Beyond SpaceX: 10 space companies to watch in 2016 & 2017
While a lot of end-of-the-year, turn-of-the-calendar roundups try to focus on the year that was or the year ahead, the space industry is very different. Developments are planned further in advance, so some of the qualifying news that gets companies on this list isn’t scheduled to happen until 2017. The industry is small compared to cloud computing or cybersecurity, for example, but the rate of growth is tremendous. There seems to be a cultural solidarity with spacetech on account of its tightly-knit history of cooperation and the still limited number of private companies that can facilitate space flight.
To be sure, those companies weren’t around 10 years ago. SpaceX, it is fair to say, is the Google of the industry. Blue Origin is also in the game, both set to disrupt the pricing model for development and prices for customers to get cargo above the atmosphere. More importantly, they’re expanding access. While both companies are assuredly worth a Google Alert in your inbox, there are smaller companies you should also know about that are planning some major leaps in the next two years.
SpacePharma will launch its own CubeSat (miniaturized satellite) aboard a SpaceX rocket in the coming weeks. On board will be their first-of-a-kind mGnify lab that will conduct biomedical and pharmaceutical tests in a microgravitational environment (zero-gravity in laymen’s terms, but there is no such thing as ‘true’ zero-g).
“It’s almost impossible to enter the International Space Station to do an experiment,” Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer Ido Priel says to Geektime. “You have to go through a lot of bureaucracy, go through safety committees and the equipment has to be thoroughly checked to make sure it doesn’t endanger the astronauts.”
They’ve been a bit hush hush about how much they’ve raised, but riding on SpaceX isn’t cheap. State of Mind Ventures, one of its first investors which was co-founded by Priel, gives in the range of $1-$2 million.
2. Rocket Lab
An American-Kiwi company, Rocket Lab, is an ambitious competitor to SpaceX. Founded by New Zealander Peter Beck, they’ve developed their own engine, the 4,600lbf (pound force inch), turbo-pumped LOX/RP-1 Rutherford. But competition with SpaceX may take some time, as they are only touting a 150 kg payload for now. Still, if you are a millionaire who can buy a CubeSat and has $4.9 million to spill on a launch, you’re in the game.
They’ve raised an undisclosed, though likely immense amount of money from space-heavy investors Bessemer Venture Partners, K1W1, Khosla Ventures and even Lockheed Martin. You can infer that they have at least eight digits, since New Zealand’s government will provide up to $5 million in matching investments for R&D with hi-tech businesses through the Callaghan Innovation Growth Grants program that Rocket Lab benefitted from in 2014.
Their flagship product is small launch vehicle Electron that will sell for $4.9 million a pop. They expect development of the Electron to finish in 2016.
This radio satellite maker collects all sorts of data via satellite constellations to focus on global trade and weather, with other geo-specific, geo-spatial imagery capabilities. Spire SENSE provides maritime intelligence on everything from pirates to fish migrations and STRATOS provides “high fidelity” forecasts. They launched their first satellites, the world’s first crowdfunded satellites according to the company, in 2013.
Originally called NanoSatisfi when launched (get it?) in September 2012 out of the SF incubator Lemnos Labs, CEO Peter Platzer has led the company to raise nearly $70 million, including a $40 million round in June. They count RRE Ventures, Bessemer, Fresco Capital, Beamonte Investments and Promus Ventures among their funders. Besides an impressive website, they also have offices in San Francisco, Singapore, and Glasgow.
NovaWurks might have one of the most under-appreciated service offerings in the space startup world: turning dead satellites back on. Using their Hyper-Integrated Satlet (HISat™) cellular spacecraft materials, they convert concepts into modular designs. Essentially, they democratize payloads with their Payload Oribotal Delivery (POD) system, make it a pioneering firm on the next frontier.
They have a $42.6 million deal with DARPA as part of the Phoenix program to latch their tech onto sitting duck satellites and reactivate them. The cost of launch now is clearly high, but pioneering this technology would definitely get more utility out of satellites instead of say, dragging them to a “satellite graveyard.” That brings us to the next company on our list.
5. Effective Space Solutions
Effective Space Solutions is prepping to launch their own satellite to drag dead satellites 36,000 km away from the earth into the so-called “graveyard orbit.” The company secured down payment funding in July for two initial missions. The brainchild of Arie Halsband, the former general manager of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), ESS maintains offices in Givatayim, Israel.
