Welcome to Max Q, the TechCrunch newsletter that’s all about things blasting off. Or floating. Or I guess also crashing. Whatever happens in and on the way to space. We’re now into 2022 and already people are launching rockets.
Before the first week of the year was even out, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 with 49 Starlink satellites from Cape Canaveral in Florida on January 6, marking its first flight of the year. The company appears to be planning to keep up a quick clip when it comes to the pace of Falcon 9 flights in 2022, as it’s readying for a rideshare mission as early as January 13, and another three missions planned before even the end of the month.
Meanwhile, it’s also making progress on its preparations for the first orbital test launch of its Starship vehicle, with a test of its launch tower this week that showed how the tower’s robotic arms would operate in hefting Starship atop the Super Heavy booster that will provide it with the power to get to space. Depending on approvals, SpaceX could be ready to actually make use of that tower for an orbital test sometime around March.
Image Credits: SpaceX
NASA’s new space telescope is all set up
NASA’s James Webb space telescope, which should provide more detailed and distant imaging of galaxies beyond our own than ever before, has competed its final set of deployments, meaning all the parts that were supposed to unfurl and set themselves up post-launch have successfully done so.
That’s got to have the NASA scientists who’ve been working on Webb breathing a sigh of relief. The telescope now just has to complete some mid-flight thruster burns in order to place it in the planned and correct orbit, and then it’ll be ready to snap some photos and send them back for study.
The biggest and most eye-wateringly silly rebrand of the year is uncontested: Facebook, one of the most recognizable names in the world, changed its name to Meta in order to distract from unflaggingly awful decisions and the irreparable harm it has caused countless people focus on the “metaverse,” something no one asked for and certainly no one wanted Facebook of all companies to take the lead on.
Meta’s not the only rebrand that went teeth-grindingly meta this year. Readers, we present… Block, FKA Square, originally a small business champion known for square-shaped card swiping dongles (quant!). Now, it’s taking a bite out of blockchain for its new name and identity, although apparently Block is not just about that. The company says it’s also a reference to block parties, building code, obstacles to overcome, “and of course, tungsten cubes.” (click for more cringe) Well, not so fast, Jack! H&R Block is already suing Block for trademark infringement, with the name, a block in its logo, and a green color scheme that all come a little too close to home, since H&R Block, best known for tax filing prep, also happens to sell accounting services to SMBs, mobile banking to consumers and other fintech services just like Square’s… I mean, Block’s. Hard to guess which blockhead will back down first/move to settle here.
Mr. Musk perhaps said it best when he played a doctor in the Gen Z Hospital skit: “You all might want to sit down, what I have to say might be a little cringe.” Elon may have hoodwinked a substantial part of the population of global fanboys hoping to get rich on his coattails, but at the end of the day this couldn’t hold any water on Saturday Night Live. He’s not an actor, and he’s not that funny, so even with the wattage of being one of the world’s richest men and a major celeb on social media, his SNL hosting was… a smug, wooden, boring, awkward dud. You’re left wondering how/why he was anointed to be in the limelight in the first place (but then again, I wonder that about him most of the time).
The gold rush over NFTs caused some otherwise smart people to attempt to implement them in regrettable ways. Numerous companies announced NFT-adjacent projects, like using them to tokenize fanfic, in-game items, Discord things(?), and so on. After failing to read the internet in general’s skepticism of this interesting but at present highly dubious tech, the companies backpedaled madly, sometimes within hours of announcements or rumors. Literally anyone would have said it was a bad idea, try asking next time!
Bezos thanks everyone for their money, which he shot into space
Image Credits: Joe Raedle / Getty Images
The relentless self-congratulatory fanfare around Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic’s first “real” trips to space was extremely tiring. While there was some relief in Branson’s company getting grounded for shady maneuvers, and in Bezos eliciting scorn for his tamales and his giant hat, the chef’s-kiss moment was the latter’s tone-deaf thanks offered to the world that financed his ego trip by shopping at his ethically bankrupt mega-corporation. “I want to thank every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer, because you guys paid for all this.” I’m sure he meant every word, which is why it’s so bad. (Also pity the poor cowboy hat, which Bezos has definitely also ruined for me.)
