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High-tech biz incubator tenant wants to give world video from space

AstroVision attracts $5 million in venture capital

STENNIS SPACE CENTER — AstroVision International Inc., a tenant at the Mississippi Enterprise for Technology’s high-tech business incubator, wants to provide the world with live, continuous, color videos from space, and has attracted $5 million in venture capital to start work on the one-of-a-kind satellite system.

“This is the first venture capitol project out of the Mississippi Enterprise for Technology (MET),” said Greg Hinkebein, CEO of MET. “This is very important for us because as a business incubator we need access to venture capital in order to commercialize our technology. It gives companies that are developing the technology here at Stennis more or less a stamp of approval from the venture capital community. That is a big step for us making our program a success.”

Hinkebein said the investment in AstroVision International is one of the largest venture capital investments in the history of Mississippi. The venture capital came from Virginia-based SpaceVest, a venture capital firm investing in growth companies associated with the space industry, and Sofinov, a subsidiary of one of the largest investment funds in Canada with $115 billion under management.

“Our vision is to revolutionize the way we look at the Earth by providing everyone with the means to experience an astronaut’s view of home, live and in true color,” said Dr. Malcolm LeCompte, who founded AstroVision in 1997. “The single most remarkable shared experience of humans who have traveled in space is their renewed appreciation of the beauty of Earth while looking down on it.”

LeCompte said that struck him as ironic, that in some ways we are accumulating better information from space probes about other planets than we are about our own. “It seemed to me that we should be applying the same technology that we used on interplanetary probes to observe what’s happening with our own planet more closely,” he said.

AstroVision plans to launch the first of five satellites in 2002 with the entire system in place in geosynchronous orbit 22,000 miles above the Earth by 2004. The satellite images will come into a ground station at Stennis Space Center and be sent out to customers.

Target markets include television weather programs, Internet weather portals, remote sensing, risk mitigation for the insurance industry, education, transportation industries and government.

Viewers will be able to watch extreme weather such as hurricanes and tornadoes, major catastrophes including volcano eruptions, celestial events such as meteors and solar flair, and takeoffs and landings of the Space Shuttle.

AstroVision President Michael Hewins said live, color videos will be a great improvement over what weather programs currently have available.

“When you watch the weather on the evening news, what you are seeing is a computer simulation based on information that has already happened,” Hewins said. “The government has satellites that do have video, but they are producing one frame of video every 15 to 26 minutes. So you’re getting three to four frames of black and white video per hour. The information is taken to companies that colorize it and add things like state lines. By the time it gets on the air, it is at least two hours old, and it is simulated.”

Hewins believes consumers would much prefer live video to computer simulations, especially when it might impact decisions such as whether to evacuate for a hurricane or even whether or not to call off a golf game.

Weather information alone is expected to be a big market for AstroVision, but commercial applications certainly don’t end there. The government, which has 288 different entities that buy some sort of data from satellites, is expected to also be a major customer. The videos could be used to pinpoint forest fires, for example, or help the Federal Emergency Management Agency detect, predict and study catastrophic weather events such as tornadoes, hurricanes and flooding.

AstroVision already has a $9.4-million contract with NASA to use the video system to study “Tornado Alley,” a region of the U.S. particularly prone to hurricanes.

“NASA wants to study the development of tornados,” Hewins said. “The warnings we have today are pretty much limited to when the funnels form and are on the ground. There is some data that suggests what happens on top of the clouds predicts where funnels will drop. So we could in advance be able to predict where and when the tornado will drop.”

Utility companies could use up-to-the-minute, live data to be more efficient with power distribution. One utility company told Hewins it could save an estimated $50 to $60 million per year with real-time weather information.

The FAA is also expected to be interested in the data that can be used to minimize delays at airports due to weather. With better weather reports, efficiency could be improved.

“Instead of updating the forecast every two hours, it could be updated every few minutes,” Hewins said. “That could significantly impact planning at airports. About 69% of delays at airports are due to weather.”

Hewins said there are also other significant business-to-business applications. “We haven’t even thought of all of them yet,” he said.

Compared to most communications satellites that cost about $250 million each, the video system will be relatively inexpensive with each satellite costing about $50 million. The satellites will be strictly for video and won’t, for example, measure heat and water vapor like weather satellites.

The Stennis Space Center will house the ground station, and research and development operations. The administrative headquarter for AstroVision will be in Washington, D.C. to attract and service government contracts.

The Web site for AstroVision is www.astrovision.com.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

About Becky Gillette

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