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Connecting the World – BATTLESPACE Meets Mark Dankberg, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Viasat Inc. By Julian Nettlefold

About Viasat

 

 

 

 

Before we discuss Mark and his career, it is worth looking at Viasat and the growth of the Corporation from a garage in 1986 with a few thousand in start-up capital to the multi-billion dollar corporation it is today.

Viasat is a global communications provider and a world leader in satellite broadband communications, networking and related technologies. The Company recorded about $1.6bn in fiscal year 2018 revenues and employs over 5,500 professional and support personnel worldwide. It produces satellite payloads, satellite terminals, networked data links and cybersecurity solutions that enable fast, secure and efficient communications and data services to any location, serving both the commercial and government sectors.

The Company was co-founded in May 1986 by Mark Dankberg, Mark Miller and Steve Hart. Mark Dankberg became chief executive officer and Mark Miller and Steve Hart became chief technical officers. Viasat received initial venture capital financing from Southern California Ventures, and in December 1996, Viasat had its initial public offering (IPO).

As an innovator in broadband technologies and services, the Company offers an end-to-end platform of high-capacity Ka-band satellites, ground infrastructure and user terminals, enabling Viasat to provide cost-effective, high-speed, high-quality broadband solutions to enterprises, consumers, airlines, government and military users around the globe, whether on the ground, in the air or at sea.

In addition, Viasat develops and provides advanced wireless communications systems, secure networking systems and cybersecurity and information assurance products and services. Their products, system and service offerings are often linked through common underlying technologies, customer applications and market relationships, and according to the Company, they believe that their portfolio of products and services, combined with their ability to effectively cross-deploy technologies between government and commercial segments and across different geographic markets, provides Viasat with a strong foundation to sustain and enhance its market position in advanced communications and networking technologies.

Today the Company has three distinct business areas: a satellite services segment, which provides satellite-based broadband and related services to consumers, enterprises, commercial airlines and mobile broadband customers; a commercial networks segment, which develops and offers advanced satellite and wireless broadband platforms, ground networking equipment, radio frequency and advanced microwave solutions, Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) chip design, satellite payload development and space-to-earth connectivity systems, some of which are ultimately used by the Company’s satellite services segment; and a government systems segment, which provides global mobile broadband services to military and government users and develops and offers network-centric, internet protocol-based fixed and mobile secure communications products and solutions.

Satellite Services

Viasat’s satellite services segment uses a proprietary technology platform to provide satellite-based high-speed broadband services with multiple applications to consumers, enterprises, commercial airlines and mobile broadband customers globally. It’s fixed broadband services offer high-speed, high-quality broadband internet access to residential and business customers, and they also offer high-speed internet and other in-flight services to a growing number of commercial aircraft and business jets. Their satellite services business also provides a platform for the provision of network management services to domestic and international satellite service providers.

Viasat’s proprietary Ka-band satellites are at the core of their technology platform. The ViaSat-1 satellite, the Company’s first-generation high-capacity Ka-band spot-beam satellite, was placed into service in January 2012. On June 1, 2017, the Company’s second-generation ViaSat-2 satellite was successfully launched into orbit. Viasat currently has two third-generation ViaSat-3 class satellites under construction—the first satellite is for the Americas, the second is for the Europe, Middle East and African market, and Viasat recently announced it will begin design on a third ViaSat-3 class satellite to serve the Asia Pacific market. With all three ViaSat-3 class satellites on orbit, the Company will have global coverage. In addition, Viasat owns and operates two additional satellites over North America: WildBlue-1 and Anik F2, and the Company jointly owns KA-SAT over Europe through its joint venture with the French-based satellite operator, Eutelsat.

Commercial networks

Viasat’s commercial networks segment develops and produces a variety of advanced satellite and wireless products, systems and solutions that enable the provision of high-speed fixed and mobile broadband services. The products, systems and solutions include an array of satellite-based and wireless broadband platforms, networking equipment, space hardware, radio frequency and advanced microwave solutions, space-to-earth connectivity systems, customer premise equipment (CPE), satellite modems and antenna technologies, as well as satellite payload development and ASIC chip design. Their products, systems and solutions are generally developed through a combination of customer and discretionary internal research and development funding, are utilized to provide services through our satellite services segment and are also sold to commercial networks customers.