Blue Origin whining postpones the next Moon landing
After losing big time on the Human Landing System contract to arch-rival SpaceX, Blue Origin sued NASA, alleging impropriety. Its claims were dismissed in a highly embarrassing manner (NASA basically pantsed the company in front of the entire industry) but the necessary rigmarole resulted in the planned 2024 crewed lunar landing being pushed out to 2025. To be fair, we all suspected this would be the case anyway, but Blue presented itself as a perfect scapegoat. The blunder may have permanently tainted relations with NASA, which isn’t great when they’re pretty much Blue Origin’s only source of real money… other than “every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer,” of course.
We all know what OnlyFans is for, and it’s been great seeing a platform where sex workers, among others, can monetize themselves. Until that platform abruptly announced that the people who’d made it rich in the first place were henceforth banned. Bye, good luck! The backlash was so severe that the decision, unconvincingly blamed on prudish bankers, was reversed within a week. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you, people. (Unless the hand consents as part of a healthy fantasy.)
From the desk of Donald J. Trump
Trump’s tempestuous relationship with social media is perhaps too serious a matter to treat of here, but one aspect of it deserves a palm to the face, and that’s his short-lived “social” platform, From The Desk of Donald J. Trump. This barebones microblog appeared after his ouster from every major social media network, but it was so minimally functional and got so little traffic that it only lasted a month or so before being mothballed. No doubt so his media team could focus on borrowing Mastodon’s code for the follow-up, Truth Social. But even that was all just preliminary to the desperate-looking pitch deck and SPAC we would receive later in the year. As they say, if at first you fail badly, fail, fail again.
Senator Blumenthal asks Facebook rep to “commit to ending finsta”
Now known as the Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen leaked thousands of internal documents from her former employer, including some showing that Instagram is aware of its adverse effect on teenage girls. Soon after, Facebook Global Head of Security Antigone Davis was summoned to testify before the Senate about children’s internet safety.
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a 75-year-old, was worried about young people using secret accounts that they hid from their parents.
“Will you commit to ending finsta?” he asked.
“Senator, let me explain. We don’t actually do finsta. What finsta refers to is young people setting up accounts where they may want to have more privacy,” Davis patiently replied.
Facebook’s leaked benefits enrollment video
It must be hard to work at Facebook – or, as it’s called now, Meta – on days when the company is getting loads of bad press for, you know, not doing enough to stop the January 6 insurrection. But it’s also probably hard to work at Facebook when you have to enroll in your benefits.
There’s some pretty awful stuff detailed in the files that Haugen leaked, but if you want to experience some lower-stakes incredulity at our Metaverse overlords, check out this video. I’m sure Facebook has good benefits – they’re a huge, trillion-dollar tech company, after all – but is the subsidized care even worth it when there’s choreographed dancing involved?
NFTs aren’t even good at gatekeeping
Bored Apes Yacht Club is like a fraternity for people who love Coinbase. Instead of paying dues to join an exclusive Greek society of bros, you can buy a 52 ETH (~$210,000 at time of publication) NFT of an ape to be part of a cool club. Yes, Jimmy Fallon, Steph Curry and Post Malone are Yacht Club members – just like how some B-list actor was in your college’s fraternity twenty years before you were born. But it’s not just about the ape – the value of the NFT is that you get access to fancy events and stuff. So, nightlife journalist Adlan Jackson concocted a clever plan to sneak into a Bored Apes party.
As it turned out, a friend’s boss owned an Ape and sent Jackson a screenshot of a QR code that could get them into the party. The bouncers were checking for some wristband from a previous event, though, not the literal NFT, so he was turned away despite his Ape possession. Later in the night, Jackson tried to get in again, and… they simply let him in. No wristband, no NFT, no nothing. So much for exclusivity! Luckily, Jackson was just in time to see The Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas ask on stage, “This is kind of about art, right? NFTs? I don’t know, what the hell. All I know is… a lot of dudes here tonight.”
