Deep Dives

Space: The $1.8 Trillion Opportunity

Two starry-eyed 20-year-olds from small towns in India told a local newspaper that they witnessed first-hand some of the problems the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals are trying to solve:  a rapidly growing population, not enough output from the available arable land, significant water stress conditions, and global warming. As engineering students, they saw an opportunity to tackle some of these problems using technology.

The two started by building AI models that could process terabytes of satellite imagery and extract actionable insights and patterns from that data to help tackle problems in agriculture, predict yields and track the spread of certain crop pests and diseases, detect illegal mining, predict and monitor natural disasters and forest fires among other pressing problems. But there was a problem. The satellite imagery of the earth that was freely available for analysis at that time in most cases was out-of-date and was not rich enough or detailed enough for many of the potential use cases.

So, five years ago the two formed a company called Pixxel which launched a constellation of nanosatellites to provide global, real-time satellite imagery that addresses the needs of key industries such as agriculture, energy, forestry, and environmental monitoring. On June 6 Pixxel was named a 2024 Tech Pioneer by The World Economic Forum; one of nine space companies in this year’s cohort of 100.The space pioneers, which include space data companies, satellite makers and in-space manufacturers, reflect the promise of this burgeoning sector.

Pixxel, for example, illustrates how space technology can help tackle some of earth’s toughest challenges and how new players, including private sector companies and countries who were not present when the space race began in the 1960s, are now taking part in the space economy.

Space is set to play a pivotal role in addressing inequality by improving access to education and economic activity, through bridging digital divides, widening access to education and healthcare, and enabling precise monitoring of agriculture, natural resources and environmental changes, according to an April Forum report that focuses on the role of the space sector in future global economic growth.

No country and no company want to be left behind because the space industry is also a booming business that is expected to grow to $1.8 trillion by 2035, up from $630 billion in 2023, according to the report.

Space will not only create new business it looks set to benefit existing ones. Five industries – supply chain and transportation, food and beverage; retail, consumer goods and lifestyle and digital communications as well as state-sponsored defense, will generate more than 60% of the increase in the space economy by 2035, according to the report. In addition, nine other industries will see space-related revenues reach several billion dollars- creating opportunities for traditional and non- traditional players alike.

Leveraging Space Data

So how can both public and private industry players best position themselves as leaders in the space economy?  For starters, “every industry should be asking what space data can do for me today and tomorrow,” says Nikolai Khlystov, the Forum’s lead, space technologies.

Through detailed, daily measurements, modern satellites and sensors monitor the Earth. Earth observations, connectivity and global positioning systems are getting better at delivering more timely data, says Khlystov, so it behooves industry and the public sector to look at how they can leverage that data for things like adding resilience to global trade routes, managing energy infrastructure, controlling forest fires and floods, improving healthcare and education and reducing carbon emissions.

By 2030, Earth observation insights are projected to surpass $700 billion while directly contributing to the abatement of two gigatons of greenhouse gases annually, says a May Forum report entitled “Amplifying the Global Value of Earth Observation.

Approximately 94% of the total value possible by 2030 derives from applications in agriculture, electricity and utilities, government, public and emergency services, according to the earth observation report.Earth observation can also play a crucial role in supporting organizations’ climate and nature goals through verifying carbon reduction, understanding organizations’ impacts and dependencies on nature, and identifying strategies that contribute to a nature-positive and net-zero economy, the report says.

Five of the tech pioneers are focused on leveraging space data. In addition to India’s Pixxel there is Amini, which aims to solve Africa’s environmental data scarcity by leveraging emerging AI tools and space technologies to support sustainability and climate initiatives; Japan’s Techijin, which provides land appraisal services by using wide-area resolution remote sending data (weather information, topographical data, from an Earth Observation Satellite; Germany’s constellr which delivers daily global land surface temperature to monitor vegetation, soil health and derive insights on water and carbon, enabling smart farming; and South Korea’s TelePIX, which is developing high-resolution optical satellites for earth observation and using the data to solve agriculture, environment and maritime problems.