Defence segment

Viasat’s roots are in the defence industry. Since its founding, the Company has been committed to serving the urgent needs of U.S. and allied military customers. Over the past thirty years, Viasat has grown to be a market leader in the areas of next-generation tactical datalinks; cybersecurity and information assurance; satellite communications; and the design, development and build of next-generation satellites.

The Company’s government systems segment provides global mobile broadband services to military and government users, and develops and produces network-centric internet protocol (IP)-based fixed and mobile secure communications products and solutions that are designed to enable the collection and dissemination of secure real-time digital information between individuals on the tactical edge, command centers, strategic communications nodes, ground and maritime platforms and airborne intelligence and defense platforms. Customers of Viasat’s government systems segment include the U.S. Department of Defense, allied foreign governments, allied armed forces, public safety first-responders and remote government employees.

Viasat’s defence business also continues to see success in international markets. Today, the Company has offices strategically located across all Five Eye defence markets. In the UK last year, Viasat acquired Horsebridge Defence and Security, a company focused on design, system integration and support of deployable secure networks. Viasat’s presence in Australia and Canada also continues to see significant growth with a number of new products and services expected to be released in the coming years.

A key component to the continued success of Viasat’s defence business is its expansive portfolio of non-developmental items (NDI), which are designed to rapidly deliver cutting-edge technology solutions well ahead of the traditional government procurement model. Many of its NDI technologies fall within its tactical data links systems, including Viasat’s Battlefield Awareness and Targeting System — Dismounted (BATS-D) handheld Link 16 radios and its KOR-24A 2-channel Small Tactical Terminal (STT) for manned and unmanned applications, among other offerings.

Viasat has maintained strength in providing government mobile broadband products and services, which provide military and government users with high-speed, real-time, broadband and multimedia connectivity in key regions of the world, as well as line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions.

Viasat is also recognized for government satellite communication systems, which comprise an array of portable, mobile and fixed broadband modems, terminals, network access control systems and antenna systems using a range of satellite frequency bands for Command and Control (C2) missions, satellite networking services and network management systems for Wi-Fi and other internet access networks, and include products designed for manpacks, aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), seagoing vessels, ground-mobile vehicles and fixed applications.

The Company has deep expertise in cybersecurity with over 25 years of experience protecting government and military networks. Today, Viasat is a clear leader in the cybersecurity and information assurance market segments within the defence industry. In fact, the Company currently has the broadest portfolio of Type-1 certified network encryption devices in the market and its award-winning cybersecurity best practices prevent millions of attacks weekly from reaching end-users across both commercial and government networks.

Through new innovations such as the Company’s Hybrid Adaptive Network SATCOM architecture concept and Line of Sight networking technologies, Viasat is working toward empowering warfighters with advanced artificial intelligence applications, machine learning capabilities and data-driven insights that will allow them to make the most informed decisions possible—even in the fog of war.

Today, Viasat’s defence business continues to evolve to better serve the needs of warfighters operating around the globe. By leveraging its culture of innovation, agile development processes, commercial business model and deep understanding of military customers most urgent mission needs, Viasat is able to deliver turnkey capabilities that push the boundaries of what’s possible in the defence industry.

Mark Dankberg Interview

 

 

 

 

 

 

You earned a B.S. EE and M.S. EE degrees from Rice University, was this with a view to entering the electronics industry or do you have a family history of electronics expertise?

I’ve always been interested in math and science and engineering and building things.

Today, I feel extremely fortunate to be doing something I love, working with some of the brightest minds in the industry and building things that can have such a positive impact on the world.

You are a member of the Rice University Electrical and Computer Engineering Hall of Fame, do you continue to encourage students to enter the electronics industry?”

Yes. It’s a broad and challenging field, there’s a lot of opportunity, and it can be fun and rewarding on multiple levels. We love to recruit new college graduates into Viasat.

And, as a company, we lead a number of initiatives and are involved in quite a few programs that promote STEAM education around the world – well before students are college age.

Last June, we held our eighth annual Tech Trek event in Carlsbad, which helps promote young women getting involved in STEM career fields. My wife, Cindy, helped bring Tech Trek to Viasat eight years ago and it has now grown into an event we really look forward to each year. 