If NFTs are now blowing up in the speculation bubble that is financial social media (how does that not have a short name? FiSo?) they owe a lot to Gamestop, the memestock that could. The company could have headed into oblivion like so many other mediocre retailers crowded out by innovations in technology, consumer habits and changing tastes in entertainment. But instead, it was picked up and carried on the wings of a wave of hype that drove its price into the stratosphere, leading to so, so many questions about who gets to be the gatekeeper in the world of trading, who makes money, and who are the biggest losers. You hate to see people getting manipulated, but also understand why those who bought in hated to be treated like unempowered peons. No one gets covered in glory in this one. But amazing, there has yet to be a final chapter in this saga: the stock is lower compared to January’s stratospheric peak, but it’s not that far off.
Spotify Wrapped is cheugy
Yeah, yeah, we know that sharing your Spotify Wrapped round-up is basically just doing free PR for Spotify. But the copywriting on Wrapped read like it was penned by a forty-year-old communications staffer who asked his niece for some phrases that gen-Zers like.Spotify even hired an aura reader named Mystic Michaela to collaborate with them on generating audio auras. The result? Cheugy.
“There was one podcast that lived in your head, rent-free, all year long,” it said.
“You always understood the assignment.”
“While everyone else was trying to figure out what NFTs were, you had one song on repeat.”
“You deserve a playlist as long as your skincare routine.”
Former Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was on trial for criminal fraud for over four months this year. But on the first day of the trial, some fans – yes, fans – showed up dressed as Elizabeth Holmes. If you’re blonde, it’s a pretty easy costume – just wear a black turtleneck and some red lipstick, put your hair in a low ponytail, and there you go! You’re ready for the Halloween party!
But these cosplayers were legit, as far as the reporters who talked to them could tell. They really admired Elizabeth Holmes, despite the fact that she may or may not be guilty of serious criminal fraud charges running a company that actively jeopardized people’s health by giving them false blood test results. But to each their own.
Elizabeth Holmes has arrived at the courthouse and is surrounded by cameras. Three of her fans try to catch a glimpse without losing their spot in line. pic.twitter.com/O5AbR4XTJw
Basically every social or entertainment platform is finding a way to wedge in a vertically-oriented short form video feed. It makes sense for direct TikTok competitors like Instagram or Snapchat to do this, even though it feels very inorganic and derivative. But toward the end of the year, even companies like Netflix, Spotify, Reddit, Twitter and Pinterest were trying it out. In 2022, Linkedin plans to join them.
The professional networking platform tried doing stories this year, but it wasn’t as successful as Instagram at integrating that Snapchat copy-cat feature.
Then again, Twitter didn’t do so hot with Fleets either. I guess you could have seen the writing on the wall with this one: Twitter basically sealed Fleets’ fate with its very name. Its own attempt to throw a hat into the short, ephemeral videos never quite struck a note with Twitter users, who mainly love the format precisely for what it does differently from the rest of social media: fast-paced, short punctuations of words and pictures that flutter down from each other with biting humor, searing criticism, perfectly-timed factoids and occasional glimpses of greatness, regardless of your follow numbers. Who really needs another Story format? Especially one launching so late in the day, with no great twist or even easy way to be used?
Instagram forgot to turn on teen safety features on the web
In July, Instagram tried to cover its metaphorical ass when it comes to user safety by rolling out some new features. One feature made it so that any new account from a user under 16 would default to private. But Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) put tech journalists to shame by unearthing a scoop that was right in front of our eyes for months. If a teen made an Instagram account on the web, it defaulted to public.
To be fair, who even uses Instagram for the web? Still, this felt like a pretty big oversight. Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri had to admit under oath that his team messed up. It was pretty cringe, but at the same time, it’s an alarming, lackadaisical error for a company that’s been repeatedly defending its commitment to teen safety in the Senate this fall.
The headline of this article
It was Devin’s idea. Amanda enthusiastically approved. Still cheugy.
As a remote island nation in the middle of the South Pacific, New Zealand is experiencing the stirrings of a burgeoning startup scene. The country has historically been capital-starved, but recent investments from the government and foreign investors have significantly increased access to early-stage venture capital funding. Now, certain industries are emerging as potential areas where New Zealand can win in the tech space.
Deep tech, medtech/biotech, climate tech, and crypto and blockchain are all areas that investors say they’re either actively investing in or watching for signs of scale.
