A longtime veteran of the space domain, John “J.R.” Riordan is helping government leverage satellite intelligence to get a better understanding of what’s happening here on Earth.
We caught up with the chief revenue officer of BlackSky to talk about opportunities in geospatial intelligence, and its implications for the GovCon community.
Can you tell us first what BlackSky does?
We’re really the first mover in real-time geospatial intelligence. In essence, we’re providing insights and data to help make everyday decisions with more strategic information.
The company was formed to bring real-time geospatial intelligence to the customer. It could be in support of the warfighter, or it might be monitoring commodities sitting on a dock somewhere to address supply chain issues. Our mantra is “Be the First to Know” and we stand behind that.
In 2020, we started using multi-spectral sensor networks, with time-based analytics. So it’s not just taking pictures from a satellite; it’s location-based intelligence. We’re bringing [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] from the months that it used to take down to minutes.
While the ISR mission might be much the same, the timetable for today’s ISR data has gone to real-time insights. BlackSky is proud of driving that speed to insights.
Why does government need industry’s help with this?
Government organizations cannot always operate as quickly as they would like to. We are closing the gap on timing.
The large, very exquisite satellites that government teams have used in the past — those take time to build, time to task, take time to operate, and also take time based on where they’re orbiting the Earth at any given moment. BlackSky can solve that problem, with our 12 satellite inclined constellation and our Spectra AI analytics platform.
We make our own satellites, we have dawn-to-dusk revisits, we have rapid, direct-tasking downlink along with predictive and anticipatory analytics. All that fills in the gaps for government.
Also, the speed of our last three launches of six satellites in three weeks proves out much of the hybrid space promise of capacity on demand.
Where have you had success in bringing this offering to government?
We work with numerous U.S. government agencies as a trusted mission partner. That includes the Army, Air Force, Space Force. We’ve been a public company since September, and we have a top-secret clearance facility. Over half our staff hold government security clearances.
In general, we serve and support whomever needs BlackSky services. We actually think as our revisit rates increase dramatically, we’ll find new agency missions that are a natural extension of our portfolio of services.
What’s the biggest business challenge you face?
Folks don’t always know who we are or what we can offer. Once folks see a demo of our Spectra AI platform, what it can do for them, the service almost sells itself. So it’s about building visibility, not just for our services but for the team of people that comprise the family of BlackSky.
Names like Dr. Peter Wegner, our [chief technology officer]and Sue Gordon, our newest board member are some of the most respected names in D&I. It’s important to understand the role they play in all of this. Because our solution is literally real time: If a customer calls up with a major issue, our folks can pivot to that very quickly. And we can move very intelligently.
From a management point of view, how do you get the team to deliver at that high level?
It starts with our CEO Brian O’Toole. He’s motivated to provide the most compelling solutions to the customer. It terms of recruitment, word of mouth has been strong for us, in part because of our focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.
That’s been one of our foundational baselines since the company was founded. Leadership at every level of BlackSky understands the importance of we play in contributing to successful missions outcomes for all of our customers.
In general, the company has a reputation for treating people with respect at all levels. Good ideas don’t just come from the top. And we keep the lines of communications open, with events, engagements and interactions. Our teams know where we are, what we’re doing, where we’re going.
It’s a very collaborative environment, which is one of the things that drew me here. I’m happy to be a part of making that happen.
You’ve been in the private sector, with Parsons among others, and you’ve been in government, working on the Senate Armed Service Committee to create Space Force. From your perspective, how can GovCons and agencies work together most effectively?
Engagement is probably the most important thing you can do in the GovCon space, helping the folks in government understand what you are offering and keeping them up to date as to what you’re developing.
When I came into the Hill, I never turned down a meeting. We always accepted every request of anyone that wanted to talk to the staff to educate them. Constant learning has been a value to me all of my life and is an important catalyst for BlackSky’s business velocity.
For GovCons, learning is worth every minute, because the more you educate folks, the better informed they will be when legislation comes through, or when there’s a debate on a topic. Things happen in the commercial world faster than in government, and it’s important for industry to keep everyone up to date.
On a personal note, what makes this work meaningful for you?
When I was very, very young, I got to go to an air show at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey and got to see the Thunderbirds. It was an inspiration for me, and I wanted to become a part of that. I joined the Air Force through ROTC in college and had a great military career in cyber, space and missiles.
When I retired out of the Air Force, I said, I’m not done serving. I wanted to still serve the warfighter, from a different perspective. I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world, to be able to do what I’m doing today. Dreams do come true.