ViaSat’s journey from the spare room to the board room.
1986: Three men at a table talking excitedly. No suits and ties, just a meeting of the minds with an energy in the air. Jots on a pad—numbers, sketches, strategy. Clearly they’re onto something … pushing something. One of them says, “We have to do it. We have to go big.” And they all lean in.
This month, ViaSat, Inc. celebrates 30 years of going big—pushing forth remarkable ideas and testing the limits of what technology can do. ViaSat’s reach has grown from those three men at a table to more than 3,700 employees across the world (and a host of innovations in orbit around it) all ensuring that businesses, governments and individuals have secure access to communication virtually anywhere on the ground or in the skies. If you’ve streamed a movie while flying on a plane, you’ve likely experienced ViaSat and just one of the many things they do.
ViaSat was founded by Mark Dankberg and two UC San Diego alumni, Steve Hart, M.A. ’80, and Mark Miller, Warren ’81. Though Hart and Miller shared a university in common, they met each other and Dankberg as employees of Linkabit, the 1970s tech company that would become the seedbed of the San Diego telecommunications industry. When Linkabit’s founders left for new ventures, Dankberg approached Miller and Hart to form their own enterprise. Between them, they had the diverse skills, industry knowledge, networks and interests to get going. “We overlapped in some areas,” says Hart, “but we each brought a core expertise.”
With a bit of startup capital in hand, the three opened the doors of an early satellite communications company. Actually, there was just one door back then—a spare room in Dankberg’s home. But by 1990 they delivered ViaSat’s first product to the U.S. Navy: the VTS-3000 satellite communications test system, their first major milestone.
That was just the beginning. “In 2011, we changed the satellite industry when we launched ViaSat-1,” says Miller. “We built the world’s highest-capacity satellite with more bandwidth than all other satellites in the country combined, and moved the residential broadband market forward.”
From their earliest conversations, says Hart, “The big thing for us was to build a sustainable company. And here we are, 30 years and growing, because of our people.” With an emphasis on talent and a commitment to learning, ViaSat actively recruits UC San Diego graduates; currently, 164 ViaSat employees are UC San Diego alumni. And as a testament to the company’s esteem for creative thinking, ViaSat was a founding partner in one of the boldest ideas on the UC San Diego campus: the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, a global hub for researchers in the arts, sciences, humanities, engineering and medicine to get together to explore the basis of imagination.
ViaSat is also one of UC San Diego’s most active corporate partners, providing students and faculty with scholarships, internships, research collaboration opportunities and industry experiences. “I learned about ViaSat my junior year at a career fair,” says Ben Renfrew, Muir ’14, now a software engineer for the company. “I interned there over the summer in 2013, and I got three job offers at three companies my senior year.” Having chosen ViaSat, Renfrew often returns to campus to tell current students about his future with the company.
As for the future of ViaSat, 2017 will see the launch of its next satellite, ViaSat-2, which will nearly double the network capacity and increase ViaSat-1’s current coverage by sevenfold. Even further out, the company has plans to launch ViaSat-3 in 2019, which will bring high-speed internet to the farthest corners of the planet.
So three decades in and just getting started, what keeps Dankberg, Miller and Hart coming back to that table? “Respect,” says Hart. “Plus, we like to challenge each other and imagine what the next big thing will be. We’re not done yet. We’re still having fun.”