In addition, our Government Systems business in Australia is engaging with communities and schools throughout the country to inspire and educate students about what’s possible in a STEAM career. As part of this engagement, three years ago we began our partnership with The Australian National University to develop a scholarship program that would help students pursue degrees in STEAM fields.  

What drove you to take up a career in electronics?

I was exposed to computers at a fairly young age – even before junior high school. Computers and programming were really interesting to me. I also was really interested in radio, TV, & electronic gadgets of all types. While at Rice I started in aerospace engineering, but my interest in computers pulled me into electrical engineering. And, then from there I got interested in a pretty broad range of applications including computer design, biomedical engineering, digital signal processing, and more. Electrical/electronic engineering was the common thread.

Following graduation, I knew I wanted to move back to Southern California and found a wonderful opportunity at Rockwell Collins. When I joined the company, Rockwell Collins was working on projects within digital voice communications, digital signal processing, and I got exposed to satellite communications for the first time. It was all really interesting and I found I was pretty good at it.

Mark began his career with the Collins Radio Division of Rockwell International, and at Linkabit Corp in San Diego, where he held positions in engineering, technical management and business segment management. What took you from Rockwell to start Viasat?

Following my time at Rockwell Collins, I moved to Linkabit, which is what really focused my career in digital communications and systems and satellite in particular.  Linkabit had been founded by university professors and was very well grounded in fundamentals and theory. I learned a lot technically. And it only had around 300 employees when I joined, but was growing rapidly. So, I learned a lot about what was involved in growing a business.

I gained an incredible amount of experience and really enjoyed my time at the company. I met a lot of really smart people – especially Mark Miller & Steve Hart, the two other co-founders of Viasat.

Irwin Jacobs, the Linkabit co-founder & CEO, and Andy Viterbi, another Linkabit co-founder and effectively the chief scientist, were both really inspirational leaders and great role models in terms of technology, entrepreneurship, and business. They went on to co-found Qualcomm with a small group of ex-Linkabit people.

The concept of starting a new company, and building a culture where we could do state-of-the-art technology in an environment that emphasized creativity really appealed to me and Mark and Steve. So, we decided to give it a try. 

Where did you meet your partners? Was it easy to raise finance?

We worked together at Linkabit and found that we worked well together, were pretty exceptionally productive as a team, and really enjoyed it. We had different and complementary skills, but communicated with each other well. Mark and Steve were also really effective at leading by example. Their work was obviously great, but they were also very approachable, and down to earth, and were able to attract and manage exceptional teams. They could explain their approaches simply and powerfully.

We didn’t have any outside financing when we started the company. Our start up capital was just that we were willing to work for a little while without pay. Our first office was just a spare bedroom in my house. But, fortunately we found customers immediately, so we were able to generate revenue and we didn’t have to work without pay for very long. Once we were in business, then we were able to really engage with a small venture fund and raised a few hundred thousand dollars in seed money after about 4 months. That enabled us to move out of my house.  

How did you develop the game changing technology which established Viasat?

I think what really established Viasat was that we were able to assemble a small group of engineers that were unbelievably productive and willing to do every aspect of the projects we undertook. Out of necessity, our engineering approaches were simple, but also extremely well grounded from a theoretical perspective, and we implemented them in really cost effective hardware. We also did a good job at being able to successively integrate each of the engineering and production projects we captured in a way that led us build more complex and sophisticated modules, and subsystems that we could integrate into complete satellite communications networks, From the start, even when we were making relatively small modems, or security devices, we always started from a systems level perspective – focusing on how to make that component in a way that would help us capture a broader share of the systems business.

We started in the defence industry because we knew the market well, and had developed a good reputation with the satellite communications engineering organizations of all of the US military services. We also built relationships with other defence prime contractors.

I think what made us successful was the talent of our team. We accomplished some pretty amazing things for tiny amounts of funding. By being extremely focused on maximizing “bang for the buck” we could deliver more on a $500,000 budget than bigger defence contractors could do for $10M or $20M or more. We also worked a lot faster than bigger competitors.

I would say that over the first 10 or 15 years we really evolved a set of hardware and software products and capabilities that in aggregate were very cost effective and competitive in our defence markets. There definitely were some pretty innovative system concepts involved, but each of them was well chosen and tailored for a specific application. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You co-founded Viasat Inc. in 1986 and have led the company’s rapid growth as well as holding the position of Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer since inception. What was your most challenging moment in the growth of Viasat?

