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[Beyond Earth] Contec leads Korea's space foray

Established in 2015, startup sets up 12 ground stations globally to offer end-to-end services for satellite operators

By Kan Hyeong-woo

Published : July 30, 2023 - 15:36

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Contec CEO Lee Sung-hee (Contec) Contec CEO Lee Sung-hee (Contec)

Over 50 space companies from across the globe gathered on Jeju Island on June 28 to attend the opening ceremony of the International Space Summit. They came together to discuss trends in the space industry, in launch vehicles, ground station networks, satellite image analysis and other areas.

The two-day ISS was organized by Contec, a local startup specializing in satellite-to-ground station services.

“There has never been any space conference of such a size in our country,” Lee Sung-hee, CEO of Contec, told The Korea Herald at the startup’s headquarters in Daejeon on July 14.

“The government has never (organized such an event). We have a larger network than the government. Both domestic and overseas participants said they were surprised and impressed by the scale of the event.”

Established in January 2015, Contec has set up a global ground station network with 12 ground station sites across the world. The sites are located in Australia, Chile, Finland, Ireland, Malaysia, Oman, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden and the United States. Lee said he plans to bring up the number to 20 eventually.

“Looking at (the US ground station in) Alaska, there is lots of demand,” he said. “Right now, we have one antenna set up there, so we can’t receive data from more than one satellite at once. There could be five satellites passing over Alaska at the same time.”

With the worldwide ground station network, Contec offers end-to-end services for satellite operators. The startup’s solution covers services in telemetry tracking and command system, pre-processing satellite’s raw data, detecting objects in satellite images and analyzing the post-processed data.

“There are no companies across the globe that do what we do,” said Lee. “Some companies can build ground stations, receive satellite data and hand them over to customers. Others only analyze the pre-processed data for satellite image application. We are the only player in the world with the all-covering services.”

According to the CEO, Contec logged 12.7 billion won ($9.85 million) in revenue last year and is expected to post over 200 billion won in revenue this year as the startup continues to expand the list of customers worldwide. Contec's customers already include world-leading space firms, including Safran and Planet Labs.

“If we include companies that work with us in any way, there are over 120 firms across the world that can be considered our partners,” said Lee. “We have over 40 customers and that number is higher if we include Korean customers.”

According to the CEO, Contec currently supports some 50 satellites that pass over the startup’s ground stations 3,000 times per month. The startup has completed up to a Series C funding, raising a total of about 74.6 billion won so far. The CEO said he expects the company to go public in November.

Pointing out that Contec had purchased about 26,450 square meters of land on Jeju Island to build a total space site named “Asia Space Park,” Lee underlined the importance of making space as a part of people’s everyday life to bolster the industry. Breaking ground in April, Contec expects the first phase of the construction to be completed by the end of this year.

“We are going to set up 12 antennas and a satellite operation center there,” he said. “It will be for our business, not for tourism. However, I believe the space sector needs to be closer to the public. That’s why we will build additional space experience centers such as a zero-gravity experience zone.”

The CEO also expressed a vision to establish an investment firm once Contec successfully goes public and eventually set up a space incubator center in Daejeon, nearby the company headquarters, to bring space startups from both in and out of Korea together and create synergy to advance the space sector.

“The European Space Agency operates (Business Incubator Centers) and there are 60 BICs in about 20 countries,” he said. “Looking at that, I hope that (Korea’s) Ministry of Science and ICT and Korea Aerospace Research Institute would take action. But they don’t.”

Lee emphasized that the public and private sectors have to do their own part while working together to bolster the space industry, which he believes will have to go into global businesses in the end.

“The government has to contemplate about which policies it will lay out,” he said. “Private companies shouldn’t keep depending on the government. Figuring out business models and global strategies is also very important.”