Our guest today is Mike Carey, from Atlas Space Operations located in Traverse City. Atlas provides the software and ground control communication services needed by spacecraft companies to run their equipment. Mike chats with us today about the software his company wrote that powers satellites all over the world, the reasons why his company is headquartered in northern Michigan, what he finds people still misunderstand about the space industry, and more.
Welcome to another episode of Terrapin Small Biz Connection, the radio show and podcast powered by Terrapin Networks in Traverse City. I’m Ruthy Kirwan, and together with my cohost Tim Gillen, we speak with small business owners in Northern Michigan about the everyday realities of running their business here in the “Up North”: the highs, the lows, the complexities that can only come with Northern Michigan businesses, concerning weather or tourism, or staffing, or seasonal aspects, community support, governmental policies- among others. Our guest today is Mike Carey from Atlas Space Operations located in Traverse City. Atlas provides the software and ground control communication to run their equipment. Mike chats with us today about the software, his company wrote that power satellites all over the world, the reasons why his company is headquartered in Northern Michigan, what he finds people still misunderstand about the space industry and more. So now I’m going to hand this over to Tim to welcome Mike Carey from Atlas Space Operations.
Okay, well thank you, Ruthy. Thanks for joining us again on the Terrapin Small Biz Connection, Tim Gillen here with Terrapin Networks in Traverse City. We have another interesting episode. We’re going to be talking with retired general Mike Carey from the Atlas Space Operations, who are based in Traverse City and are doing some fantastic stuff with low earth orbit, satellites, and all those kinds of neat things. So first off, hello, Mike, and thank you for joining us,
Tim and Ruthy. Thanks so much for having me here on the Terrapin Small Biz Connection. I’m really excited to join you.
Great. Oh, we’re happy to have you here.
So let’s start off tell us exactly about Atlas Space Operations, especially what you guys do for your customers.
Atlas Space provides a service to spacecraft owner-operators. Every satellite that’s in orbit needs to be connected with its owner on ground. So just like ET had to phone home, every satellite has to phone home to receive instructions and to send its valuable data down to earth. And so our customers use our ground network service to do that. And that’s the heart of what we do. We provide communication services, spacecraft.
How does the ground network, these are our ground-based satellite dishes that are in direct contact with particular satellites.
They, they are Tim. So every so you’ve seen white dishes you know, the communicate with satellites and typically the ones you see are set still and they’re pointing generally Southeast or Southwest. They’re looking at a satellite that’s 22,500 miles away and providing you a television or some type of a radio signal. And the spacecraft that we deal with are much closer to earth and require an antenna that tracks as the spacecraft goes from horizon to horizon and they orbit earth about 14 times a day. So it takes a different kind of antenna, but it’s a white parabolic dish traditionally and attracts one satellite at a time. And so we have antenna around the world to provide the continuity and contact frequency that is required by our customers.
Is your stuff a skewed towards commercial, weather, or quasi government, anything particular?
Yeah, so our our client base is almost 50-50 government and commercial. Maybe 45-50. And so with the government, a lot of it has to do with NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association. We also have some developmental work with NASA and the Air Force, which will fundamentally change how this segment of our industry is approached. We’re actually a software company that happens to be involved in the satellite communications and infrastructure management, right? We were named as one of Inc’s 5,000 Fastest Growing Company in the U S, and we were ranked in that article as Number 1-2 out of 5,000. And within that subset of 5,000, we were named Inc’s Number 15 Fastest Growing Software Company in the country.
Isn’t that neat. Wow. And so the software is the more of the logistics, or is it more telemetry, or is it a little bit of both? Is the software more on the tracking side? How do you sell and position software?
So the software actually allows the network to be operated more holistically. Traditionally, you know, an antenna would track a satellite. It’s a very one-to-one relationship and the scheduling and the configuration of the, the radios and the electronics that enable that to happen was done manually by a person, very analog, right? And so we have written software that abstracts or takes away the physical presence of hardware and hosts it in, in the cloud. And so things can scale on demand and they can also be replicated or, or reduced as needed. And they can be done very, very quickly. An example of that when we were awarded our first contract with us government, they were accustomed to receiving their weather data about 12 minutes after the satellite had stopped its transmission from space. And we’ve reduced that to less than one minute. So that allowed us to win a contract where we put up our first station in Ghana and then was the reason why we were awarded the second contract in establishing a ground station in Tahiti for the same, same purpose and then subsequent contracts in Finland as well. So the software is really what makes the data move more more smoothly and quickly because it orchestrates all of the scheduling and the configuration of the the radios or the modems in a very fast and autonomous way
With the autonomous being a big part of it, obviously.
