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“Space Today is Like the Gold Rush of the 1800s”, says Gianluca Redolfi

When he tells you his intense life story, it gives you the feeling that he stumbled upon every success almost effortlessly. In reality, behind every achievement of Gianluca Redolfi, entrepreneur and Chief Commercial Officer of Sateliot, a technological startup promising to revolutionize global telecommunications, there is a strong desire to act, combined with extraordinary curiosity and an unusual ability to see the positive side of things.

Born in Trieste, having lived in ten different countries, and now residing in Barcelona for years, a city he frequented since his youth during his travels around the world, Gianluca Redolfi, along with some partners, initiated a project in 2019 that many considered a bit crazy: democratizing access to satellite telecommunications globally through an affordable connection system (Sateliot is a combination of the words satellite and IoT, Internet of Things). This strategy is part of what has been dubbed the New Space Economy, enabling the construction and launch of satellites at limited costs and providing borderless extensions of cellular networks. 

This practical innovation can enhance people’s lives and optimize the use of the planet’s resources. The project took off at record speed; from six people in 2019, the company grew to 50 employees from 15 different nationalities, with offices also in San Diego, California.

Understanding the life journey of this unconventional engineer, as he likes to describe himself, is motivating and instructive. Therefore, before delving into the details of his most recent venture, the interview must start with his early experiences, which already reveal the nature of the innovator.

Gianluca, you moved to Barcelona for the first time as a young man, even before graduating, to have a new experience and ended up immediately in business. How did it happen?

I found a job in a large transport multinational. I dealt with delivery receipts and interacted with truck drivers. I learned Spanish from them. It was 1996, and at that time, everything was still being done manually. One day, I saw a computer on the floor in a corner of one of the office rooms. I asked what it was, and they told me it had been sent from Switzerland and was only used once a month to transmit data to the headquarters. From that moment, every afternoon at 5:30 pm, when I finished work, I would put it on my desk and program until late. After a few months, I created a program that automated my work for distributing Apple products in Spain and showed it to my bosses, who were thrilled and ended up buying it for branches in other countries, too.

You graduated in electronic engineering in Trieste in 1998. Did you find work immediately?

Yes, very interesting technical jobs, but they made me realize that the profession wasn’t quite suitable for me, and gradually, I saw that marketing suited me better. Studying engineering gave me the right mindset, but I consider myself atypical because engineers are usually more introverted. I saw that it was different from my world. I stayed in Brussels for a year and a half and then in The Hague for another year and a half. At that point, I understood I didn’t want to stay in Northern European countries. I wanted sunshine, palm trees, and cheerful people. Since I had friends in Barcelona and liked it, I decided to go back there.

A new challenge?

Yes. Someone told me about a job opportunity in a new company where I had to deal with telecom asset management. It was a significant project where everything had to be created from scratch, and a general manager had to be found, so at 29, I found myself interviewing managers much older than me, and eventually, the Group chose me for the role in Spain. I stayed there for a year and a half, and for some time, I took care of the France group, so I was commuting between Barcelona and Paris. When the economic crisis hit, the company had to close all European offices. I was left without a job, so I teamed up with three friends to develop a new idea.

Your first time as an entrepreneur?

Exactly. Listening to people’s stories, talking about how tiring it was to drive hundreds of kilometers to check if a wall had been built on a construction site, I got the idea of putting cameras on cranes to monitor what was happening on construction sites remotely. Today, it seems obvious, but at that time, it was innovative, and the timing was right because Spain was in a real estate boom. We even patented a helmet with a camera that allowed you to move around the construction site and see from a distance what was happening. The business was going quite well, although we were all very young and lacked entrepreneurial experience. The global economic crisis created many problems for us; I left the company and started looking for something else.

You had to reinvent yourself once again, but in the meantime, you got married…

I married a Spanish woman I met in Madrid, and my son Lorenzo was born in January 2006. I returned to work as a manager for several companies, traveling a lot. Then, the opportunity came to move to Dubai. However, my wife stayed with him in the Canary Islands. At the time, there were no direct flights, and I ended up taking three planes every ten days to see him. I stayed there for two years, one of which I spent working in Saudi Arabia, helping to launch a new mobile phone network that had paid six billion dollars… back then, the most expensive 3G license in the world.

I did a bit of everything: HR, marketing, sales, pricing… After the project, I returned to Gran Canaria, where I thought of taking some time off and spending more time with my family, but after a month, I was offered a new project and I headed back to Madrid.

It seems like opportunities always come looking for you. How do you manage that?

