ICEYE: Casting a gazer over arctic ice sheets

Providing high-quality, reliable, and persistent monitoring in an accessible package, Rafal Modrzewski, CEO and Co-Founder of ICEYE, and his team are ensuring that nothing goes unnoticed when it comes to catastrophe monitoring around the globe, at all times.

This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Startups Magazine. Click here to subscribe

Concept to company

Before co-founding ICEYE, Modrzewski was a researcher at VTT (Technical Research Centre of Finland) working on RFID and wireless sensing tech. From this base, he moved into Electrical Engineering at the Warsaw University of Technology in Poland, before finalising his studies in Radio Science and Engineering at Aalto University in Finland. It was here that Modrzewski got a taste of what would become ICEYE. “Here [at Aalto University] is where I led the onboard data handling team working on Aalto-1, Finland’s first nanosatellite. “I co-founded the ICEYE project back in 2012, which came to be an official company in 2014, along with my fellow co-founder Pekka Laurila.”

From ice sheets to floods, and everything in between

ICEYE originated from a university nanosatellite group called Aalto-1, an Aalto Business School and Stanford University Technology Ventures programme. “The original idea was to monitor the movements of ice in the Arctic, hence the name ice-eye, ‘ICEYE,’” explained Modrzewski. From here, the vision became a reality when, in 2018, ICEYE launched its first satellite, ICEYE-X1, which at the time was the world’s first synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite under 100kg and Finland’s first commercial satellite launch – a monumental milestone.

From this first satellite, Modrzewski and his team quickly realised the potential of their offering, continuing to expand their satellites and offerings, eventually forming the world’s largest constellation of SAR satellites which can cover catastrophes of all origins around the clock, anywhere on the planet.

Describes Modrzewski: “We now own and operate the world’s largest constellation of SAR satellites, which enables objective, data-driven decisions for its customers in sectors such as insurance, natural catastrophe response and recovery, security, maritime monitoring, and finance.

“Unlike a traditional Earth-imaging satellite, ICEYE’s constellation of SAR satellites bounces a powerful radar beam off the surface of the Earth from approximately 550 kilometres in space. The beam returns to the satellite, recording and building a picture from these pulses. This enables us to picture what is happening on the ground below accurately.”

This invaluable data can then be put to use precisely where it is needed, allowing for rapid disaster responses which can be adapted in real-time, no matter fog, smoke, cloud, or night cover.

The team making the magic happen

ICEYE grew from the team which first founded the project back in 2012, and eventually the company in 2014, to become a 30-person-strong company at the time of its first launch in 2018. Since then, it has continued to grow, as Modrzewski enthused: “Currently, ICEYE has over 550 employees from over 55 nationalities, located in several countries but mainly in Finland, Poland, the US, and the UK. We are proud of the diversity of our business and believe that our strength lies in the different backgrounds of the people who work here.”

Overcoming adversities and enjoying success

It’s not been a smooth ride into orbit for ICEYE, however, and the journey has come with its difficulties. “The biggest challenge was the transition from the engineering research project into a company that had to operate profitably,” expressed Modrzewski. All of a sudden, the transition to profitability meant that, as a team, the ICEYE family had to start handling additional responsibilities such as sales, financing, marketing, and all the other key duties a startup needs to thrive. “For me [Modrzewski] personally, I had to really step out of my comfort zone and move away from engineering to focus on the broader company picture as a CEO. It’s been quite a journey since!”

However, once these teething problems were dealt with, ICEYE quickly got into its stride, with many highlights notable along the way for Modrzewski. The launch of ICEYE-X1 in 2018, the first of many satellites to come and proof of ICEYE’s concept, was one of the greatest achievements by far. “This was our proof-of-concept mission that validated the capabilities of miniaturised SAR technology, proving that high-resolution imaging capabilities could be achieved with smaller, more affordable satellites and collecting 600+ images throughout its lifetime,” added Modrzewski. “Since then, we've continued to push the boundaries of small SAR satellite technology by launching 30 more satellites and developing new capabilities such as higher-resolution imaging modes and faster delivery capabilities. Our team is constantly working to improve our technology and find new ways to apply it in real-world situations.”

Beyond the satellites and technology itself, seeing the enthusiasm for what ICEYE are doing through successful funding rounds has been really encouraging, with its most recent round being a particular highlight. “In February 2022, ICEYE raised $136 million in its Series D funding round, led by long-standing investor Seraphim Space.

“We welcomed onboard new strategic investors, including BAE Systems, Tokio Marine, and Kajima Ventures. In addition, Molten Ventures, OTB Ventures, True Ventures, C16 Ventures, Chione Ltd, Services Group of America, the UK’s National Security Strategic Investment Fund, Space Capital and Promus Ventures have also participated in the funding round.

“The capital is being used to grow our innovative Natural Catastrophe solutions offering and to develop its leading satellite constellation and technology further, reducing time to access and increasing the visiting frequency of its satellites,” enthused Modrzewski.

The future ICEYE’s in the sky

“ICEYE is committed to improving life on Earth,” expressed Modrzewski. Looking ahead, the company aims to continue to build on providing actionable data across many industries, from improving the deliverability and access to data for customers to expanding the natural catastrophe hazards that it analyses, all “whilst focusing on our overarching mission to become a global source of truth,” finished Modrzewski.