Sure. Autonomous and machine learning and AI are key, and core to our software premise.
So you guys have been writing the software in house right from the beginning?
Wow. Do you have you have your own staff who writes the code? Have you olted other things together to make your own? Or is this all from scratch?
Yeah, no, it’s, it’s all, it’s all proprietary or trade craft secret from within.
Fantastic. Wow. That’s great.
And about how many staff members do you have currently?
So right now including part-time, we’re a little over 30 full time. I think we’re at 27.
How many of that is your programming staff? I’m kind of curious.
There are about a third.
Fantastic. Okay. Right, right.
When you’re explaining all of this to everyday people, I’m sure you run into a lot of blank stares. What do you find is the most common thing that trips people up? What’s a common minunderstanding out what Atlas does?
First, people think that we make and sell satellite antennas, which we don’t. And I think that it’s not understood that satellites that fly around earth have to download their data to a specific kind of antenna sound like a cell phone network. The majority of people in our society have access to cell technology. They assume that all technology is as modern as cell technology, but quite frankly, the satellite industry is a very conservative group of people. They’re not big risk takers. Historically when a satellite goes up into orbit in space, you pretty much never see it again. So it better be right. Remember the olden days, right? Rabbit, ears, TV, the ball games on, Uncle Joe’s got the kid holding the rabbit ears.
That satellite goes up and the ground stations is working, the customer says to the satellite companies: “Don’t change a darn thing.” So for years, you’re not allowed to change the configuration of the ground segment because the satellite is right where they need it to be. It’s a sweet spot. But what happens is, it becomes a calcified industry. It was a calcified industry when we started the whole company, because all four of the founders had personal intimate experience with the CRA the satellite control networks came out of the cold war and are still being used today. And we said, there’s gotta be a better way to do this. So we created the better way by leapfrogging technology and frankly, our competitors are beholden with that overhead. And they still have that legacy that they have to take care of.
So it’s kinda like the railroads in, in say the 1950’s. They didn’t see the change in the nature of transportation. And they had so much sunk cost into the infrastructure that they said, “Yep. There will always be passenger rail travels, it’s the way it’s always going to be” and they were wrong. We see our competitors still being married to their old infrastructure and having a very hard time refreshing their technology, where we started from scratch. Our hardest part is, you know, finding people to be early adopters. And we were surprised to learn U S government was our first early adopter. Cause I just didn’t see that coming.
Oh yeah. Then now that just kind of, that’s a very pleasant surprise, but it is in fact, a surprise. How did, how did Atlas settle on Northern Michigan is kind of a home base?
Sure. So we were a virtual company. We were founded by 4 individuals in Los Angeles, in Santa Monica, in San Diego, and one outside of Baltimore. I was living in Colorado Springs. My family and I relocated after retirement from Colorado Springs to Traverse City. I was working at that time with a Swedish space corporation is called AAC Microtech. They build satellites. And Atlas, as an idea, it’s still not quite even established as an LLC. I spent most of my time in California, I commute from Traverse City through Detroit to San Francisco and worked at Ames Research Center. We kicked off Atlas as a virtual company and we were looking for funding and I happened to be in California on a weekend and overheard a woman say these three words in one sentence, “Michigan”, “invest”, and “space”.
So I spoke to her, she was from the Michigan Angels down in Ann Arbor. And and the next week I happened to be at the University of Michigan. I spoke to the the the leader down there from Michigan Angels. And he gave us a screening. A few weeks later, we had a pitch to the Michigan Angels in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. And then the subsequent Thursday, like the next day we were up here in the morning pitch in the Northern Michigan Angels. And that Sunday we got an offer from from the Northern Michigan Angels and what became Boomerang Catapult. And they said, Hey, we’ll invest in your company. But you have to move it to Traverse City. What they didn’t realize is that I lived in Traverse City and commuted to California. I looked up at the sky and said, “thank you, God.”