Looking back, there have been a whole series of challenges. We’ve been in business for over 30 years grown a lot, and have had to overcome a lot. But, I would say that the biggest challenge we faced was back at the start of 2008. We had worked for years to enter the Ka band satellite broadband network technology business. We had already built the networking infrastructure for two Ka band satellites, and had delivered hundreds of thousands of user terminals. But, then we found that there really weren’t any satellite operators that shared our vision of continuously driving system level performance by innovating in the broadband satellites themselves. We knew that we couldn’t make satellite broadband technology competitive just through the ground networks. Basically, if the satellite manufacturers and satellite operators wouldn’t innovate there would be no real growth market for our ground networks – no matter how good or cost effective they were. We spent over a year trying to figure out a way to help drive innovation in the space segment but for a variety of reason none of the players in that space saw the market or the competitive environment the way we did.

We had about $150 million in the bank in the form of retained earnings, were profitable and generating cash, and decided that the fact that no incumbent satellite operator wanted to innovate in space was, in fact, a big opportunity for us – if we were willing to take on the challenge and essentially completely switch our business model from being a “capital light” technology provider into a “capital intensive” satellite owner/operator. That in itself was a really BIG challenge. So, we designed and ordered our own Ka band satellite, which was ViaSat-1. It was a challenging start. As soon as we announced the project our stock dropped by almost 40%, because of the risks that investors felt we were undertaking. And, then, of course, the level of difficulty was enormously compounded because of the great financial crisis of 2008. Here we were, becoming a capital intensive company – undertaking a $500M-plus, project with only $150M in the bank – precisely when capital markets melted down in the worst financial crisis in decades.

But, we made it through all that on the strength of the financial performance of our core defence businesses, the incredible productivity of our team, and the fundamental economic value of our vision of much higher capacity satellites. It was stressful, but it’s proven to be a great decision and turning point for the company.

Under your leadership, Viasat has consistently been one of America’s fastest growing technology companies. As a start-up, Viasat was selected to the Inc. 500 list of fastest growing private companies three times. After listing on the NASDAQ exchange in 1996 Viasat has been recognized multiple times by leading business and industry publications including BusinessWeek, Forbes, Fortune, Red Herring, DefenseNews, Space News, and Washington Technology for its exceptional performance and growth. To what do you attribute this success?

Thanks, Julian. I think it’s ultimately the same thing that made us successful from the start – the performance of our people, and the company culture we’ve worked so hard to create. I think we have a truly unique culture of innovation. Somehow we’ve been able to create and sustain an environment where we can attract really talented people, as well as customers who bring us challenging and economically valuable projects, and maintain a work environment that’s intense but collegial and ultimately enjoyable and individually rewarding on multiple levels. We’ve also been able to retain great people who have stayed with us for decades, and also simultaneously attract new people and new college graduates who both share and re-ignite the enthusiasm of our veterans. We believe that we are fortunate to have the people who make the company successful and we do our best to show our appreciation for what they accomplish – largely by continuing to invest in them and our work environment. I think one of the best things we offer our people is the opportunity for personal growth – which is a natural consequence of the fact that the scope of Viasat’s skills and capabilities are constantly expanding.

Also, I think that there is truth to the adage that “success breeds success”. We have re-invented the company and our business models and markets multiple times by learning and perfecting new skills. We have disrupted multiple markets. Our people know that we can be successful in undertaking new challenges that other companies would avoid as being “too risky”. That sense of confidence, and fearlessness, can be a big competitive advantage in itself – as long as we’re not too over-confident.

What do you see as the key technologies which will drive satellite technology in to the next phase of the 21st Century?

We see insatiable demand for bandwidth. Historically satellite technology has been really good at broadcast – sending the same content to large numbers of people at the same time. But, the future of bandwidth demand is clearly more about uni-cast – sending individual users exactly what only they want, when they want it. That is a huge change in the way satellite networks should be architected, designed and built. “Spot beam” technology that enables high degrees of frequency re-use is fundamentally important here.

