Space engineer and entrepreneur Pierre Blanchet combines his passion for data with an ecological commitment
Global climate change is the defining issue of our time, and we are at a defining moment. By harnessing the power of spaceborne data, we can gain a better understanding of our planetary climate system. But gathering data and monitoring changes from afar will not be enough. To truly solve global warming, we need passionate individuals who are willing to take action and use this information to drive meaningful change. The NL Space Campus provides an effective breeding ground for aspiring entrepreneurs to make full use of space data and tech to tackle societal issues. We talked with Pierre Blanchet, one of the entrepreneurs on campus, about his environmental and entrepreneurial mission.
Aerospace engineer Pierre Blanchet is not wasting time. Together with Alexandre Larroumets, he founded Meteory, a company where he combines a passion for data and satellites with a commitment to climate action. The two are developing an Earth monitoring platform providing companies and governments information on the carbon cycle and other environmental indicators. Pierre and Alexandre were still students when they started their own company and are now part of the ESA Business Incubation Programme in Noordwijk. Pierre reflects upon the different stages of becoming a space entrepreneur.
Could you take us back to the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey?
From the start, I wanted to use my skills in data science to do something good for the environment. In the summer of 2021 I found myself brainstorming with Alexandre about a startup at the frontier between data science and sustainability. Alexandre and I were in the same engineering school in France and have a passion for space and entrepreneurship in common. We both wanted to create something new, so we decided to start our own company.
Was it difficult to manage your studies while starting your company?
I thought of it as the best exercise that you can get out there. When you work an entire day on data science trying to start your own company, the studies are not as hard anymore because what you do in class is less challenging than what you do in your company.
Where do you get your motivation from?
First of all, I believe you have to be obsessed with the problem you want to solve. You do it because you believe in it. You are your first user. There is no point if there is no impact behind what you are creating. Climate change is a big problem, and we will need impactful solutions, not useless fluff. It is also motivating to have people around you. With Alexandre as cofounder, I get to share challenges as well as successes along the way.
How do you want to make an impact?
“You cannot make good decisions if you don’t have good data”, that is our starting point. People want to make good decisions for the environment, the need and the will are there, but the data is not. Only specialised people in data science or space know how to use satellite data but those are not the decision makers. Our goal is to bring the data to anyone who needs it. This is why we mainly work with people without a technical background. We make sure that all the information is extracted and displayed correctly without the complexity behind the processing of satellite data. Not everyone in the public sector is aware of satellite data and it is often overlooked in their training. We want to overcome this by showing the information that can be gained from satellites.
When did you decide to turn towards space to combine climate action and data science?
To be honest I was not a space nerd at first. Of course, I like space, it is cool and it pushes the boundaries of what is possible but I did not plan to work in the space sector. Then once you realise the explosion of data in Earth observation, space data becomes evident. Our platform would not have been possible with any other type of data. Space data allows us to cover large areas with high frequency, in high resolution, and in an automated and scalable way. Writing software may not be the dream of a space engineer, but it is exciting to be active in the space field, around people doing cool stuff with rocket engines. Even though I would argue that software is a better entry point to the space industry, because you can create a lot of value from something that already exists. Hardware is cool, but hardware breaks. (Laughs)
Could you tell us a bit more about the platform that you are developing?
Our initial idea was to use satellite data to monitor carbon emissions and absorption. From 2022 onwards, we had the chance to work on our idea within the ESA incubation programme in Noordwijk. We applied in the Netherlands due to our European focus. This country is a great catalyst of European talents coming from all EU countries and we wanted to use this to our advantage. During the first few months, we developed our first prototype, a carbon monitoring platform. The platform gathered data from different Earth observation satellites (ESA, NASA, JAXA etc.) to monitor carbon in the atmosphere and in the soil. We were quite happy with the first results, but we quickly learned that it is not always possible to calculate and trace carbon emissions. Instead of monitoring pollution and trying to find the source, we decided to go for an approach that is much more positive. We now focus on carbon sequestration, meaning the long-term storage of carbon in vegetation and soils. A lot of carbon can be stored in agricultural land, especially when practices are improved (for example with regenerative agriculture, an organic farming practice that leads to a healthy soil instead of degrading it with synthetic inputs). People are more receptive and willing to invest when it comes to absorbing more carbon, especially in the soil, because it has a direct positive effect on how resilient the soil is and how much water it can store. Of course, people also want to sell the carbon credits they are getting for their good practices.
Are you in touch with potential customers?
We managed to find our first interesting lead, an international agricultural company that wanted to know how much carbon can be absorbed in the soil and how resilient the soil is. Now our work is to improve the platform and the model to find new clients. By getting in touch with potential users, we realised that people want more information about their environment. We expanded our scope to monitor the atmosphere, vegetation, water content, and more. We now have a new platform that is scalable and can bring the best insights in the easiest way.
The EU aims to be climate-neutral by 2050, will you be able to contribute?
We recently had a meeting with the team responsible for the European Green Deal at the European Commission. The goal was to discuss how to best measure Europe’s progress toward a sustainable future and of course, satellite data is a great way to do so. The EU’s climate and environmental plans are ambitious and that is a good thing. Transparency and data will be at the root of every decision. Meteory will be part of this ecosystem necessary to bring our continent to climate neutrality and take good environmental decisions.
How can your surroundings be of help to achieve your goals?
Originally I am from France, but I wanted to finish my studies abroad. For me, Amsterdam was a good choice because it has an excellent university where I could finish my studies in data science. With the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) just around the corner, the space campus in Noordwijk offered a great spot to start my own company. Nothing is very far away in the Netherlands, so when I searched for the best place to incubate a space and environmental startup, ESA BIC Noordwijk was by far the best place possible. I really like the environment here. A lot of the people in the area are actively involved in space, but there are lots of innovators and creators working in other fields too. Every time you have a problem you can ask your peers because you are never the first one to have a problem and you will never be the last to have a similar problem. The environment is also crucial to meet new people. Events such as the monthly NL Space Campus Network & Drinks are an excellent way to grow your network and find inspiration. Typically, it also gets you out of your comfort zone because you get the opportunity to pitch on stage. I think it is cool for engineers who are not always the best networkers to have immediate access to this ecosystem.
Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
If you have an idea, work out the business plan first. Once you know the weaknesses and strengths you will feel whether what you do is right or not. If the feeling is right then you can take your project to the next level, but don’t put your eggs in too many baskets. You just need to find the right step that matches the maturity of your project. For example, we decided to go all in by only applying for the ESA BIC. For our software solution, I think the timing was just right. We had studied the market a bit and we were in a good position to have a prototype ready in a few months.
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Are you inspired to meet Pierre and Alexandre, other space entrepreneurs, and find out more about NL Space Campus or how you can join the ESA BIC programme? Join our monthly networking event at NL Space Campus or come visit the Space Business Innovation Centre on campus in Noordwijk.