I was like, wow, this is a dream come true. So that month, which was March of 2017, we became a Michigan based company and hired our first employee. I met him at TC NuTech, which is a monthly gathering of technology and investor and entrepreneur kind of people. And 10 days, 11 days later, he was on our payroll and went to Ghana building our antennae.
Wow, you guys do move. I like the nimbleness of what you’re doing, which isn’t always the case with anything with space. We see some of that, frankly, with Space X, with Elon Musk and his group, they do move quickly and you guys are all showing that it really can be done. Some of this stuff does not all require a 20 year lead out and for administrations to play through it, but you can actually make things happen really quickly when you’re ready to go.
Yeah. So we’ve had, we’ve had our competitors complained to us overtly that, “you guys are too nimble. You’re driving us crazy.”
Mike, can I ask, do you think that there’s any particular challenges with keeping your business in Northern Michigan?
You know, that’s not the first time I’m going to ask that question. And the other question we always get is, “How is talent acquisition”, right? “Do you have access to the talent you need?” And what’s the challenge of keeping it here? As a company, we are so blessed. First of all, satellites don’t care where you control them from and I don’t have a customer base in Traverse City. I could frankly do this from many places. And so the fact that we have the opportunity to do it in Traverse City is just a gift. I don’t see any particular challenge at all in sustaining this business in Traverse City. It’s generally speaking a disaster free zone. We don’t have to worry about earthquakes. Yeah, it gets cold. So I just advise those that come here from California to just use a hat.
But there’s no reason why this company and companies like it cannot be sustained here. The talent pool is amazingly rich. I was surprised pleasantly how many people, 1: live in this area already with skills that apply and can be used in our business and 2: maybe even more so how many people are willing to move from other places California, Colorado, Florida Virginia to, to work in Traverse City. I mean, we had 26 software applicants out of Cal-Poly San Luis Obispo. We had applicants from Scotland, down to Houston, on the East coast. We’ve hired people from other space companies, Space X, OneWeb. I mean, of talent is interested in what we’re doing.
I’ve found that, that starting a business was far more challenging than I ever expected. And one of the things I’ve learned is that there’s a lot of people who want to try to help you succeed. And whether those people are colleagues that I’ve met here in Traverse City, or the SBDC, or the procurement technical assistance center. The men and women who who do that service for a living have just been invaluable. And the colleagues who are kindred spirits in the entrepreneurial world are just really, really refreshing because this is a hard grind, and this is a lot of energy goes into creating a new bill business. It’s scaling it. And it’s, it’s good to not be alone. And in Traverse City, we’ve found good friends in a good home.
It’s encouraging for small business entrepreneurs. This kind of thing we talk about on the Terrapin Small Biz Connection is it’s not easy. People sometimes think, “Hey, just hang your shingle out and get after it.” There’s so many moving parts besides the software and the contracts and getting the contracts and the hardware side, and then finding staff and keeping them happy and getting antennas into Scotland and Ghana and all these kinds of things. You guys have a lot going on. It’s pretty impressive what you’ve been able to put together and terrific for Boomerang Catapult and that crew up here to be a part of it We’re just thrilled that they’re willing to help a higher tech company come to Traverse City and get a foothold here and utilize our great resources, both geographically and personnel wise, people wise, it’s a really encouraging and very exciting. There’s no doubt about it,
I’m glad you mentioned the investors, because if it wasn’t for, you know, the Northern Michigan Angels and their due diligence work and, and Boomerang Catapults and their leadership and helping to professionalize some of our our efforts here, we wouldn’t have landed the capital out of Chicago and Grand Rapids. We would not have had the platform to move forward. You know, the angels investors and the early, the early support we got out of, out of Travers city in specific and Michigan and Midwest in general, you know, we probably would not be standing where we’re at right now as number one Oh two out of eggs, 5,000 fastest growing these in America. Great story. Just a great story. Well, Mike, can I ask what’s the best way for listeners to get ahold of you guys?
Our website is Atlas ground.com and there is a contact us element to that page and email@example.com is is the email entry point. 231-598-6184.
