From Software to Space: Why I am joining Tomorrow.io
The future of weather intelligence for a changing planet, powered by space
This post can be loosely split into two parts - the first on why I am joining Tomorrow.io and the second, how I made the decision. This is not one of my typical posts where I have plenty of insights to share, but rather something more reflective as I embark on a new role.
TL;DR: I am a software guy who got into the space industry to work on big, important problems. Soon, I am going to be joining Tomorrow.io, a software company that is going to space to solve an important problem - weather intelligence & climate security. I will be starting on Monday, August 30 as the Director of Strategy, Space.
Some Personal Context
My career has been an exciting journey, to say the least. From someone who started out as one of the thousand (if not, tens of thousands) software engineers at Amazon back in India in 2012 to someone who just completed an assignment for the European Space Agency on the future of Earth observation data platforms, whilst living in France in 2021. I was not your typical space enthusiast - I have never seen Star Wars or Star Trek, I didn’t know much about the space industry and I had probably watched only a couple of rocket launches before I got into the space industry about 5 years ago.
The most important factor that led me to join the space industry was the opportunity to work on humanity’s greatest problems using incredibly exciting technologies. The movie “Interstellar” had a huge role to play as a catalyst, and perhaps, as a result of that I was dead set on working on an exoplanet mission to find a habitable planet. However, as soon as I made the move into the space industry in 2016, I found out that a rather underreported, but equally important revolution was going on. And that was in Earth observation.
The Sentinel satellites part of the European Copernicus programme had just been launched (with an open data policy), an exciting “NewSpace” startup called Planet Labs was in the process of capturing a daily image of the planet and SpaceX had just recovered its first stage for the first time ever (which was going to lead to an influx of NewSpace startups).
As I saw all of this unfold, I came to a realisation that I had an opportunity to not only participate in the development and commercialisation of Earth observation, but also to work on something that is incredibly meaningful and impactful. Fortunately, I found a job at PwC’s Space Practice as a Senior Consultant, which allowed me to both work on some exciting new projects in EO (and launchers, and lunar exploration, and space policy and more), as well as understand the market dynamics within the industry. I followed the 80/20 rule to learning, and as such, it didn’t take long for me to realise that some things needed to change within EO.
I started documenting my thoughts and surprisingly, I started receiving a lot of attention, so much so that I had the confidence to leave my job and work on this full-time. From due diligences for investors wanting to invest in space companies to advising early stage EO startups on their strategy & go-to-market. From working with non-EO companies to help them make a game plan to advising the European Space Agency on the future of Earth observation. Turns out just putting your thoughts out there can completely change the life (including getting me this job at Tomorrow.io)
A Quick Summary of My Thoughts on Earth Observation
I have written a lot about EO in the past, so those of you who have been reading my stuff know exactly what I am going to say. So, in the interest of not sounding like a broken record, I am summing up my thoughts in a few sentences below:
We are going through an iPhone moment in the Earth observation industry, with more and more data being collected from space every single day, through different types of sensors for different use cases. Companies are not only flooding the market not only focusing on acquiring the data by building satellites, but also focusing on the dissemination of this data, as well as on creating intelligence based on this data, for end users.
Even though we have had a few SPAC deals from EO companies recently (Planet, Satellogic, Blacksky, Spire) with billion dollar valuations, there is no killer app for Earth observation, just yet. EO companies are usually created with a technology-first approach, not on a problem-first basis i.e. satellites are launched before fully understanding if there is an actual customer need for this data - and even if there is, a lack of knowledge on how this data will be used in their workflow.
And finally, EO is just another type of data that happens to be collected in space. The biggest value of EO is when it is in the background, quietly enabling all the big enterprise software of our times and thereby, helping solve the biggest challenges of our time - where the final customer of the product has practically no clue that there is EO involved. Just like how Tomorrow.io envisions it!
Operation Tomorrow Space
I will be honest. Just like many of you, I knew nothing about Tomorrow.io - the company has been around for about 6 years (previously called ClimaCell), offers a weather intelligence product to individuals, enterprises & governments, and works with some big names including Uber, Google, Intel, Ford etc - until February 2021, when they put out this announcement that they are going to space.