Note: All monetary amounts are listed in New Zealand dollars unless otherwise stipulated.
New Zealand has the right mix of deep tech-focused capital and resources, strong engineering schools and major success stories that are helping create technologically sophisticated, globally scalable startups.
During the first half of this year, total investment in New Zealand’s early-stage sector increased 78% from the first half of 2020, 42% of which went directly to deep tech startups, according to PwC. Much of that funding came from New Zealand Growth Capital Partners (NZGCP), a government entity established to create a vibrant early-stage environment in New Zealand, via its Elevate fund of funds program that provides capital to New Zealand VCs investing in Series A and B rounds.
New Zealanders make really good founders. … There’s something about just growing up on a farm or, you know, playing beer float out in the lakes and rivers; New Zealand is just really resourceful. Blockchain NZ Chair Bryan Ventura
Then there are groups, like Outset Ventures, formerly LevelTwo, that are geared toward helping seed and pre-seed deep tech startups get going. Outset is home to New Zealand’s only two deep tech unicorns, Rocket Lab and LanzaTech, both of which have spun out numerous other deep tech companies. Outset continues to be a resource for seed-stage startups that need not only money, but also connections to larger companies and access to workshops and labs. Just last year, Outset and Icehouse Ventures, a VC firm, partnered to raise a $12 million fund, which launched this April, for early-stage science and engineering startups. Imche Fourie, CEO of Outset, said the company has already made 40 investments from that fund.
Notable deep tech companies out of New Zealand include Foundry Lab, a startup that creates metal castings quickly and cheaply with a microwave; Soul Machines, a platform that creates lifelike digital avatars that animate autonomously, responding to interactions and interpreting facial expressions, with personalities that evolve over time; and Dennisson Technologies, a wearables company that’s developing soft exosuits that incorporate 4D material technology to actively assist people with limited mobility due to physical or neurological disability.
The most Kiwi of deep tech startups, however, is Halter — a company that spun out of Rocket Lab and produces solar-powered smart cow collars that allow farmers to remotely shift and virtually fence and monitor cows in order to optimize pasture time. Founder Craig Piggott grew up on a dairy farm watching his parents struggle with the relentless work. After studying engineering at Auckland University of Technology and working at Rocket Lab, Piggott combined his experience to come up with a somewhat wacky and ambitious hardware and software play. Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck, who backed Halter, told TechCrunch he thinks it will be a globally scalable billion-dollar company.
Outset-backed Zenno Astronautics, for example, is developing a fuel-free satellite propulsion system that uses magnets powered by solar panels. Dawn Aerospace is working toward a remotely piloted aircraft that could take off like a normal airplane, drop a satellite payload and be back home in 15 minutes. And Astrix Autonautics, a startup founded by three Auckland University students, is being trialed by Rocket Lab to see if they can more than double the power-to-weight ratios of solar arrays used today.
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck has had an eventful couple of years, despite the unpredictable challenges that COVID-19 threw in the path of the rocket maker’s LA and New Zealand-based operations. Just this year, Rocket Lab had its public market debut, revealed its plans for a new medium-lift launch vehicle called Neutron and acquired two companies (on top of its first acquisition from 2020).
I spoke to Beck at our TC Sessions: Space 2021 event where we covered what’s new and special about Neutron, and how it leverages the pedigree of the company’s Electron rockets to challenge some assumptions about how bigger rockets are built. We also dove into his vision for Rocket Lab and what it aims to accomplish in terms of making it even easier for prospective customers to get their stuff to space.
Beck dished on everything from the unique way that Rocket Lab plans to land the reusable first stage of Neutron back on Earth, to the “Hungry Hippo”-type design of the fairing that allows it to avoid being discarded post-use. He also described his vision for what Rocket Lab hopes to become through its built-out of more service offerings, both through acquisitions and in-house product development.
Check out these excerpts, and then watch the full interview below.
On ditching landing legs and improving aerodynamics:
It’s all about removing as many components and as many complexities as possible [ … ] We had this epiphany one day, where we were like, we’re working on these landing legs, and we’re just going around in circles endlessly with mechanisms, and how are we going to service those mechanisms, and all the rest of it. And then we were like, let’s just stop, and let’s just not have landing legs. So let’s just have a wide enough base, so that we can resist any of the kind of tipping or creeping movements.