By the way, you have a terrific website too, and there’s a lot of great information. It’s a really good website with a lot of really cool information.
Thank you so much for speaking with us today, Mike, we really, really appreciate you taking time out of your day to do so. And this was a fascinating conversation. I, I learned a lot and I didn’t feel like you two nerds went too over my head!
Yeah, same here, Mike. We really appreciate your time and we’re going to be watching you folks closely. It’s really exciting what you’re doing, and we’ll be keeping an eye on. Maybe we’ll get you back at some point for an update.
Yeah. I’d love that. Ruthy and Tim, thank you for your time today. Thanks for the service you provide to the listening community. This is this isn’t easy work, but it’s certainly rewarding and great work. I get up every morning excited to connect with the wonderful men and women of Atlas Space Operations, in this beautiful place we call home and Traverse City.
And now for Tim’s take away.
Well, hello, and welcome back again to Terrapin Small Biz Connection with your hosts, Ruthy Kirwan and Tim Gillen. This is the section of our show that we like to call Tim’s Takeaway where we rehash the conversation that we just had with our guests. This week it was Mike Carey from Atlas Space Operations. Tim, that was such a fascinating conversation with Mike. I think that what they are doing up here is so cool and it’s so awesome to have such what seems to be a very innovative step forward in space located right here in Traverse City, which is amazing. You know, we’ve talked to so many people on this show in the past few weeks and the past couple of months where I’m continuously like man, they do that here in Traverse! It is wild to think about how many amazing companies that there really are in this area that we didn’t already know about.
Well. And especially one like Atlas Space Operations. I mean, this is a, this is a space based high tech firm based right here in Traverse City.
They’re such an innovative company. What they’ve done with their software is so fresh and new, especially from what he was telling us about what other satellite companies have been doing since the cold war. I wanted you to talk a little bit about that term we hear a lot in tech, “disrupting” and being a disruptor, but they really are that. I wanted you to talk a little bit more about how they disrupted this industry.
Well, Mike described how cold war satellite technology just hasn’t really changed in, in maybe even 50 years, certainly 30 years. They use satellites generally that are, that are often at least their main communication satellites are geostationary. So they’re in higher orbit. Even the ones that they use that are lower earth orbit use all technology based on single one-to-one antennas ground-based antennas. And once they work, they kind of keep them hands off until they tumble out of the sky, which they don’t for years and years. And keep in mind, it’s up in space. There’s just like the Hubble Telescope up there. There’s no wind. There’s nothing. They just they’re up in a vacuum so they can stay up there for a long time. And as long as they’re working, they just leave them alone.
What that means though, is once it’s working we just kind of leave it up there. Well, technology has moved on quite a bit maybe since that stellite went up, but that industry tends to be very conservative. Which makes sense, to be conservative, from the standpoint that if it’s working, just leave it. Well, there’s a lot of nifty things they can do now, especially with low earth orbit satellites, meaning they’re much closer to earth, more like the 700 miles, not 1500 miles and more. So their type of “disrupting” is they think about it differently than that. They say, “We’ve got all the technology to just start automating this, to use machine learning for guiding the satellites machine learning for taking the data from the satellites for increased data processing.” Mike mentioned that a few years ago, it could take up to 12 minutes to get weather information down from a they have gotten it down to a minute.
Having this company here is great for our town, having high tech people and good paying jobs, jobs that’ll continue to grow, and that have an actual impact on our country in the world. This is real world value to those of us people who live in this country and live in the world. That’s neat stuff right here in Traverse City We’re just thrilled with it, just really wonderful. And it Mike’s a great spokesman for the outfit. thanks to his time in the Air Force, he knows how to communicate these things very well. It’s very exciting stuff to have his outfit here.
Very exciting. And it’s very exciting to have it here in Traverse City. I mean, really, I know we’ve said that a couple of times, but I think that that’s just a real cool thing to have in the area. So I just want to thank Mike so much for coming on our show and, and giving us time today to talk about, to talk about the Atlas Space Operations. And thank you again, Tim, for hanging out with me this week. Let’s meet up again next week. Sound good.
Let’s do it. Thank you. And thanks Mike and Atlas Space Operations.