I’m a person who commits wholeheartedly to finding solutions to problems rather than just talking about them, and this always helps. I don’t believe much in luck, but sometimes, it can be a decisive factor. People trust me, perhaps because I have always kept my promises. I have a strong desire to act, and this is also recognized. Another of my strengths is loyalty. I have always been sincere. I believe success comes with honesty; I don’t believe in shortcuts.

Your CV says one of the most prolonged stays abroad was in Algeria, where you worked for their largest MNO for nine years. What was it like being an expat in such a different country?

Initially, it was supposed to be only four weeks, but the business proliferated, and I stayed. We went from a turnover of $180 million in 2008, when I arrived, to $1.2 billion when I left, nine years later.

I had a great time in Algeria; it’s obviously a very different and interesting world. You must be adaptable; leisure activities are limited, and most things are organized at home. This, combined with the small local international community, creates an environment in which it is easy to develop strong and lasting friendships. Unlike in a big city, where connections are fast-paced and fleeting, in Algeria, you have the opportunity to get to know people better; I have created and maintained fantastic friendships from that time.

How did you experience living in a different culture like Algeria, especially considering your diverse experiences in Northern Europe and the United States?

Algeria is a country where daily life is very different from ours; let’s say it’s a bit “vintage,” but it still has its charm. I put a lot of energy into Algeria. On the one hand, you must supervise the teams to ensure the work level doesn’t drop too much, but you also need to be quite relaxed. There, I ended up managing nearly two thousand people, and it was fantastic, a real school of emotional intelligence.

You returned to Spain in 2016, three years before starting Sateliot. What was your goal?

I wanted to take a sabbatical year but didn’t manage it this time either. I tried to get involved in real estate investments in Barcelona, but it wasn’t for me. I like action, and someone I had met in the States years earlier asked me to work with him as Vice President of a new startup in Palo Alto, Silicon Valley. I packed my bags and left, thinking I would stay there for a few months, but, in the end, as usual, it lasted a year and a half.

After Palo Alto, you returned to Barcelona. For those not in the industry, satellite is a very complex world. What makes Sateliot so revolutionary?

We started with creating and promoting a standard system that unified the way of connecting to satellites, making it easier and more affordable (similar to what happened with GSM in mobile phones years ago). We explained its usefulness, and later on, this standard was approved in June 2022. It’s a true revolution because we can extend cellular network coverage to the most remote places all over the planet, where no cell phone can currently reach.

What advantages does this extension bring?

Our primary focus is not on the cellular network but the Internet of Things. Sateliot’s motto is “Because a connected world is a better world.” Nowadays, cellular networks are designed to provide coverage where there are humans but not where there are things. Here, there is a significant gap that Sateliot aims to fill.

We start with the assumption that humans always want to measure everything because when you do it, you progress. We want to know the exact time, how much we’ve walked, how many calories we’ve burned, etc. There’s no limit to measurement. The things you can measure in the Internet of Things are infinite. A vast ecosystem of companies already uses these measurements to add value to their activities. Still, they are limited in their installations due to the presence of cellular networks, which cover only 15% of the planet.

What practical applications does Sateliot have?

Today, space is like the Gold Rush of 1800s California. There’s still a lot to do. Sateliot is the first operator capable of providing services in areas that are currently impossible to reach. We have paved the way to make the world better and safer because it allows us to act on things remotely. For example, search teams spend precious time mapping the area if someone falls into the sea or a boat sinks in areas not covered by cellular networks. However, the search can be immediate with a few dollars sensor embedded in a life jacket. In agriculture or livestock farming, there are endless applications, too. You can monitor crops, dams’ water levels, bees’ health status in beehives, or any other valuable data from hundreds of kilometers away. All at low costs. In other words, Sateliot enables the digitization of the planet in previously impractical situations.

What obstacles do you have to face? What could go wrong?

Until recently, everyone laughed at us when we talked about Sateliot and our idea. Now, our counterparts are the world’s largest technology enterprises. We started with a commercial advantage of a couple of years over the competition since we designed our satellites even before the standard was approved. Our main challenges now are two: money and time. There are technical challenges, of course, but we have conducted tests both in the laboratory and in space, and we are confident. 

However, the key to launching satellites is obtaining enough funding to build them.

Is Sateliot aiming to become a unicorn?

Certainly! Our goal in the next three years is to have a revenue of one billion dollars and an EBITDA of 350 million. In this type of business, it either works or it doesn’t. Since we target economies of scale, it will work because we can serve every part of the world. 

Author: Patrizia La Daga

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