Another really important factor is meeting the geographic distribution of satellite demand – in the context of the capabilities and availability of alternative terrestrial transmission systems such as fibre optics, coaxial cable, and fixed or mobile wireless. In the terrestrial environment where you build communications infrastructure is as important, or even more important, than what you build. Likewise, the “dynamic range” of geographic demand for satellite bandwidth is large. So, it’s also really important to develop satellite technology that has the flexibility to deliver bandwidth to the places where there is demand – and not strand bandwidth in locations where there is little demand. In the real world, especially in a mobile world, geographic demand is dynamic – shifting with time of day, or with the locations of aircraft, ships at sea or land vehicles. So, being able to dynamically respond to temporal and spatial shifts in demand will be really important.

Of course, satellite technology is needed that can deliver very high transmission speeds – that’s going to mean tens and hundreds of megabits per second. Delivering those speeds into small, inexpensive terminals that don’t consume a lot of power is going to be important to create a large market. Then, of course, the faster the speed, the more “volume” of bandwidth is consumed. So, technologies that enable high throughput – or maximize the utility of the bandwidth available are also going to be valuable.

Of course, satellite networks will have to be safe and secure – actively defended against cyber threats that are constantly evolving.

You have now established Viasat as one of the world’s leading satellite technology companies, embracing advanced technologies across the military and civil markets. What are your aspirations for the company into the next decades?

We are really focused on being able to grow the company while sustaining and improving the culture that has enabled what we’ve accomplished to date. That means undertaking and performing on technically challenging, economically rewarding, projects and missions that engage and motivate our people. We’ve been fortunate to grow to a size and skill set where we can truly make a positive impact on the world – our own “dent in the universe”.

More specifically, we can help “close the digital divide” – make broadband more available in emerging markets and geographically remote or economically disadvantaged areas. We can help make travel safer and more enjoyable by delivering affordable, high quality broadband to hard to reach places such as airplanes in flight, ships at sea, or on vehicles on the ground. We can help make the world safer by supporting our defence forces with affordable, state-of-the-art access to information no matter where they are, or how hostile the environment. Longer term, we can literally extend the internet to space – delivering earth observation and sensing data more affordably and in real time. Ultimately, we could enable the internet in deep space – that would be really exciting! And then, connectivity is really a means to an end – not an end in itself. So that creates a whole new set of challenges…

I think being ambitious is one of our cultural strengths. Thinking that we can do more, helps us accomplish more. I hope we never lose that.

More about Mark Dankberg

Mark is an acknowledged industry expert in aerospace, defence, and satellite communications, and is the leading visionary for a new generation of high-capacity satellite systems. He has co-authored several military standards on satellite networking, and holds a number of patents in communications and satellite networking technologies. He has participated on DoD advisory panels and was invited to testify before a Congressional committee on high technology growth companies and IPOs.

Mark has received a number of awards for his industry and business leadership:

  • 2017: Elected into the National Academy of Engineering
  • 2015 Society of Satellite Professionals Hall of Fame
  • 2013 San Diego Business Journal Most Admired CEO Founders Award
  • 2013 Arthur C. Clarke Foundation Industry Innovator
  • 2012 Visionary Executive of the Year, Satellite Markets and Research
  • 2008 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics – Aerospace International Communications Award
  • 2003 Satellite Industry Executive of the Year
  • 2000 Entrepreneur of the Year in San Diego

He has also been an invited speaker on communication technology, entrepreneurship, and executive management at several universities including Rice University, NYU, and University of California at San Diego. He was a founding member of the board of directors of the San Diego Telecom Council (now CommNexus), and served on the San Diego County Regional Economic Advisory Board. In addition, he has been invited to serve as a judge several times at the local and national levels for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year program.

Mark Dankberg is a founder of Viasat and has served as Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer since its inception in May 1986. Mr. Dankberg also serves on the boards of Minnetronix, Inc., a privately-held medical device and design company, and Lytx, Inc., a privately-held company that provides fleet safety management solutions. In addition, Mr. Dankberg was elected to the Rice University Board of Trustees in 2013, and was a member of the board of directors of REMEC, Inc. from 1999 to 2010. Prior to founding Viasat, he was Assistant Vice President of M/A-COM Linkabit, a manufacturer of satellite telecommunications equipment, from 1979 to 1986, and Communications Engineer for Rockwell International Corporation from 1977 to 1979.

Mr. Dankberg holds B.S.E.E. and M.E.E. degrees from Rice University.

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