UrtheCast’s Scott Larson steps away from the tech company he co-founded following five years of meteoric growth
Surrounded by rocket scientists and PhD graduates, Scott Larson believes he wouldn’t have been on the UrtheCast Corp. payroll if he weren’t the co-founder. “There’s no way I would get a job now—at any level,” he says over aburi sushi at Miku restaurant near the Coal Harbour HQ of the company that supplies Ultra HD images taken from cameras in space. “And that’s 100 per cent true—not anyone being humble.”
Larson’s words prove prescient: we meet just weeks before his announcement to step down from the company he founded in 2010 with George Tyc and brother Wade Larson (who takes over as CEO), and return to the entrepreneurial life. In an email to UrtheCast’s 190 employees in early December, Larson wrote that he was “a start-up guy and I am proud to say that UrtheCast is no longer a start-up.” (He remains a shareholder.)
Larson credits much of the company’s success with a respect for the expertise of its “totally different ecosystems”—whether that’s programming which can be “tweaked over and over again” at their offices in San Francisco (UrtheCast is also in Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Madrid and Moscow) or working with experts in space where “you can’t go back to iterate.” With Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency, it installed its first cameras on the International Space Station, and with NASA it struck a deal to stream in real time its high-definition Earth viewing (HDEV) data.
UrtheCast began after B.C.-based aerospace company MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates (MDA), for whom Wade worked at the time, turned down Russia’s request for a camera. “MDA said, ‘It’s not really what we do,’ and my brother asked me if I thought this was a good idea,” recalls Larson. While the introduction may have been opportunistic, building the company was wholly strategic: “I understood technology and I knew some rich people, but it was a bit of a spacewalk for sure.”
Explaining the role of CEO in a publicly traded company, Larson puts it bluntly: “The first thing is, don’t screw it up and don’t get your fat greasy fingers in there with your big ego. Then try to create a vibe that allows people to do what they are supposed to—and if you can do those two things well, then you have a chance.”
With increasing demand for its proprietary images—such as those used for Pepsi’s marketing in the film Black Knight Decoded and Heineken’s “first selfie from space,” used in its James Bond Spectre campaign—UrtheCast realized revenue of $27 million in the first nine months of 2015. The 43-year-old Larson describes UrtheCast’s market as a pyramid that includes government customers (such as forestry and defence) at the top, and then business-to-business. Using algorithms, for example, the imagery can help to collect data from different sources and predict the future, such as counting the trains leaving factories in China to determine the level of production. “When you hear people talking about big data analytics, this is the heart of it.”
During his time as CEO, Larson spent a lot of time ricocheting between investor and other meetings in Toronto, Boston, New York, London, Zurich and Moscow every few months; that followed years of a fast-paced life in finance as managing director at Cambio Merchant Capital Corp., director at Redgate Capital Inc., VP at Devante Capital and manager at Stratford Internet Technologies. Now that he’s stepping back, Larson can finally relax and take some time off with his wife Paula and their two young daughters in Burnaby. After all, his life, he says, revolves around work and his “three girls.”