So we start off with this big wide base and drew a satellite in the payload and the upper stage top and the fairing diamond, and then just drew two lines that joined it all up, and it looked like a traffic cone. That’s actually the optimum vehicle: It has no legs, it’s just a nice stable kind of structure. And then as we started doing some of the CFD [computational fluid dynamics] on it, and some of the aerodynamics and some of the reentry work, and that traffic cone proved very useful, because you have this decreasing pressure over the length of the vehicle, which means you don’t have any shockwaves attaching to it, which is always a challenge with reentry.
On how to build a space company that actually serves the needs of modern customers:
Kathy Leuders, head of NASA’s newly minted Space Operations Mission Directorate, joined us at TC Sessions: Space last week for a chat about the future of the agency and what she is looking forward to — and dreading — in the next decade of missions.
In the first place Leuders explained the reasoning behind NASA’s decision in September to split the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in two.
“30 years ago it was really, in the human exploration area, it was Shuttle, and then it was Shuttle and station… Now we’ve added Commercial Crew, [Lunar] Gateway, you know, HLS [Human Landing System], I mean, we’re mushrooming!” she explained.
This was putting too much pressure on the existing structure and it was amicably decided to split off, essentially, the development and planning side from operations. Leuders said she was pleased to be put in charge of the latter.
“The best thing is I got to have, you know, the missions! I got to have the execution,” she said. “I’ve spent probably about 15 years doing development. But my favorite part was when we started flying. So guess what — I’m firmly in the flying division. So I’m very, very happy to be there. I get to do all the launches and operations and I love it.”
While the big launches and landings tend to hog all the glory, Artemis and its related lunar missions are more diverse and wide-ranging than that. I asked what pieces of the puzzle may not be getting enough attention.
“It’s the infrastructure pieces that people don’t talk about,” she replied. “You know, we’re gonna need power on the moon. We’re going to need to be able to move cargo around on the moon. We’re going to need to be able to have communication and additional relays on the moon. We tend to not think of roads and power lines as sexy things. But this is infrastructure that, if you ever run a business, you need those kinds of things to be able to operate. Try to run a business without power — try to run a business without comms.”
But not all of her duties will be pleasant. She was among those who saw the ISS go up, and she will be there when it comes down — or at least, in the near term, is decommissioned.
“Oh gosh… I mean, when I moved to JSC [Johnson Space Center], it was to go work on an International Space Station. And so I actually was one of the lucky people that came onto the space station program at [mission] 2A. Been on the job two weeks and I got to be at the launch, and there were people there that invested 10 years of their life and were there crying. And so I will be crying when we have to deorbit the Space Station,” she said. “But it was also very painful for us to, you know, retire the Shuttle. Part of the things we’ve got to recognize is when’s the right time, right?
She also touches on @NASA's plans with the International Space Station. As sad as @KathyLueders is to leave ISS, she explains the definite plans to bite down risk and focus on living and working around the moon.
Hi, and welcome to Max Q, it’s your former newsletter writer now returned while Aria is out. We just wrapped our TC Sessions: Space 2021 event, but as is often the case in the space biz, things aren’t slowing down just because it’s almost the end of the year.
SpaceX breaks a reusability record and records its first two-launch day
SpaceX launched another batch of its Starling satellites from its launch facility at Vandenberg Space Force Base on Saturday morning, then followed that up with a launch of a Turkish communications satellite from Cape Canaveral Florida late that night. This marks the first time that SpaceX has launched twice in one day, and the Starlink mission also included the eleventh flight and landing for its Falcon 9 booster, besting a re-use record for SpaceX’s launch system.
That would be impressive enough on its own, but now SpaceX is set to deliver another load of supplies and experiment materials to the International Space Station for its latest Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission. That’s currently scheduled for tomorrow morning, taking off from Cape Canaveral.
Image Credits: SpaceX
A look back at 2021 from the perspective of space investors
As mentioned above, we just wrapped our TC Sessions: Space 2021 event, and one of the more interesting discussions for the startup community was definitely our chat with a panel of early-stage investors looking at the sector. Some, like Space Capital founder Chad Anderson, have seen the space industry evolve considerably over many years of placing early bets on startups, and could speak to the major shifts going on in the industry. Assembly Ventures’ Jessica Robinson spoke to how space tech is bleeding out into just about every other area, and vice versa.
