics provider Arturo in September. “There’s a very clear need for city-scale imaging to help support underwriting and claims processing,” Antonio says. “Our imagery is so good that someone can sit at a desktop and evaluate and inspect each structure across an entire city.” Antonio says Microballoons also have applications in agriculture, environmental monitoring and urban planning

Financing: To date, Urban Sky has landed a $250,000 Advanced Industries grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade; participated in Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator’s 2020 program (which came with a small investment); and raised a pre-seed round, with plans to raise seed funding in about 18 months. “The No. 1 asset you’re investing in is the team,” says Matt Kozlov, managing director of Techstars Starburst in Los Angeles. “From the moment we met Andrew and Jared, we knew we were dealing with an extremely passionate, extremely knowledgeable, extremely scrappy entrepreneurial group.” Kozlov adds that Urban Sky’s “rather disruptive” technology “unlocks a whole lot of market value.”

Categories: Companies, Company Perspectives