Interview

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Interview with 2014 EARSC Company Award winner, Christian Hoffmann, Managing Director GeoVille GmbH

As EARSC celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2014, we felt that this important occasion should be marked with a new initiative. We decided to introduce an award for the EO services company of the year. This would go to the company recognised by both its peers and international experts as having made a significant contribution to the growth of the EO services sector in Europe.

We were delighted that the EARSC members voting and the international experts both selected GeoVille as the first winner and that Christian Hoffmann – owner and founder of GeoVille – has agreed to give the interview for this edition of eomag.

Geoville

Christian, how do you feel about being the first winner?

We at GeoVille are very much honoured and proud of having received the EARSC 25th anniversary celebration award “European Earth Observation Company of the Year 2014”. It is the recognition of 16 years of passionate work and dedication to develop and provide innovative satellite derived geo-information products and services in response to our customer’s needs, always striving for an excellent price-quality ratio.

Tell us a bit about the history of GeoVille, how you started it and how it has grown over the years

The foundation of GeoVille Information Systems GmbH in 1998 coincided with the launch of GMES at the Baveno event. In its early years, GeoVille developed RegioCover, an innovative land mapping processing chain, which received the GMES Innovation Award in 2007. RegioCover paved the ground for the production of the first-ever operational GMES land monitoring product on soil sealing, tendered by the European Environment Agency.

As a privately owned, truly independent company, we have always been very flexible to new market trends. Moreover, we always employed the satellite data fittest for the application and understood that customers require end-to-end, yet easy-to-understand solutions for their environmental applications. Therefore, in 2007, we founded our sister company, GeoVille Environmental Services managed by Stefan Kleeschulte, and developed the Geographic Accounting product.

With our Geographic Accounting product, users can answer questions with a critical impact to public administrations or private businesses, such as how many people are affected by climate change, which critical infrastructures and ecosystems are exposed, and how large are economic risks as well as potential damages and losses.

Over the past few years, the RegioCover and Geographic Accounting products have successfully served our clients in International Financial Institutions. Given this recent success and the growing size of this market, in 2013 we established a representation in Washington D.C. to better access D.C.-based institutions such as World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, Millennium Challenge Corporation and International Finance Cooperation.

When you started in business, what specific idea, purpose or vision was your driving force? Where does your strong entrepreneurial spirit come from?

As a boy, I was fond of ancient 17th and 18th century maps in old atlases that I received from my grandfather, where many parts of the world showed white as “unknown territory”. My dream was to uncover these remote areas. Prior to founding GeoVille I had the privilege to gain working experience at Intergraph Corporation in Amsterdam, the United Nations in New York and the Joint Research Center in Ispra, all of them dealing with specific aspects of the environment. Through this invaluable experience I have found out that I am best in business and this is what I realised with GeoVille.

Even if there are no more unsurveyed areas in the strict cartographic sense, only with GeoVille my dream became a reality. Today its “environmental monitoring” and this is a rapidly growing market, where space can make a unique contribution.

What you would say about your leadership style? What is “your take” on the general notion that entrepreneurs should build a business around what they actually love to do?

I am feeling deeply grateful for being able to turn my boyhood dream into reality. We in GeoVille are a fantastic team of likeminded ambitious colleagues and in running the company, I see myself as ‘the first among equals’. Recently, we learnt from WikiLeaks that GeoVille is considered a ‘boutique’ Earth Observation company, successfully serving a niche market within Europe’s space industry. I would call this “good intelligence work”!

What was the greatest challenge you encountered when you started and how was it overcome?

The biggest challenge was securing the venture capital at the time of starting the company. At this time, hardware facilities were still very expensive. Once I convinced my co-owners to invest jointly, everything went smooth – 16 years of steady growth from a one-person company to a head count of 45 in 2014 with a turnover well above 4 Mill €. In all those years not one customer was left behind.

Please tell us very simply what GeoVille does?
GeoVille starts where traditional mapping ends! For customers, we do the spatial job through satellites’ eyes and provide geographic accounting solutions. Our geo-information products fulfil the highest quality standards so that our customers can concentrate on their core business.
What are the key markets that GeoVille addresses?
Our focus is on land monitoring and environmental accounting with a strong international development aspect. In the last 16 years, we have successfully implemented projects in more than 120 countries world-wide.
Sectors of impact comprise a variety of land-related applications, such as agriculture, energy & extractives, environment & natural resources, forestry, natural hazards, urban, rural & social development and water management.
What do you consider are the most important competences of GeoVille that help you succeed in the market?
The key asset is our team a group of highly qualified and motivated experts willing to engage with the challenges of the new digital era and to go extra lengths for guaranteeing full customer satisfaction.
What do you see as the main challenges facing you as CEO of GeoVille in the next 1-2 years?
Looking over daily news, we see that our world is in full motion. With our geospatial solutions, we bring tangible benefits to our clients in their efforts to assure better living standards for people and safeguard environmental conditions.
Internally, recruitment of experts is always an issue. In the short term we are facing the challenge to come up with attractive packages so that we encourage Earth Observation and Geoinformatics professionals to join our team at GeoVille.
On the financial side, companies all over Europe suffer from a bad payment moral, and the financial crisis has not made access to venture capital easier.
On data issues, access to Sentinel data is on a critical track. The Sentinels are a fantastic opportunity for European companies and we will have a unique system in place to improve environmental monitoring. Unfortunately, to put it bluntly, the Copernicus ground segment primarily serves European large scale services. Other users and particularly SMEs are left behind thereby creating a massive loss of opportunities for society and not fully capitalising on prior investments.

