Max Gulde

Portrait photo of Max Gulde, CEO of ConstellR 

| Alex Dietrich 2021
2022-10-01 publication

“Turning your idea into a vision”

Freiburg-based company ConstellR uses satellite systems to measure drought stress in plants. Before they could get their technology on board the ISS, the founders had to work their way through countless research funding bodies. In an interview, ConstellR CEO Max Gulde tells us how he came to set up his own company and how a startup program provided the decisive push. 

By Tim Schröder 

VDE dialog - the technology magazine

Your company ConstellR develops satellites with specialist cameras that can recognize whether plants are getting enough water. What exactly does this involve? 

Max Gulde: Ultimately, it’s about preventing food crops in major growing areas around the world from suffering heat stress. When plants are short of water, they can’t put as much energy into fruit production. Harvests are poorer. Satellites have been used since the 1970s to detect when crops are wilting. These systems measure the change in color. When plants wilt, they break down chlorophyll, the substance that gives them their green color. But by then it’s already too late. Our process, by contrast, notices heat stress within just a few hours. If it’s too dry, plants transpire less water. This causes the temperature on the leaves’ surface to slowly increase. Our satellite technology is able to detect when the temperature changes by just a few tenths of one degree Celsius. Farmers can then irrigate dry areas of the field. That not only helps the crops but also saves water because you can irrigate in a more targeted way. 

You founded ConstellR around two years ago. How’s it going? 

Gulde: The first camera system is already in space aboard the International Space Station (ISS). In the next three years, we will produce five satellites fitted with our camera system. They are about the size of a chest freezer and weigh around 80 kilograms. We will probably use SpaceX rockets to transport them. We’re already working with some of the ten biggest agribusinesses worldwide and also with smaller firms that have shown great interest in the satellite data.  

Could you have imagined all this a few years ago when you decided to set up a company? 

Gulde: My co-founder Marius Bierdel and I were a little bit clueless about how we approached things to begin with. At that time, we were working at the Fraunhofer Institute for High-Speed Dynamics, the Ernst-Mach-Institut EMI in Freiburg, in the System Solutions department. At some point, people from the European Space Agency (ESA) started telling us that our technology was a real breakthrough. The problem of measuring temperatures using small satellites was one that nobody had been able to solve so accurately before us. But it was difficult at the outset. We submitted more than ten applications for public funding and all of them were rejected – by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and by the European Union’s Horizon funding program. It was only later that we understood: a satellite mission is so expensive and success so uncertain that our work was still a high-risk project. Its profile simply didn’t fit with the typical funding programs for projects. 

Nevertheless, your work was a success. 

Gulde: Absolutely. In 2017, we applied for the Copernicus Masters European innovation competition. The task was to design the “smallest satellite with the greatest benefit for society.” At that time, we were thinking about satellites to measure the heat in urban canyons in major cities or to give an early warning of forest fires. We didn’t win the competition, but we were accepted into a startup program – an accelerator. We learned how you turn your own idea into a vision and then sell it. “You can create something.” “Believe in your idea.” “Be your own boss.” We first learned this way of thinking in the accelerator. I think those are particularly important lessons when it comes to startup funding. Promising technologies are developed by engineers and scientists. Very few of them have any idea how to turn that technology into a company. Planting that entrepreneurial spirit – that’s the key thing. When the funding was turned down, it was clear to us that we would have to carry on alone for the time being. Luckily, the Fraunhofer EMI gave us leave for this development work. They let us keep using their infrastructure, clean rooms and laboratories. Our bosses made it very clear that they believed in us. That gave us confidence because we knew that they were the best people to judge. 

So how did you make the leap into the business world? 

Gulde: Once we had developed the technology further, a friend gave us a tip. He suggested applying to one of the most important venture capital companies for the space industry: Seraphim VC. And Seraphim really did take us under their wing. Their backing was a label, a badge of distinction. It opened the doors to further donors. The ESA and the German Aerospace Center also supported us. Even funding for high-risk projects under the Exist program was now possible. We were also able to obtain funding from the European Commission’s European Innovation Council, which specifically supports small and medium-sized enterprises with high-risk capital. We then founded ConstellR about two years ago. A month ago, our contract with Fraunhofer EMI came to an end. That was a safety net that we don’t have anymore. So we’re in a new situation now – one that we agreed on with our wives, by the way. For me, that’s the real risk of having your own company: how do you manage to be successful without burning out or at the expense of your family? That’s something you have to think about beforehand. 

What else would you advise people who are starting a company? 

Gulde: That, from a career perspective, starting a business is not a risk but an opportunity. You can only win. There’s nothing to lose. I also think the first ten employees are key when starting a company. A core team is crucial for getting off to a good start. It’s also good if the company is funded from a mixture of venture capital and public money. That provides security and accelerates the startup phase. We currently get around half the funds from our investors and half from public sector funding bodies. 

Funding programs for business startups: