Fifty years have passed since Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. That feat, and many other space milestones over the past half-century, were carried out by huge government projects, the US and Soviet Union chief among them.
Those days are gone. With decreasing costs of spacecraft development, as well as improved remote sensing and data analytics capabilities, more and more space exploration and investment activities are undertaken by private space companies.
From 2009 to 2018, a total of $18 billion was invested in space start-ups, with $3.25 billion invested in 2018 alone. Forward-looking investors are bullish on a range of space technologies. These include spacecraft that deliver people and payloads to space for research, industry, and recreation; high-resolution Earth imaging for environmental monitoring; satellites for communications and data sharing on- and off-planet; and mining the solar system for precious metals. These technologies enable humans to settle in space in the future and also improve the quality and sustainability of life on Earth.
“Commercial space is a large and rapidly growing market that will be worth trillions of dollars over the next decade. This is a unique moment in history to invest in an exciting and rapidly growing sector,” according to space VC firm Space Angels.
These lucrative opportunities—together with the falling costs of space exploration—make the space bioeconomy an attractive investment option for venture capitalists. As investors continue to fund space start-ups at an accelerating rate, the meteoric rise in venture capital investment in the space industry is expected to continue.
Here are five exciting space VC firms to keep your eye on.
Space Angels is the leading space VC firm in 2019, with 22 deals since 2010. Satellite technology, Earth imaging and environmental monitoring as well as telecommunication applications feature heavily in the New York-based company’s portfolio. Space Angels has backed Kepler Communications, which provides connectivity and communication solutions with the goal of providing in-space connectivity through a network of satellites. Two start-ups in the portfolio—Flurosat and GHGSat—provide Earth imaging and environmental monitoring services. Through analysis of imagery, agronomic models, weather and IoT data, Flurosat provides insights about agriculture while GHGSat monitors global greenhouse gas emissions from satellite imagery. Space Angels has also funded NanoRacks, a start-up which delivers payloads such as research equipment to the International Space Station for microgravity research. Through SpaceX and World View Enterprises, Space Angels holds stakes in spacecraft manufacture and space tourism respectively.
The new kid on the block, CosmiCapital is a VC fund focussed exclusively on investing in space and related applications to transform businesses on Earth. It is the first European VC fund supported and sponsored by the French space agency CNES. Established in April 2018 with a target of €100 million, CosmiCapital aims to grow a portfolio of diversified space start-ups, including launcher and satellite manufacturing, ground and communication services as well as other space-related businesses, thus unlocking the potential of space. CosmiCapital started operations in 2019 and the first investments are expected to start in 2020.
Data Collective (DCVC) specializes in investing in high end deep technology such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), cybersecurity and synthetic biology. Like Space Angels, satellite technology features prominently in its geospatial portfolio. DCVC has invested in Capella Space, Descartes Labs and Planet, which provide satellite technology for high resolution Earth imaging. In 2018, DCVC led a $3.1 million seed funding round to fund Akash Systems which invented a breakthrough synthetic diamond microchip to make the world’s fastest satellites for affordable delivery of broadband data to every corner of the Earth. In the same year, DCVC backed Rocket Lab – a space start-up which launches small satellites to low Earth orbit using specially designed rockets – in their $140M Series E to scale up rocket manufacturing and satellite launches.
Disclosure: I’m an operating partner at DCVC where I mostly invest in synthetic biology startups, but my colleagues invest in space startups.
Khosla Ventures focusses on investing in environmentally-friendly tech, internet, computing, mobile and silicon tech. Founded by Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, Khosla Ventures aims to back start-ups with high impact technology or business model innovation in large markets, either existing or newly enabled by present innovation. Satellite technology and its related applications comprise the investment portfolio at Khosla Ventures. The company has inked deals with Akash Systems, Rocket Lab, and Earth-imaging start-up Terra Bella /Skybox Imaging which was acquired by Planet in 2017.
Two primary interests are listed in the San Francisco-based firm’s manifesto – finding ways to support technological development and earning outstanding returns for investors. Founded in 2005, Founders Fund and its partners have a portfolio of prominent technology companies, including PayPal, Facebook, SpaceX and Palantir Technologies. Unlike many VC firms in Silicon Valley which focus on early stage ventures, Founders Fund invests in companies across all sectors, stages and geographies. From 2010 to 2019, the firm closed 9 deals with space start-ups. Also in their portfolio is Moon Express, a space start-up with a mission to mine the Moon for valuable natural resources. By 2020, Moon Express plans to launch their lander to bring lunar samples back to Earth.
Looking ahead, the future is biology
From the examples above, you can see that space venture capital today has a big focus on the immediate transportation, communications, and other hard-tech infrastructure needed for off-planet living. Previously, I’ve written about other needs within the space habitation industry that space investors like Jeff Bezos should care about, including food, manufacturing, and water/waste. In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing about some other biotechnology areas needed to sustain humans over the long term. In particular, I will share stories of how some unconventional thinkers are engineering solutions to nourish us in outer space—in some cases, making food from thin air.
Thank you to Daphne Ng for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about, including DCVC, are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest — here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.