Voyager Space hires Blue Origin VP of global sales as its new chief revenue officer. Clay Mowry was a fairly high-profile member of the Blue Origin team, and before that he worked for Arianespace as its chairman and president.
NASA and its international agency partners have approved the Axiom Mission 1 private astronaut flight to the International Space Station, which is now set to take place February 28, 2022.
Spaceport Camden in Camden County, Georgia, has officially been granted its launch site operator license by the FAA. It still has some final hurdles to cross before it becomes operational, but it could play host to commercial launch companies as another option for a take-off locale.
Rocket Lab will acquire SolAero Holdings, a producer of solar cells, solar panels and other structural components for space-based infrastructure. We spoke to Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck [subscription required] last week about its recent spate of acquisitions.
The U.S. Space Force turned two! It’s the toddler of the armed forces.
NASA is set to launch the James Web space telescope on December 24, with a target liftoff time of 7:20 AM EST. It’s taking off from the European spaceport on Kourou, French Guiana, aboard an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket in partnership with the ESA.
The fees investment banks charge to underwrite IPOs can gobble several points from a public company’s gross proceeds, but new competition is giving some firms a chance to hold on to more of that sweet debut money.
This week, Nubank paid just 1.6% of the $2.6 billion it raised to its underwriters. As Bloomberg reported, “among 490 IPOs in the U.S. so far this year, only three paid a smaller percentage.”
In “New Kids on the Launch Block,” a panel at TC Sessions: Space 2021, Darrell Etherington spoke to three rocket makers to learn more about the factors making commercial space launches less expensive and more competitive:
Lauren Lyons, COO, Firefly Aerospace
Benjamin Lyon, Chief Engineer & EVP Engineering, Astra
Max Haot, founder and CEO, Launcher
“One common theme that quickly emerged was that vertical integration is a key driver of success in the rocket business is driving down costs, especially with smaller capacity launch vehicles,” writes Darrell.
A report by RockHealth.org found that 2021 has been the best fundraising year to date for digital health startups.
Fueled in large part by an explosion in demand for mental health services and the expansion of telehealth during the pandemic, more investors are hunting for founders who can creditably lower costs and create efficiencies in a notoriously ramshackle industry.
Regardless, “proving out a financially substantiated ROI case requires a combination of time and data, and digital health is no exception,” writes Alyssa Jaffee, a partner at digital health-focused VC firm 7wireVentures.
Ample’s John de Souza on the merits of B2B, company culture and investors who get it
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin
Launching a startup is inherently risky, but scaling up a company to succeed where others have failed spectacularly is a very bold move.
San Francisco-based Ample is partnering with companies that manage EV fleets to swap its modular battery packs in and out of their vehicles.
“Fourteen years ago, Better Place raised nearly a billion dollars to do what Ample’s doing, and it ended up declaring bankruptcy,” reports Rebecca Bellan.
In an extended interview with co-founder John de Souza, she asked about the company’s go-to-market strategy, its culture and why he’s certain Ample will succeed where others did not.
“The economics and operations work very well because you don’t need a large number at a single station to break even. With a small fleet, you’d have it at max 20 cars and it will break even. That’s what makes it so attractive. You don’t need to deploy the stations until you have a customer.”
The rapid expansion of the commercial space industry over the last couple of years has led early-stage investors to consider very different types of companies than they did when space startups were a novelty.
The availability of more affordable rides to space, the maturity of ground infrastructure and improvements to accessibility and usability of earth observation data have combined to position entirely new breeds of space-related ventures as ripe for high-risk, high-growth investment.
At TC Sessions: Space 2021, we hosted “Being There When Stars Form,” a panel discussion with three early-stage investors:
Chad Anderson, founder and managing partner, Space Capital
Jessica Robinson, co-founder and partner, Assembly Ventures
Jonathan Fentzke, managing director, Techstars
Given the topic, we talked about SPACs and also focused on areas that are piquing the interest of people who are placing bets on new and emerging space-related tech companies. Something everyone shared an interest in was infrastructure, including sustainable on-orbit operations and collision-avoidance, as well as applications being developed using in-space assets that are already in operation.