I was pleasantly surprised. Honestly, I was expecting one of the major insurance or financial services firms to launch satellites - not only because they can afford to embark on a space programme, but also because they know exactly where this data would fit in, and hence, have a solid business case. For me, Tomorrow.io had done something nobody expected a company of this size to do. At that point, it seemed like the company had followed a similar framework to the one I laid out in an earlier post about creating a successful company in EO:
To focus on a specific problem, to have the domain expertise and to know exactly what gap EO data is going to fill, before deciding to launch an EO constellation.
An Overview of Tomorrow.io
I admit I am a complete novice with respect to the weather industry, or how weather prediction is done, although I have made some considerable progress over the past few weeks, as I prepare for my new role at Tomorrow.io. Some things that stand out for me:
Lack of Global Radar Coverage
Radar sensors are a crucial component for weather forecasting in the short and medium term as they allow the detection of rain and cloud droplets as well as identify the size, shape, orientation, or composition of the droplet. There are a few radar satellites monitoring precipitation operated by public institutions (NOAA/NASA, EUMETSAT etc.). So, while their data is incredibly useful, their revisit rates are only every few days, and they cost hundreds of millions, if not billions to deploy, financed mainly by the same public institutions.
Like everything else in the world, there is some considerable inequality in radar coverage and about 2/3rds of the world have none (see below), which essentially translates to less efficient weather forecasting for much of the world, especially given precipitation data is crucial for weather forecasting. Further, the oceans cannot be covered with in-situ radars, and as we get accustomed to climate change, we might need all the observations we can get to prepare for extreme weather conditions.
So, Tomorrow.io is now embarking on an ambitious goal - to put sensors in space to fill the data gaps in observation of precipitation data, something that has been acknowledged as an important element to address to prepare for a changing climate, by the most respected scientists and organisations of the world. Ka-band radar instruments are incredibly tricky to pull off, as the recently completed NASA demonstration mission showed.
Taking advantage of the advancements in miniaturisation of satellites, increasing frequency and reduced costs of launching to space, enter Operation Tomorrow Space.
Disrupting the Status Quo in Weather
On the product side, the weather industry has been historically based on a people-as-a-service model, given very few people know to how to understand weather data (not many of us know what an air pressure of 1023 hPa means and neither do the businesses whose operations are dependent on weather). Normally, businesses hire meteorologists to advise them to help prepare for weather events, which is an unscalable business model. This practically begs for automation through a software that can provide insights to individuals, enterprises and governments, which is what Tomorrow.io offers with its platform.
Given that most weather companies either just repackage the information provided by public institutions or make only incremental improvements on these models, there was a need for some entity to step up and take on the challenge. And, I am glad Tomorrow.io decided to do that, in collaboration with the most eminent individuals and institutions in the weather industry, potentially looking at a one-of-a-kind partnership between an enterprise and governments.
Personally, I am very glad that Tomorow.io has an initiative called TomorrowNow, a non-profit that is focused on closing the global weather gap, working together with the public, private and humanitarian sectors to make forecasts more reliable, accessible, and useful to everyone. Not many realise that billions of people in the world lack access to basic weather insights and developing the weather infrastructure is an important part of the puzzle.
I had Rei Goffer, the Co-founder and Chief Strategy of Tomorrow.io, on my podcast, and I think it’s only fair you hear from him about how weather forecasting works and the role of satellites in it, Tomorrow's products, why they decided to launch satellites being a software company, competition, future plans for Tomorrow.io and more.
I am pretty sure this is the first of many posts about weather and Tomorrow’s space programme, so plenty more to come. I wanted to pivot to documenting the framework I used to make this decision to join Tomorrow.io. As some of you might be aware, I was running my own consultancy, TerraWatch Space, for the past year, ever since I left PwC. I was convinced that if I had to start a full-time role, it would have to be to a company with satellite data as a core component of the business, where I can leverage on my expertise and knowledge in space as well as my past experiences. Given that this was a huge career decision, I thought it might be worth writing about this, in case it helps anyone.