MARKET VIEWS

Where do you see the greatest opportunities for growth in the near future?

Certainly, Copernicus offers a big opportunity. It’s about transforming a fragmented market today into a consolidated growth market serving real public needs. The application business has been dominated by one-off projects, and those low-margin projects did make it hard for companies to grow. The agricultural controls established in the late 1980s are a good example on how a European push can create a success story and a sustainable market. My prospect for Copernicus follows this line and this is why we have engaged in this program right from the start. On the commercial market I see land related opportunities predominantly in the renewably energy business and in ecosystem service assessment and valuation.

Are there any issues, positive or negative, that you consider may affect the evolution of the market you are addressing?

I am seriously concerned about unfair competition issues from publicly financed service providers responding to tenders. Clear lines would need to be drawn and unfortunately, in our sector this is too often not the case. As industry has recently highlighted through an EARSC position paper, the way in which Copernicus Services will be procured will have a very important influence over how companies can participate to the programme. De-facto monopolies resulting in single bids only must be avoided at all cost.

At the moment, innovation seems to be on everyone’s list of things to promote, what is your perception of innovation in the EO services sector? In what ways is innovation important to GeoVille?

These days innovation is too often linked to the price alone, with the aim to produce more for less money. We need to break this progressing paradigm where “less cost” is associated with being “innovative”. Unfortunately, quality issues are left behind, for the disadvantage of the end-users. Big data and Industry 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution, pose a big opportunity to implement new purchasing mechanisms thereby reinventing innovation and making sure that the European EO industry stands at the forefront of technology.

What concerns do you have; are there threats that you see for your business?

In business, threats need to be turned into challenges – or even better – into opportunities; otherwise you are swiped away from the market. I see plenty of opportunities for the European service industry as there will be a range of new data available from commercial providers and from the Sentinels. The latter will be freely available and time is ready to multiply what has successfully been delivered to one customer. The Earth Observation market must move from single showcases to ubiquity.

After all the EO industry has quadrupled its turnover since 2000 and the framework conditions are excellent for this growth to continue.

One word of concern: Access to Sentinel data must be solved. Not on the theoretical side but with regard to the practical implementation in the Member States.

EO SERVICE DEVELOPMENT AND STAKEHOLDERS

In the EO services sector, governments can have a strong influence over the way business develops. Aside from being a good customer, what’s the one other thing governments can do to support the development of the sector?

Governments can steer the ‘demand’ side, for example by implementing environmental reporting obligations. Such reporting obligations will guarantee that goals are controlled and met and thereby help the environment and create a whole set of socio-economic benefits. Moreover, such reporting obligations will help to move from “nice to have” products to information that is required by law and therefore repetitively requested. In this respect, governments are well advised to promote the ‘supply-side’ as well, fostering the development of new competitive, cost-effective quality minded solutions through public research programmes.

Furthermore, national space programs focusing on technology development and applications can also be a good way to develop a niche position. The Austrian Space Application Program now in its 10th year of implementation is such an example. Measures should address in supplier/customer projects the ability to sell and the willingness to pay.

EARSC is the European trade association dealing with the geospatial services sector; in your opinion, what for you are the main benefits of EARSC membership?

For GeoVille it is important to be a Member of EARSC, because EARSC is the only organisation promoting the interest of the European EO industry and underpinning its market position vis a vis non-European players and also the increasing market distorting competition from European public institutions.

FUTURE

Finally, what can you say about your outlook for the sector and how companies in this sector should be positioning themselves?
  
In the last months I have seen in the commercial and public domain many successes overcoming the single most important barrier, which is lack to a broad market access. Imagine that we have been able to win bids and successfully work as an SME in more than 120 countries in four continents. I call this a fantastic outlook for GeoVille and the European EO industry.

Our business will move from single small-scale opportunities to Big Data and this is why we at Geoville have invested to become partner to a supercomputer network allowing us processing four petabyte of data per year. This will bring us closer to surveying the last remaining unknowns of our planet, and to provide even more competitive solutions to our clients. Finally, we need to bring our results closer to the people and their digital devices, for example through online web mapping platforms. Such new communication lines pose a big opportunity for implementing new business concepts and a chance for the industrial players in Europe.

Last but not least SME’s such as GeoVille are the source of growth, employment and innovation in Europe. Therefore, it is of key importance that Copernicus tendering takes this into account by making bidding volumes accessible for SME’s. This can be achieved for instance via individual lots rather than single large contracts and by setting clear rules prohibiting unfair competition from publicly financed service providers.

Biography

Christian Hoffmann holds a doctorate degree from the University of Vienna and is the founder of GeoVille Group, a company specialising in products and services related to Earth Observation (EO) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) applications. He has 25 years of experience in earth observation and GIS applications working prior to GeoVille for the United Nations in New York, the Joint Research Center in Ispra and Intergraph in Hoofddorp.