Find highlights from our conversation below, or scroll to the bottom for a video with the entire chat.
The last 10 years have been transformative for space; we’ve gone from a handful of defense contractors and a few monolithic satellites in orbit, to suddenly tons of participation by 1,600 space companies, raising a lot of capital over the last 10 years and deploying a lot of satellites. SpaceX and Starlink have launched quite a few satellites this year, as they roll out their beta version of Starlink and going into commercial production next year. And from 2020 to 2021, we’ve seen a massive uptick in the number of satellites launched. So we have tons more commercial activity that’s happening in space and no doubt, there’s 100 times more debris in orbit. So getting our arms around that is a key focus area for governments and commercial companies.
The things that are most exciting to us, regardless of whether they’re here on Earth, or in space, are certainly around data. I’m sure we’ll talk a lot about that today. I think the continued opportunities and applications of AI and machine learning are particularly applicable here as well, given that you don’t want to downlink things that you don’t have to. And I think robotics is another area that for us as investors translates well, certainly there are considerations in the space environment.
More private rocket companies are actually now coming online, after years of the field being left basically to SpaceX and Rocket Lab. At TC Sessions: Space 2021 this past week, we spoke to three rocket makers who have either already launched, achieved orbit or are well on their way: Firefly Aerospace’s Lauren Lyons, Astra’s Benjamin Lyon and Launcher’s Max Haot.
In our discussion, “New Kids on the Launch Block,” one common theme that quickly emerged was that vertical integration is a key driver of success in the rocket business is driving down costs, especially with smaller capacity launch vehicles. Just as, if not more important, is building a team that can execute with a focus on efficiency, iteration and flexibility.
I think space tech is all about rapidly iterating, as opposed to working for seven to 10 years on a single product, and having that bespoke application, because it means you have to know perfectly what the future is. And nobody buys an iPhone and then 10 years later says this is the best thing in the world, you want the latest thing. And so similarly, when you think about iterating, and doing space tech, both again, launch as well as on orbit, you really want this iterative approach that’s very focused on customers, as opposed to kind of the old school way of doing aerospace. I think that’s a key way to think about the future. Similarly, when we think about how we operate inside Astra, we think very hard about where can we get this down to basically a robot, where the robots doing the work [ … ] Now, obviously, there’s a path, there’s a roadmap to get there. But getting down to just a few people in mission control, and just a few people on the ground where we do the launch, that’s been something we’ve worked hard on, and recently just made it to orbit with. So I think that is a strategy that is really working and paying dividends.
Investors are excited about the opportunities in the space market that are being unlocked by exit events and continued interest and private investment in the biggest and most successful space companies, including SpaceX. During a TC Sessions: Space 2021 panel discussion on the growth-stage investment outlook for startups, Bessemer’s Tess Hatch, Sequoia’s Shaun Maguire and Hemisphere Ventures’ Lisa Rich shared their thoughts on the active year that just passed and on what’s coming next.
We’ve shared highlights from the discussion below, followed by a video of the full discussion, “Backing the Brightest.”
First, in terms of the year that just passed, SPACs obviously played a big role in space startups and generating liquidity for investors.
It’s bringing liquidity back to the investors that invested in those space companies years ago, I think looking back, Skybox, which was one of the first venture backed companies that had an exit was sold to Google for about half a billion dollars in 2014, after it was created in 2010. And not many venture capitalists were investing in space at the time, but they heard half-a-billion four years later— those are good ROI and a short time horizon for my LPs. Then basically every VC invested in one or two space companies, but from 2014 until this year, there weren’t many liquidity events in the industry.
You know, I think direct IPOs are still the gold standard, and a lot of the most marquee companies will try to do that. But SPACs are a very powerful tool in the toolkit, and it’s great to have another path toward liquidity. And in general, I think SPACs are better suited for deep tech companies than for like, enterprise SaaS companies, just where there’s oftentimes it’s hard to tell long-term stories with a traditional IPO process, whereas it’s much easier with SPACs.