SCALE-UPS

How to reconcile a growing business with a growing baby? SkyWatch is trying to solve the puzzle

Alex Kinsella - February 4, 2020 James Slifierz, CEO and co-founder of SkyWatch, built his satellite imaging businesses alongside building his family
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Having the right support system is paramount for any founder. It’s even more important when you’re a founder with a young family.

Just ask James Slifierz and Dora Car, who welcomed their second child – a baby boy – into their family at the end of 2019.

Slifierz is the co-founder and CEO of SkyWatch, a company that makes data from satellites around Earth accessible to business. Car is a founding partner of Condo Culture and has worked on many of the Kitchener-Waterloo’s major condo developments over the last four years. As an entrepreneurial couple, it wasn’t easy managing a growing family and their businesses – especially when SkyWatch was in the middle of a C$10 million Series A fundraising round late last year.

Slifierz was flying between the Bay area and Toronto to get the capital his business needed for the next few years. “We had Nico right in the middle of our raise. I was flying out right until the week before Dora delivered.”

How did the couple cope without sidelining their businesses? Slifierz credits his parents and in-laws for helping their young family during hectic times. Car’s parents relocated from Newmarket, Ont. to Kitchener, and Slifierz’s parents live outside of Brantford, Ont. “The superpower is having grandparents nearby,” he adds. “It sounds like nothing special, but it’s a big part of it.”

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A business is born

In the early days of SkyWatch, Slifierz moved to Kitchener-Waterloo to join the Google for Entrepreneurs (now Google for Startups) program housed inside the Communitech Hub. Car and Slifierz began dating shortly after SkyWatch started. After visiting Kitchener-Waterloo, she decided to move, too.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Car, an interior designer by trade. “She was wondering ‘what the hell is in Kitchener-Waterloo?’” says Slifierz. It was the start of Kitchener-Waterloo’s condo construction boom – great timing for Car and her business.

“It seems counter-intuitive, but she’s more successful here than she would have ever been in Toronto,” Slifierz adds.

“It’s a very global business, literally.”

– James Sliferz

Making the move to Kitchener-Waterloo permanent wasn’t always in the cards for the founding duo. “I was surprised we could build a company SkyWatch here,” Slifierz added. Kitchener-Waterloo only had one other space tech company in Honeywell (COM DEV International), which is a hardware company.

The community support and thriving tech scene were an unexpected bonus. “We build our services here, but our customers are all over the world – Asia, Europe, South America. It’s a very global business, literally,” says Slifierz. “It’s great that we can do all that from here.”

The power of space in the hands of business

SkyWatch’s ambition is to make satellite imagery as important to everyday life as GPS is today.

“Our guiding star is that if you receive data from space, we want it to go through our system,” says Slifierz. “We want to become one of the most important companies in the space ecosystem.”

Both GPS and satellite imagery share a common origin: they were both developed for military and security uses. When governments around the world started to look at making GPS technology available to the public, there was concern around its effect on national security. “Before GPS opened up, there was a choice between making it open, keeping it closed or subscription access,” Slifierz says. “The decision was to make it open. The negatives around security were outweighed by the positives.”

“The benefits to opening up satellite imagery are worth it.”

– James Slifierz

The use of satellite imagery was borne out of reconnaissance missions during the Cold War, he explains. “With early reconnaissance, the satellites would drop film canisters from space. Helicopters off ships would go out and pick up the film, process it and then it would be reviewed. That is so much harder to do than send a signal up and download the data.”

GPS is key to more than just directions to the nearest coffee shop. Clocks on the internet keep in sync using the time signal at the core of GPS satellites.

Slifierz sees satellite imagery opening up new possibilities – ones that aren’t available with GPS data. “The benefits to opening up satellite imagery are worth it,” he says. The data can make applications that track the effects of climate change, plan out sustainable agriculture practices around the world or monitor construction projects.

“You could be a farmer, open an app and get the latest imagery representing the normalized difference vegetation index that shows the health of crops of your farm – all from space,” he says.

“Our guiding star is that if you receive data from space, we want it to go through our system.”

– James Slifierz

SkyWatch’s solutions include EarthCache and the recently announced TerraStream products. EarthCache provides an application program interface (API) for developers, allowing them to integrate satellite imagery into their apps and services. TerraStream is cloud computing for satellite operators, giving them a scalable data storing, cataloguing, processing and distribution platform. Instead of worrying about infrastructure, TerraStream helps operators focus on monetizing their data and expanding into new markets.

SkyWatch empowers these possibilities through standard API interactions. They’re doing for satellite imagery what Stripe does for online commerce or Twilio does for messaging.

“We believe the future of [the] enterprise app developer is a person who uses the cloud, APIs and open source tech to build solutions,” said Slifierz.

Growing abroad – and at home

As the SkyWatch team continues to grow – both employees and their children – Slifierz says having a great support system is key.

“I think without that family support, it wouldn’t be possible,” he says, pointing out that even with a large amount of travel, he doesn’t feel like he’s leaving his partner home alone with the kids. “It’s hard being away from our kids, but she has a great support network.”

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Having family close by has helped Slifierz develop empathy for those on his team who don’t have the same network available, he says. “We have a lot of employees who are new immigrants to Canada with young children and don’t have family here.”

That’s their superpower, he adds: having supportive families. “It motivates us to be supportive to our kids. We’re going to have to pay it back – as my mom says, ‘you’re going to be changing my diaper one day.’”

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  • Name: SkyWatch
  • Solution: Providing businesses with access to satellite and Earth observation data
  • Owners: James Slifierz
  • Headquarters: Waterloo, Ont.
  • Founded: 2014
  • Contact: [email protected]
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