The Stanford MBA Behind Skybox

Stanford MBA John Fenwick popped into Stanford's engineering school in search of the smartest people there for his co-founders

Stanford MBA John Fenwick popped into Stanford’s engineering school in search of the smartest people there for his co-founders

Skybox Imaging is a Stanford equation if there ever was one: one part business school and three parts engineering. While enrolled in Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, former Air Force officer John Fenwick popped into the engineering school and asked a professor to bring him the sharpest person there. That’s how he met his future co-founders, Julian Mann and Dan Berkenstock, both aerospace engineers. The three encountered their fourth co-founder, Ching-Yu Hu–who was getting her master’s in Management Science and Engineering–in a business class. The quartet took Mark Leslie’s Formation of New Ventures course where the professor introduced them to venture capitalist Pierre Lamond of Khosla Ventures. Lamond was impressed by what he saw and invested $3 million.

So far, so good. Skybox now has $91 million in investment, and both Lamond and Leslie sit on the board. “The company had to go through a very steep learning curve, and I think they performed very well,” Lamond says. “I would give them really an A grade.”

Silicon Valley has no shortage of consumer electronic know-how. What makes Skybox Imaging different is that it’s taking that technology to the final frontier, Lamond says. “This is somewhat of an exaggeration, but bottom line, I think it’s true,” he adds. “Bringing consumer electronic innovations to space could really change the game.”

Skybox is using consumer hardware to build inexpensive satellites that are about as big as two-drawer filing cabinets. Launching them is just the first step, though. These satellites will collect and combine low-resolution images to generate pictures that could show you cars in Walmart parking lots or fuel tankers traveling through China, Skybox told Wired in June. “We can get really very, very good pictures from a satellite that basically costs hundreds of times less than existing satellites,” Lamond says. And Skybox won’t just be selling those pictures–it’ll be selling the valuable data that comes with them. “We sell information, and that was one of the ideas [the company] had right at the beginning,” Lamond adds.

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The technology that makes these satellites possible isn’t taught anywhere near business classes. Even Fenwick, the MBA in the equation, has a master’s in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT. “An MBA is generally irrelevant to me,” says David Cowan, a board member from Bessemer Venture Partners, an investor in the startup. Lamond is equally neutral on the subject. Still, he concedes that Stanford and MIT are ideal spots for any MBA candidate with an entrepreneurial bent. “When you are at Stanford or MIT, you are in constant contact with people in the engineering school or the bio areas,” he says. “You exchange ideas, and it leads to companies getting started.”

Skybox looks like a promising marriage of business and engineering. But–and this is a big but–the company hasn’t launched a single satellite, yet. Rather, the first satellite was set to piggyback its way to space on a Russian rocket. “You know, it would be nice if we could have a satellite flying over us right now, but we don’t have the means to buy or launch for $40 million or whatever, so we have to be patient,” Lamond says.

Cowan remains confident in Skybox’s success. “The team started out as a brilliant group of founders, but they have since recruited the cream of the crop from industry, bringing experience and domain knowledge from the companies Skybox will disrupt,” he says. “When we invested, everyone we spoke with dismissed the startup as fantastical and irrelevant, but now the industry watches Skybox with bated breath.”

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