State of Space 2016: The money.
Behind all the smokescreens and mock attacks it became clear during debates that everyone at the symposium wants it to happen. “Space is Hard” NASA likes to say but more importantly people seemed to think Space is Fun. So what’s the snag?
You guessed it: The old, grumpy, and unimaginative world of venture capital.
This is where everyone was in complete agreement. We wasted little time getting to the next session with the promising title, “Who’s investing in Space?”
Directors for various investor funds, venture firms and Space angels took to stage. Mainly from Silicon Valley and New York, they were number people, and the session started with figures.
The panel agreed that interest is rising fast in Space investments. How fast? From $1 Billion to $10 Billion only in the last few years, they said. 3 years ago 1% Venture Capitalists pondered investing in space, compared to 10% now.
Crushing our hopes not even a sliver of this goes to actual Space expeditions. According to the presentation - half of the recent funds went to NASA subcontractor SpaceX and much of the rest to OneWeb (proposed satellite fleet for global internet).
The satellite Gold Rush
Silicon Valley based Bessemer is top investor and the current gold rush is in communication- and earth observation satellites. Google acquired Skybox (renamed Terra Bella) for half a billion in 2014. San Francisco based Planet Labs, a startup by former NASA staff partially financed by Elon Musk is expected next Wall Street unicorn.
There are a few more. Interestingly, when we looked to buy live satellite pictures for a security project in Africa last year, none of the upstarts could accommodate us. Either there were no images, or they were outdated, and poor resolution.
“We overestimate what we can accomplish in the next 2 years and underestimate the next 10,” was the prevalent message on stage.
The panel said lots of data is coming out of satellites now compared to manufacturing costs. Further, the new companies are mainly coming out of consumer software, making things much simpler.
The goal is bringing down cost of launch and satellite making which means investments in improved radios, antennas, components, ground stations, sensors, getting data down (laser) and analytics.
The education space is another favorite.
Early stage venture investors are interested in robotics, hardware, and communications gear even before there is a product or customers, said one of the capitalists. “It’s part of our job to be curious.”
The cockroach survivor
VCs said they are focused on who are the entrepreneurs, their magnitude of vision and ability to see it through. Still, they expect the majority to fail.
A question came from the audience: “Would you favor unicorns vs cockroach-survivor-type companies?”
“Uh,” replied a VC, “teams are going to work hard no matter what, we need a massive outcome because we have to offset real losses.”
The unicorn, every time.
Forget digging your heels in and toughing it out. Venture capital goes to the right markers (staff), the right schools, the right connections, and the right game plan. This is the Right Stuff in Space investments.
One stock market analyst working with the defense said we now seem to be in a pretty solid downturn in the cyclical IPO market. There is a huge amount of activity in venture capital but they must wait longer for public returns.
Investor appetite is up, according to him, and portfolio managers are looking for “something little alpha” to get ahead of competition. Overall most investment is from US, said the analyst, with lots of advocacy dollars and angels the lion’s share.
The same names returning in Space related venture capital begs the question how much of the funds are actually money going in a circle between friends to beef up valuations. Another hot topic is how much tax money is spent in speculative grants to private companies. The gorilla in the room: Elon Musk, who has depended on serious government money for the survival of SpaceX, Tesla Motors and SolarCity.
The question from the audience to the panelists was expected, “would they invest in companies that rely on the government?”
“Well,” came the answer, “many businesses were helped by the government, it’s almost unavoidable in this industry.” Another chimed in, “and if they don’t, they’re probably missing something.” Finally one threatened, “innovative US businesses are getting knocks from foreign governments with offers to set up elsewhere, the US government knows that.”
The venture partners closed by repeating they look for the really big, fantastic, bold ideas. I was about to approach when I overheard one of them chatting to another below stage, “when I meet with investors, I never ever mention asteroid mining.”
"Small is the new big" says TerraBella (formerly Skybox) who raised US$91 million of private capital (Khosla, Bessemer) in 2012 and share-launched its first satellite, SkySat-1, on a Russian Dnepr rocket in 2013. The company was acquired by Google for US$500 million in 2014 and share-launched a second satellite in July that year on a Soyuz rocket.