Tom Lounibos, managing director of Accenture Ventures, the consulting firm's corporate venture capital unit, has made several investments in space technology startups.
Accentures Ventures, the venture capital arm of the world’s largest consulting firm by employees, is focusing much of its investment dollars into low orbit spacetech, which it expects will become a sector worth trillions of dollars.
Low orbit spacetech will accelerate advances in bioscience, material science, cyber security, energy and data storage, among others, says Tom Lounibos, managing director of Accenture Ventures.
Low orbit space is at an altitude of less than 1,000km from the Earth’s surface. Every year, hundreds of satellites are launched into the Earth’s orbit for purposes ranging from communications to environmental monitoring.
Spacetech has become a rapidly growing sector because of recent cost reductions of rocket launches and advances in electronics. The number of satellites launched into space is expected to increase tenfold to 100,000 in the next five years.
Spacetech has applications across industries. Bioscience is a particular area of focus because of the unique environmental conditions that space provides to study biology. “The labs of the future will be in low orbit because of microgravity, which enables you to look at biology in more of a human form,” says Lounibos.
Scientists have found that microgravity, or very weak gravity present in space, can help mimic how cells grow in the human body. In cancer research, for example, scientists have discovered that cells outside the body maintain their three-dimensional shapes in a microgravity environment. In normal lab settings, cells grow flat and do not duplicate the shapes they would normally make in the body.
Spacetech is also helping to solve one of the biggest issues facing Fortune 2000 companies that Accenture consults: how to build resilient and sustainable supply chains. The venture unit has invested in startups that develop imaging satellites which collect data useful to sectors such as agriculture and forestry.
A spacetech startup in its portfolio is Planet Labs, which collects data that can be used by agricultural firms and foresters to manage land sustainably. The startup has developed a method of using satellite imaging to measure how much carbon is stored in forests and estimates how much of that carbon is lost from wildfires and agricultural clearcuts.
A similar startup it invested in is Indian company Pixxel, which uses highly detailed imaging satellites to beam down data that it claims can detect problems on Earth that are invisible to today’s satellites.
Cybersecurity is another area of investment focus for the venture group. The sector intersects with spacetech as the expansion of satellites requires technologies that will secure communications in space.
It is focused on quantum security, which uses advances in computing technology to secure data. Quantum computing presents both a problem and a solution to cyberattacks. The technology can be harnessed to decrypt data and could make encryption technologies that most enterprises rely on obsolete, according to the World Economic Forum.
Accenture Ventures’ cybersecurity investments include SpiderOak, a company that uses encryption and distributed ledger to secure space communications. It has formed a strategic alliance with QuSecure, a startup developing software to protect data from quantum computing threats.
Investing in generative AI to solve labour shortages
Generative AI is also a big area of interest for the venture unit, as it is for many investors. Accenture Ventures views the technology’s main potential as helping to solve labour shortages, one of the top challenges facing its parent company’s clients.
Generative AI can solve the shortage of software developers, for example, as the technology can speed up testing and documentation, freeing up labour for other software development tasks. Accenture Ventures recently invested in Writer.ai, a startup that uses generative AI to help enterprises create content for areas such as marketing, product sales and human resources.
The value in AI for enterprises comes when new sets of data can be blended with existing data to create new insights, says Lounibos. Today’s large language models that underpin AI systems trawl open-source data that are little use to businesses that rely on accurate and confidential data. Anticipating this need, the venture unit has invested in data privacy protection startups such as TripleBlind and Inrupt.
A different way of working with startups
Lounibos joined Accenture Ventures in 2020 after a 43-year career as a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur. He founded six companies, which were all either acquired or went public through initial public offerings. When Lounibos joined Accenture, he founded an initiative called Project Spotlight, an investment programme for early stage, emerging tech startups. Of the 56 investments in the venture unit’s portfolio, half are early stage.
The idea of the initiative is to create a way for the venture unit to bring Accenture experts together with startup founders to build a product that has a strong market fit. As a former entrepreneur, Lounibos says he is ideally placed to communicate between founders and the parent company’s consultants to come up with new products that meet industry needs.
Lounibos stresses this approach is different to connecting founders with business development teams. “We are not writing a distribution contract that business development teams do that says, ‘let’s go find a deal together’. We are looking at it as ‘let’s build a new product together’”, says Lounibos.
This approach can accelerate the time it takes for early-stage startups to find a product-market fit, he says, which typically takes founders between three and five years to achieve. “We are still learning how to do it the right way, but I think we have accelerated innovation for startups and, more importantly, for our clients.”