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How NF alum venture Skywatch made a big bang at Space Apps

Oct 25, 2018

Ask James Slifierz why his company, SkyWatch, is sponsoring the Waterloo Region’s chapter of the NASA Space Apps Challenge hackathon, which takes place this weekend at Communitech, and he’ll tell you about the phone call.

That would be the phone call that resulted in, oh, inventing “the Twitter of the Universe.”

The phone call that led to inventing the Twitter of the Universe was one that Slifierz and his Space Apps team placed at the 2014 version of the event – a phone call that, within 48 hours, had ignited a chain reaction of events that would lead the team to a worldwide victory, international recognition, and the seeds for a ground-breaking, space-based startup that today has raised millions of dollars and is a leader in its field.

And, yes, a bit of software that actually is … the Twitter of the Universe.

It unfolded like this.

Four years ago last April, Slifierz and his two other hastily assembled team members – Roland Sing and Dexter Jagula, who are now SkyWatch co-founders – were set up at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto with dozens of other space-obsessed hackers casting about for a project to work on at that year’s version of the Space Apps Challenge.

It was a Friday night. The event’s 48-hour clock had begun ticking. They’d selected their challenge, one of 20 NASA had made available, one that was geared to solving a data problem NASA was having, but they needed a firm idea they could turn into a product. Something that would hopefully guide their efforts for the next 48 hours and propel them past the other hackathon competitors.

Slifierz had an idea.

“NASA has all of their spacecraft looking outwards, capturing data, including the Hubble [telescope],” Slifierz recalls, speaking to Communitech News at the company’s Data Hub-based office in uptown Waterloo.

“All this data is transmitted to the ground on a particular protocol they’ve invented internally and [which] allows them to manage it once it hits the ground.

“I’d done a bit of research the first night, the Friday night, to figure out who built this protocol and who could I call to learn more. So I called a guy named Scott Barthelmy. He was at Goddard Space Flight Centre, at NASA in Maryland.

“I said, ‘Hey, you seem to know a lot about this GCN protocol.’

“He says, ‘Well, I’m the guy who invented the protocol.’

“So I [go on to] explain that we’re trying to build an application in which we could stream this data. So, as NASA was capturing this data, we were going to build a realtime stream of all the events it was capturing.

“So, he said, ‘Here, look, we’ll let you connect directly into our servers, so you can get the data as it’s coming down to the ground in real time.”

Slifierz was gobsmacked. They’d been given the keys to a live feed of NASA’s data from space.

Far from looking a gift horse in the mouth, the trio quickly embarked on what Slifierz calls the “most dense 48-hour learning period” of their lives, as they set out to understand the treasure trove of data they’ve been given and then build a method to harness it.

“Imagine trying to give yourself a PhD in astrophysics in the course of 48 hours,” he says.

The plan was to take the data, which is massively complex, and build a simple-to-use, easy-to-interpret interface for it.

As Slifierz explains it, the world’s scientists are keenly interested in studying and recording events unfolding in space – supernovas and the like. But to do so, a scientist has to be lucky, looking in just the right quadrant of the sky in order to capture the event as it’s unfolding.

They learned that an event like a supernova gives off very high radiation energy signals called gamma rays. The gamma rays hit NASA’s spacecraft, the spacecraft record the data and then transmit it to Earth – using the very protocol that the trio of hackers had been given access to.

Their plan?

“We collect that data and then we send that data out to astrophysicists around the world as leads for potential science research.”

The value of the data is in “its capability to eventually lead to Nobel Prize winning work.

“What’s theorized is that during the early minutes of a supernova, the building blocks of life are created,” Slifierz explains. “The star compresses very rapidly and bursts out and shoots all these new molecules. And carbon. Iron. All the molecules that you need to have carbon-based lifeforms are created.”

The hope was that their software could give scientists near-instant notification of astrological events, allowing them to reposition their telescopes “and view the early moments of a supernova – view the early moments of creation of life, essentially. The building blocks of life.

“It was a very powerful thing.”

It was so powerful, and so well executed, that their project, which they called SkyWatch, captured first place at the Toronto Space Apps hackathon, and eventually beat out 650 other teams worldwide.

Based on the outcome of the hackathon the trio would eventually go on to create their company, SkyWatch, which specializes in making satellite data easily and readily available. Their Space Apps project, now named Supernova, continues to exist as a resource for scientists.

It was precisely the events of four years ago that led SkyWatch to become a fervent backer of the Space Apps event. It’s why the company is sponsoring the Waterloo Region contest, which expects to welcome 200 to 300 participants, and is taking place in concert with simultaneous hackathons in 200 countries around the world involving some 30,000 hackers.

“What’s important about Space Apps, is Space Apps served as a conduit for us discovering these opportunities,” Slifierz says.

“It brought people like ourselves who are from outside of the industry into the industry with fresh ideas. All we was really did was think about how we build a simple interface for accessing complex data. It’s done in other industries all the time, but not necessarily with the mindset of an astrophysicist.

“So the combination of us bringing that outside perspective into the arena of space and trying to give a fresh perspective of how we solve problems they’re having, turned out to be a pretty powerful combination and it works for both sides.

“We, as people who love space, can participate in the space economy. The space industry gets better solutions to tough problems. That’s the power of the event.”

Slifierz says the additional upside of Space Apps is what he calls “a gateway to STEM,” as well as a gateway to careers in space for people who are creative, inventive, curious.

“You don’t have to be someone who is an engineer,” he says. “We look for citizen scientists. We look for designers. We look for artists. Artists, communications, play such an important role in generating support for these projects.”

He cites the power of the Earthrise photo of the late ’60s, which has been called “the most influential environmental photo ever taken.”

“It sparked Earth science and Earth observation. The power of that one image changed so much about society and humanity in general.

“The moon landings did the same thing.

“We want to ensure that people in this community get the opportunity to be exposed to these opportunities. Everyone has something they can contribute.”

No one, he says, knows what opportunities might unfold as a result of taking part in a hackathon. The universe, he reminds, works in mysterious ways. Remember that phone call?

It turns out that the trio’s NASA contact, Scott Barthelmy, gave them access to the data on which they based their project by … mistake.

“It was a year later we talked to Scott again and he told us at the time, when we first reached out, he thought we were [his] colleagues at NASA,” Slifierz says. “He didn’t know we were a bunch of kids trying to build an application.

“Who knows if that mishap didn’t happen, [whether] he would have given us access to NASA servers collecting data from space.

“So many strokes of luck. I often say life a game of chance.”

The coda? You never know where a phone call placed from a hackathon can lead.

It just might lead to building the Twitter of the Universe.

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