While companies like these tech pioneers are making rich data available, barriers, including limited awareness of earth observation applications, a shortage of specialized talent, fragmented standards and difficulty navigating the complex earth observation marketplace, are limiting uptake, according to the Forum’s May earth observation report. Even applications that have demonstrated their feasibility in project-based environments need investment to mature into scalable solutions.

However, there is optimism among industry professionals about the role that enabling technologies like AI can play in making earth observation accessible to non-experts and lowering the demand-side barriers to entry, says the report. Exciting developments in satellite and sensor technology, advanced computing and a growing ecosystem of Earth intelligence providers are also pushing the envelope of what is possible with earth observation data.

“Every player on the value chain is needed to make this future state of earth observation a reality,” says the Forum’s earth observation report. “Prioritizing the implementation of dual-value earth observation applications is not only key to unlocking economic value and growing the industry, but it is also a vital strategy to advance climate- and nature-focused goals by 2030.”

The Business Case For Micro Gravity

In the medium to long-term, manufacturing in orbit has the potential to open a wide range of opportunities across multiple industrial sectors. Space offers a unique research and manufacturing environment to a broad range of sectors because of its near-vacuum state, microgravity (which confers weightlessness), and higher levels of radiation, according to a McKinsey report. These features may enable new processes or reveal new insights in sectors such pharmaceuticals, beauty and personal care, food and nutrients, and semiconductors. For example, the U.K’s Space Forge, one of the 2024 Tech Pioneers, is preparing to send a satellite to space that will manufacture new semiconductor materials that could be used in electronic devices on Earth.

Space-based R&D has already shown great potential aboard the International Space Station, from improved performance with advanced materials to drug discovery, notes the Forum’s Space: the $1.8 Trillion Opportunity report. However, the report says that to significantly boost adoption, corporate end-users need more flexibility for crew and cargo, with shorter timelines and lower costs. Beyond 2035, this market could reach a multi-billion-dollar annual potential across health and healthcare, manufacturing, and food and beverage. Businesses should start thinking about how manufacturing in space might impact their business, says Khlystov. “In certain industries it probably makes sense not to have it as a main agenda item of the CEO but to have strategy folks or the research and development department look at what is already possible, how it might impact processes, and to think about what can happen in the future,” he says.

How The Space Economy Will Continue To Transform

While industry opinions differ on the extent to which space-based and space-enabled applications have already reached an inflection point, space is set to undergo a major transformation over the next decade, according to the Forum’s report on Space: The $1.8 Trillion Opportunity.  Private sector space investments continue to drive innovation and access in areas such as in-orbit inspection, maintenance services and commercially funded space stations, while non-space private sector partnerships with space players are also expanding.

Meanwhile, public sector investments continue to broaden, with countries such as Japan, Peru, and Thailand all investing in space initiatives and India becoming the first to land a spacecraft near the lunar South Pole.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, is engaging in space to help diversify it’s the economy and establish a tech-centric industry. The Forum has signed an agreement with the Saudi Space Agency to establish a Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR) focused on space.  The Center for Space Futures will tentatively open in Autumn of 2024, with the aim of facilitating public-private discussions on space collaboration, incorporating best practices from the Forum and its communities into the global space sector, and generating forward-looking contributions to accelerate space technologies.

Shaping The Final Frontier

The Forum intends to facilitate discussions between all of the actors in space, says Khlystov. “The forum is a unique platform for this,” he says. “We engage not just with space actors but all industries, including those that are not in space but in future will potentially have something to say about it,” including businesses like insurance that will become important stakeholders and need clarity on regulation. “We can bring these actors together with government and civil society as well,” he says, and avoid some of the mistakes made on earth.”

When it comes to building the $1.8 trillion  space economy, the Forum and the 2024 tech pioneers are clearly positioning themselves to play a central role in shaping it.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.