The New Orleans Regional Planning Commission, a transportation planning agency for the greater New Orleans area, was already a DigitalGlobe customer when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Citing the considerable challenges presented by the New Orleans region, a temperate zone with frequent storm activity, Lynn E. Dupont, NORPC’s principal planner and GIS coordinator, says, “Our imaging window is extremely narrow, limited to the time of year when the leaves are off the trees, which, of course, is when there is the most cloud cover. DigitalGlobe completely understood our needs and was able to produce despite the constraints of this hit-or-miss process.”
From basic images and 3-D terrain models to its CitySphere map collection of more than 300 cities worldwide, DigitalGlobe’s products and value-added services are multidimensional.
DigitalGlobe was among several imaging companies that supported the rescue, relief and recovery efforts after Katrina. “We were very happy that DigitalGlobe was involved,” says Dupont. “In the daily triage of deciding where and how to respond, their daily updates on floodwater status, used in coordination with digital elevation data to produce flood depth analysis, proved most helpful.” Dupont says that the generosity and overall response of DigitalGlobe and the geospatial industry “made you feel good.” From basic images and 3-D terrain models to its CitySphere map collection of more than 300 cities worldwide, DigitalGlobe’s products and value-added services are multidimensional. “Our brand of information is location-based, which is essentially an unexplored dimension,” says Steve Milton, the vice president of product development, a commercial-software veteran who leads development of the company’s software systems. “It is something of a new reality in business planning and decision-making.”
COO S. Scott Smith (no relation to Jill Smith), an aerospace industry veteran who spent 15 years with the Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT), gives this overview of the various ways in which DigitalGlobe’s technology can be utilized: Urban planners and civil engineers can use images to map out investments in multimillion-dollar infrastructure projects; in the energy industry, the images can help identify natural resources and monitor pipelines and facilities; and the government can employ the company’s satellite images to support U.S. troops and protect borders. When the media need evidentiary support, he says, such as to refute Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s claim that he was not razing villages, DigitalGlobe’s images have been irrefutable. Count environmentalists, farmers, insurance companies and game developers in the mix of customers too, says the COO.
Energetic and smiling as she talks, CEO Smith, 51, was born in London and came to the U.S. in 1983 to attend business school at MIT. After three years back home, she says, she relocated to the U.S. for good to be with her future husband. An athlete who works out five or six days a week — often at four or five in the morning — Smith says she is “driven by challenge and opportunity.” She has a history of leading high-growth technology companies to prove it. For example, she points to her contributions to SRDS LP’s becoming an electronic publishing leader, the successful IPO of the Web-hosting division of Micron Technology Inc. (MU) when she was its COO, and Alcatel-Lucent’s (ALU) acquisition of collaboration software provider eDial Inc. when she was its president and CEO.
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When asked by a DigitalGlobe investor to become the company’s chief executive, Smith relates, she initially declined, because she was reluctant to move from Boston to Colorado and also was flirting with the notion of retiring. She did take a board seat, though, and soon changed her mind — even, she says, after subsequently becoming CEO at Website-performance tracker Gomez Inc., in Waltham, Mass. “I had yet to encounter a company with such assets and breadth of opportunity, such high IQ and such a solid reason for being,” she says of DigitalGlobe. “The more I learned, the more my passion for the business grew.”
Even though just one satellite was aloft when she came aboard in November 2005, Smith knew she was onto a solid bet. “The company had a clear path ahead, high vision, significant contracts in place and many downstream opportunities,” she says of the company that now counts 500-plus employees and $275 million in annual sales (2008). Yet she knew that “pretty pictures” alone would prove inadequate in an emerging field. In 2007 she called the industry “highly fragmented in terms of content and distribution,” with “few aggregators or content owners” able to “offer consistent, complete sources of imagery and data.”
In addition to preparing DigitalGlobe for its May 2009 IPO, Smith has dedicated the past four years to the parallel tasks of priming the market’s appetite for earth-related content and readying DigitalGlobe to supply that content in an easily digestible way.
“At heart we are a content company,” says DigitalGlobe CEO Jill Smith, “with a massive and growing library of images supplied by our satellites and our aerial partners.”
For Smith, the strategic way forward is clear. “At heart we are a content company,” she says, “with a massive and growing library of images supplied by our satellites and our aerial partners. The key to growth lies in making those images faster, better, cheaper and drop-dead easy to consume.” In DigitalGlobe’s world, a “snapshot” can equal many square kilometers and be several gigabytes in size — not something you send to a client and expect it to manage, says Smith.