Editor's note: Inc. magazine will announce its pick for Company of the Year on Monday, December 11. Here, we spotlight a contender for the title in 2017.​

Having an eye in the sky can be helpful. Planet Labs has more than 200.

The San Francisco-based startup was founded by three NASA employees in 2010. Their work hinged on a simple question: What if we launched phones into orbit?

"We thought the cost of satellites had far too many zeros on the end," says Will Marshall, Planet Labs' co-founder and CEO. "Smartphones have 90 percent of what you need to make a satellite. So our question was, could we make a smartphone work in space?"

The newly formed Planet Labs team got to work creating a compact, pared-down satellite. The result isn't quite the size of a smartphone--but, at 10 inches long and four inches tall and wide, it's far smaller than many of the school bus-size ones currently in orbit.

In February, the company sent up 88 of the satellites aboard a rocket. Following several more launches, the company now has more than 200 satellites orbiting the globe. That gives it the largest satellite fleet in history, plus an unprecedented capability: The company can photograph every landmass on Earth and its surrounding waters every single day.

That's a goal the company had in mind since its early days. "It's not just about the number of satellites, by any means," Marshall says. "It's about our mission of imaging the whole world every day. We knew early on that would be a transformational capability, something that would have a huge value to a number of different users."

Those users now include clients from Farmers Edge, which analyzes Planet's photos to predict crop yields, to Google, which uses the images for its consumer-facing satellite map feature. The U.S. government, another customer, uses the service to assist with border security and disaster response. 

Planet's mini satellites circle the globe in 24-hour loops, passing over the same location at the same time each day, which makes it easier to detect differences from one day to the next. In all, the satellites take more than one million photographs each day. Companies that buy Planet's service can provide their own analytics to the images or use a service from one of the company's partners, such as Orbital Insight or CrowdAI.

The images its shoebox-size satellites take are macro--best used for observing rising sea levels or the color and health of a crop. But if a client needs high-resolution shots, Planet can be provide those, too. Earlier this year, it purchased Terra Bella, a satellite company owned by Google. That firm's larger, refrigerator-size satellites can zoom into a specific area and snap photos where requested.

Marshall sees Planet's images as someday being a game changer for the world of finance. "If there's a way to tell the output from all the soy fields in all the farms around the world every day," Marshall says, "the people in New York and Tokyo who are betting on those markets are going to be pretty damn interested in that."  ​

The company, which is now at 470 employees and growing, has secured more than $200 million in funding from firms like First Round Capital and IFC. Its valuation has been reported to exceed $1 billion, though it declines to share revenue numbers. Still, its industry is becoming crowded: In addition to incumbent DigitalGlobe, which focuses on high-res images, mini satellite startups like Capella Space, Spire, and OneWeb have entered the fold in recent years. 

For now, Planet's primary advantage is probably in its umatched coverage of the earth's surface. Eventually, Marshall says, Planet wants to further differentiate itself by building a layer of image recognition that can be applied to its photos. "If we can recognize ships and cars and boats and planes and houses and roads," he says, "then we can turn all of this data into a database of what's on the planet." In other words, no more guessing on a given day how many vehicles are on the world's roads or boats are in its oceans--we'll be able to know for sure.

Until then, Planet Labs will keep plugging away--and keep snapping its photos at an unprecedented rate.

Published on: Dec 8, 2017