Jennifer Alvarez has spent much of her career focused on technology in the skies above, but she started out with more earthly aspirations. Inspired by a documentary she saw about dinosaurs when she was around 7 years old, Alvarez said her childhood ambition was to be a paleontologist.
“There was nothing more fascinating than digging up dinosaur bones and assembling a dinosaur out of them,” she said of her childhood interest in paleontology.
Her early fascination with Earth’s prehistoric creatures may have held a clue to her future focus on technology. Wanting to put dinosaur bones back together morphed into projects like taking a broken vacuum cleaner apart and putting it back together on a quest to discover how it worked. She eventually developed an interest in electricity, which she described as something you can’t see but that makes lots of things happen.
“I ended up being very interested in how things worked,” said Alvarez, CEO and co-founder of Aurora Insight, a company focused on monitoring how wireless networks work.
Growing up in Massachusetts and later Sugar Land, Texas, Alvarez said she was always interested in science, though she admits she was “pretty bad” at math early on. Her interest in the power of electricity prompted her to pursue a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. Her choice of degree programs wasn’t a typical one for women during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In her electrical engineering and upper division classes that sometimes had up to 70 students in them, there would often only be two or three women.
“There was definitely a noticeable gender disparity,” said Alvarez. “I always focused on the work that needed to be done and what was in my control, rather than dwelling on the fact that I was one of just a handful of women in most classes. I think it’s just a matter of the way I was raised. I was never told I couldn’t do anything. In fact, I was told I could do whatever I set my mind to. I would encourage any woman working in a male-dominated industry to trust your skillset and always be open to new opportunities.”
While a student at the University of Texas, Alvarez was chosen for a prestigious cooperative education program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. One of her tours during the program was in Mission Planning, where she worked with an engineering team on scheduling and timelines for astronaut activities. She also worked in a robotics group at NASA and later in its Machine Vision Group, which created technology that allows machines to autonomously guide themselves, such as when docking in space. Alvarez said all of her focus on space prompted her to think about becoming an astronaut herself, but her career ended up taking a more ‘traditional’ path that allowed her to climb different career ladders.
During a 25-year career at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Alvarez had opportunities to continue to explore a variety of different technologies, all of which came together about four years ago to form the foundation of Aurora Insight. At SwRI, Alvarez designed systems to test jet engines, worked with signal communications systems, jammers and electronic warfare technologies for government systems, and developed new radio technologies and avionics for space.
“A great deal of the work I had done during my career at Southwest Research Institute involved understanding the radio frequency environment and what the radio frequency environment was being used for,” said Alvarez. “We realized the commercial telecommunications industry was lacking that critical kind of information.”
Alvarez said originally Aurora Insight was focused on doing RF sensing exclusively from space, adding a new dimension to the technologies the industry was already using to evaluate RF networks, which included drive testing and crowd-sourced data. But the inherent risks, high costs and long timelines associated with space ventures prompted the fledgling company to set out to prove its technology on the ground and from aircraft first while its space capabilities were developed.
Thus, Aurora Insight became a multidomain land, air and space company focused on providing data of value to the commercial telecommunications industry. Its target customers include service providers and tower companies that need to understand how their infrastructure is being used within the RF environment and where opportunities exist to expand their networks that will generate a return on investment.
“We actually have a whole product suite that’s dedicated to tower companies and helping them understand their assets but also their competitors’ assets, how to lease up their towers and where to invest their capital for building new towers,” said Alvarez. “It really is a unique source of information. It’s not a pile of data that they need to analyze. It’s an answer.”
The benefit of Aurora Insight’s three-pronged approach to RF sensing is that it measures cellular transmissions from 2G to 5G as well as Wi-Fi, IoT and satellite signals around the world. The technology is not tied to a specific network or device, which allows it to develop a fuller picture and deeper analysis of RF usage data.
“Drive testing is limited to roads, but there are huge parts of the United States and the world that are not accessible by road, and we can collect this data from everywhere,” said Alvarez. “We actually take all of these raw measurements and aggregate them in the cloud. That allows us to apply some pretty sophisticated processing and machine learning to the data sets whereas if you have to do all the processing at the phone or on a piece of equipment in the field, there’s a lot less you can do with it.”
Earlier this year, Aurora Insight launched its second satellite, Charlie, into orbit aboard a SpaceX rideshare mission. Alvarez said Charlie is doing well circling the Earth 16 times a day and has been undergoing commissioning during which all of its subsystems are turned on one by one and checked methodically.
“So far so good,” she said. “It never gets old. It’s always kind of a miracle that something you built has left the earth.”
The company, which is headquartered in the River North area of Denver, is preparing to launch a third satellite in the next few months on its way to building out a larger constellation of satellites that will be able to monitor the RF environment worldwide. Alvarez said the company is focused on expanding globally with hopes of serving different parts of the world, especially underserved areas where the company’s technology can help expand infrastructure deployment and close the digital divide.
Aurora Insight’s mission is possible thanks to a dramatic shift in the accessibility of space, previously the domain only of government agencies and large corporations that had deep pockets and the ability to work on long timelines necessary to send machines and people outside the confines of Earth’s atmosphere. Advances in technology have made space more accessible to companies and organizations that want to study agriculture, the climate, water, and other resources.
“There are so many practical things that can be achieved by remotely sensing the Earth from space,” said Alvarez. “And the fact that you can launch a satellite rather cheaply compared to traditional space programs is huge because that means that innovations can be realized on a faster time scale. All of that is converging upon new ways to help the planet environmentally and with resource utilization, and spectrum is a resource that needs to be used efficiently.”
As a leader in the wireless infrastructure industry, where gender disparity remains a reality, Alvarez said she has been heartened by the support and trust she has experienced with the team she has assembled, particularly the younger generation working at Aurora Insight. Any concerns she had that she might receive unfair pushback as a woman in a position of power have not been realized, she said.
“It’s been a completely positive experience,” said Alvarez. “I even have employees who have asked us to hire more diversely, and it is something we are actively working on, but in engineering, data science or software there’s just not as many women as men so there’s a less diverse pool to select from.”
Although she says she doesn’t have all the answers about how to encourage more women to pursue careers in engineering and technology, Alvarez said a good start is to normalize the idea for girls that those are legitimate education and career paths for them. Alvarez said while she has not experienced unfair treatment as a woman in male-dominated occupations, she has on numerous occasions encountered people who express surprise or shock when they learn she is an engineer and a CEO. That type of reaction can signal to girls and young women that such pursuits are not normal for them.
Alvarez sees tangible benefits in fostering diversity among Aurora Insight’s team.
“I’ve learned working for a startup with a really diverse group of people in regards to age, gender and nationality, that diversity brings creativity, new ideas and just a different way of looking at things,” said Alvarez. “I value diversity now more than ever because I can see how much it’s benefited idea creation and also just getting the job done.”
Launching a company is not for the faint of heart, and Alvarez said deciding to found Aurora Insight took a lot of deliberation and planning.
“I figured it really was this confluence of my experience, my technical expertise, my interests, all converging to one spot, and if I didn’t take this opportunity and see where it led me, I would have regretted it. So I took the leap.”
Having the courage to take those kinds of leaps is something Alvarez encourages other women in the industry, especially young women, to take.
“I would encourage women to be bold and take chances throughout their career and what I mean by that is not take undue risk but look at the risks, assess them, and know that there’s never any change that you could make that is without risk,” said Alvarez. “Go ahead and embrace the risk and go for it. I myself was very conservative throughout my career and it served me well, but I could see a lot of chances that I could possibly have taken a little earlier that might have been good for me.”