For a while, Yuya Nakamura tells me, his company was firing microsatellites into orbit on spec. These 100kg starlets and their cutting-edge optical technology would undoubtedly be game-changing for someone, the start-up founder assured his financial backers, but only time would reveal who.
With a third round of funding worth $24m secure, he has an unexpected answer: wily investor relations departments grappling creatively with the implications of environmental, social and governance standards scoring.
The route here is noteworthy. As Axelspace, Nakamura’s Tokyo- and thermosphere-based start-up, became better established and financed, its launch trajectory was steepened by government and private-sector tailwinds. With civilian space industries advancing rapidly in the US and elsewhere, Japan unveiled a grandiose catch-up space policy with an emphasis on surveillance and reconnaissance under its previous prime minister Shinzo Abe. Major investment banks, including Morgan Stanley, began highlighting Axelspace on rosters of next-generation disrupters and innovators to watch. Large corporations began jostling to invest. So far, so stellar.
Axelspace’s constellation of small but powerful satellites (currently five-strong, but planned to be twice that by 2023) offers prospective customers the chance to monitor anywhere on Earth at a level of detail that can pick out individual objects about the size of a car. Where it has focused its energies, though, has been in developing software that can analyse subtle changes in vast tracts of vegetation over a 24-hour period.
Nakamura and his team imagined that this kind of data, when sold at a competitive price, would be of potentially huge value to a range of clients. Agricultural businesses have long sought to refine crop monitoring and harvest-time estimates. Insurers could make more accurate calculations of potential crop failure liabilities, and commodity traders could use similar data to gain a market edge. Increasingly, says Axelspace, rural banks in developing countries are interested in using yield-prediction data to inform lending decisions to farmers.
But the real stampede of interest, says Nakamura, has been from dozens of companies that have spotted an opportunity to answer increasingly numerous and insistent questions on ESG issues. Many see it as a way to grab points as portfolios are weighted to reflect the scores.
If investors are asking about the environmental impact of a pipeline, a mine, a power-plant or a factory, how better to quell those concerns than with images of healthy vegetation captured and processed by a private microsatellite? Companies that say they have planted trees can provide live evidence of foliage.
The speed with which these companies — all, crucially, non-Japanese — have seized on this chance is striking. It shows not only how far they will go to present a particular image to investors as the prevailing mood shifts, but also the clear perception by managements in US and European markets that they cannot now afford to do otherwise.
But when I describe the satellite/sustainability phenomenon to Emi Onozuka, chief operating officer of the recently established Japan Catalyst activism fund, it only underscores her disappointment with the situation in Japan. Some companies may get what is at stake and divert serious management bandwidth into treating their ESG scoring as a matter of potential value creation, she says, but the overwhelming majority do not.
Onozuka is an important rarity: a Japanese fund manager who, after decades achieving seniority at a mainstream institutional investment firm, decided to become a shareholder activist out of sheer frustration with the pace of change in corporate Japan. “Real activism” is what is needed now, she says. Full-throttle ESG discourse, with an emphasis in Japan’s case on the governance side, demands big changes of mindset that only activism seems able to propel.
Onozuka is clear. She says for all its known flaws, and its appearance to some as a fad, the language of ESG investment represents powerful leverage in the effort to force changes of mindset on Japanese companies before the opportunity passes forever. It would be no bad thing if they felt pushed to contemplate the use of satellite images to keep investors happy.
“This is a chance for Japanese companies to change, but it has to happen now. We do not have time to wait or allow that style of thinking where you mull it over, come back, do it partly and eventually complete it in 10 years. We cannot be doing this in 2030,” she says.