The company proposes using its microsatellite to push old satellites into the distant orbit in place of arguably expensive propellants to deorbit the satellite and bring it crashing to earth. Of course, this might bring up questions you have about debris, right? Well, there’s a company for that, too.
A company out of Singapore with a lot of Japanese management and backing, Astroscale is planning to launch a fleet of small satellites with an adhesive surface to grab small pieces of space debris and clear it from main orbital highways. They are responding to a massive, difficult-to-manage problem that has a quantifiable but enormous amount of parts left behind from prior (mostly American and Russian) space missions.
There will be six box-shaped satellites which will deploy and return to a ‘mothership’ no longer than 60cm nor wider than 30cm.
“I think it’s safe to say the mission will not be perfect, but that’s fine,” Manager Yasunori Yamazaki told Geektime recently at the International Astronautical Congress in October. “We hope the first satellites will last five years, but realistically we think it will be about two or three.”
While the marketing team worries that it has little time to prove its concept, they are getting results. They have already raised $7.7 million in Series A from Japanese venture firm JAFCO and a host of Japanese angels like Mistletoe Inc.’s Taizo Son.
SpaceIL is the ‘official’ Israeli entrant in Google’s Lunar X Prize (GLXP) space race. It’s a nonprofit organization (NPO), but the horde of volunteers and developments from the project will likely spur the careers of its participants and spin out new technologies that could make the emergent CubeSat industry a stepping stone to a new lunar rover industry.
The team is formidable: former Amdocs researcher Eran Privman is CEO; VP of Spacecraft Yigal Harel has 20 years of experience and worked with giants like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin; VP of R&D Avi Nudler has 25 years already in art communication infrastructure; System Engineer Yoav Landsman is an aerospace engineer with M.Sc.s in geophysics and planetary sciences; and Head of Satellite Attitude Avi Barliya has studied human movement and computer science for a decade at the Weizmann Institute. Suffice it to say, expect follow-up startups from the team.
They’ve got money from the Schusterman Foundation, Kahn Foundation and Adelson Family Foundation to the tune of $22.4 million, but it’s likely they’re working with more. Despite it being a nonprofit, there is a clear goal of waving an Israeli banner in this mission and making the country only the fourth to land on the moon.
8. Moon Express
After Israeli SpaceIL, Moon Express is the second company/group to announce a launch contract as part of GLXP to land a private rover on the moon, this one with the aforementioned Rocket Lab. Announced in December, this launch contract was the biggest news the company had made since revealing its prototype lander back in 2013.
But if they plan on sticking to the landing in 2017, they’re going to probably keep modifying that drone, so look out for updates and possibly investments. They raised $16.5 million in Series C in 2014 from the likes of co-founder Naveen Jain and investor Firoz H. Lalji, with a total haul of $31.5 million.
Moon Express also hopes to grab Google’s $30 million prize and has raised about $10 million itself. Founded in 2010 by Dr. Bob Richards, Naveen Jain, and Dr. Barney Pell, the company plans to develop a business for harvesting and exporting the Moon’s natural resources, possibly including the theoretically lunarly abundant helium 3, rare earths (rare moons?) and platinum group metals.
A Japanese microsatellite maker founded by Yuya Nakamura, the business is using the funds to prep for a three-satellite launch in 2017. They will collaborate with investor SKY Perfect JSAT and Mitsui & Co. to make it happen. After that, they plan to launch 10 satellites every year from 2018 onwards until they have a remote sensing network of 50 low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites.
After a $250,000 seed round in 2014, Axelspace announced a $15.8 million Series A round lead by Global Brain Corporation in September. Other investors included the Japan Science and Technology Agency, Itochu Technology Ventures, SBI Investment, Seibu Shinkin Capital, SMBC Venture Capital, Energy & Environment Investment, and Weathernews.
10. XCOR Aerospace
XCOR‘s literal flagship is the Lynx spaceplane. It’s a rocket-powered reusable plane which from now on, I will refer to as the Batplane. But the suborbital Lynx could soon be overtaken by an orbital model currently in development by the company. They offer passenger and cargo trips on the Lynx, as well as developing rocket propulsion systems and propulsion parts.
They haven’t gotten a test flight off the ground yet, but with their own 10,735-foot-long XCOR Aerospace Hangar 61 in the Mojave desert, they want to fly in the next two years.
They have over $20 million in funding, with repeat investor Space Angels Network leading a $14.2M Series B in 2014.