The TIPS Framework
It’s probably me still being a consultant, but this turned out to be a useful tool for me over the past couple of months, as I was trying to decide among a few offers I had on the table. Frankly, the decision was complicated by other administrative factors especially considering that I am still an Indian national living in France on a visa with not much saved up in the bank, but I guess that is a boring story. So, for now, let’s go with my TIPS framework, that helped me make a big career decision.
Team was qualitatively my most important component in the framework, defined not only by the people I am going to be surrounded by, but also by the limits they were going to push me to.
I interviewed with a few C-level executives at Tomorrow.io and I was struck by their innovative yet human spirit, a rare, but important combination. After all, they are part of a company that first disrupted the status quo of weather forecasting while remaining humble, and now, are disrupting the industry again with their space programme. I am going to be working with some of the most brilliant minds in the world - from the very best scientists in the weather industry to some incredible engineers (including Kathy Sullivan, who has become one of my favourite personalities, as I got to know more about her story).
Impact had the highest weight assigned, simply because I wanted to work on something impactful. This was assessed not only based on the impact my work will have on the world, but also my impact internally that could contribute to the overall success of the company.
I did not have to spend too much time thinking about the impact my work at Tomorrow.io is going to have on the world - I just had to read the news everyday. To borrow a metaphor I have heard - we are in a ship, a giant ship, moving so fast that no amount of braking, no amount of twisting the wheel is really going to slow it down for three decades (as evidenced by the recent IPCC report). As cities have started hiring “Chief Heat Officers”, we need to plan for adapting to extreme climate events and weather intelligence is the most important bit. Although I am still learning the basics of weather, I am betting on myself to contribute significantly to Tomorrow.io.
The product that the company is working on was something that I had to really believe in, so much so that I would even be happy to be a tiny contributor to its development. I planned on assessing this not only based on the technology the product is based on, but also on the commercial side of things.
In the case of Tomorrow.io, it was pretty straightforward - they were a weather software company, going to space to fill their data gaps and integrate this data into their existing product, which is being used across industries. With the consequences of climate change over the next decade (it’s rained in Greenland and we had no way to measure it), weather intelligence is about to become a necessity - for individuals, scientists, businesses and governments. And given their product is a software tool taking input from various sources of data and modelling it internally, it is poised to become a ubiquitous commodity.
Self-improvement has been an inherent requirement for me, for anything I have done so far. Whether I grow professionally by learning new skills, understand new technologies or getting to know a new culture by living in a different country. So, it was important that I mature as a person, as a result of the job.
As evidenced by the people I am going to be working with as well as the mission that Tomorrow.io is embarking on, I have no doubts that this job is going to make me smarter, wiser and humbler. It was important for administrative reasons that I remain in France, without needing to move to Boston, where Tomorrow.io is headquartered. But the team at Tomorrow.io have arranged for ways for me to work remotely remaining in France, which is going to be an interesting experience. With the multicultural team at Tomorrow.io, I am certain I am going to keep learning about different cultures and different personalities.
I cannot wait to start this job and learn about the wonders of weather. Given the period we are about to enter in a warming planet, I cannot think of a better industry to be working in. Working on the mitigation of global warming, whilst adapting to a changing climate is the single most important problem humanity needs to be working on. I truly believe that this our generation’s moonshot. As much as I am still excited by space exploration and human settlement in space, I think there is a lot of inspiration that can be taken from the space industry, for solving problems on Earth - and climate is exhibit A. As much as I feel like we have reached a climate tipping point, part of me remains optimistic about our ability to adapt and solve the “impossible.” For all of that, we need to continuously improving weather intelligence and I am betting on Tomorrow.io to play a leading role in helping individuals, enterprises and government to adapt for what’s to come. Towards a sustainable, yet equally exciting future!
This post has rather been reflective and different compared to my earlier ones. I am going to be continuing with this newsletter - albeit publishing once a month - still focused on the same goal:o decode the recent developments in the space industry. Perhaps, there will be more focus on weather, as it has been largely underreported and considered a “solved problem”, which it is clearly not. Thanks for all your support!
Thanks to Joe Morrison & Keith Masback for their support in helping me making the decision!