There is a startup revolution taking place in the satellite industry. Every month, and sometimes every week, a new company announces plans for a product, a constellation, or an unconventional take on the way a particular service is done.
With this wave of new companies has come a second wave of investors, each trying to identify which ones will be the real game changers. These investors mean business, and startups have to convince them that they mean business too. It’s not uncommon for both entrepreneurs and investors to be unfamiliar with each other when it comes to the satellite industry. Lots of satellite programs and technologies are government driven or government influenced, and not incidentally, early stage investors have historically looked elsewhere to more fast-paced, lucrative sectors. But things are changing, as satellite entrepreneurs have taken the buzzword “disruptive,” and made it a real thing instead of a trite industry expression.
Now that startups have groundbreaking business ideas, they need to convey those to investors in a way that will get their attention. Investors meet with hundreds of entrepreneurs, but only put capital into a handful. To stand out from the crowd, here’s what you’ll want to know.
Small ideas won’t cut it if you want to get an investor’s attention, says Shahin Farshchi, partner at Lux Capital. Having led an investment in Planet Labs (now Planet), Farshchi tracks new companies in the fields of robotics, automation, manufacturing, artificial intelligence, deep learning, and space. Lux Capital has invested in more than 60 companies, including Kymeta and Orbital Insight, over the course of four funds, and has a total of $700 million under management. When considering which companies to invest in, Farshchi says he wants to find those that are bringing truly remarkable ideas to fruition.
“I’m looking for people who have identified opportunities within the aerospace industry that until now were impossible,” he says. “When I say advances in technology I mean disrupting economies by orders of magnitude with the technology, not just making a cheaper sensor or cheaper device. It’s being able to significantly disrupt an industry as a result of an order of magnitude improvement out of economies of scale.”
RRE Ventures General Manager and Chief Operating Officer Will Porteous echoes a similar point. He says market demand is the single most important criterion for investing in any company. Customers need to really want what the startup is promising.
“For us it’s about seeing substantial, almost overwhelming market demand. Of course we need to see a strong team commercializing a meaningful innovation, but without palpable market demand, we won’t get to a ‘yes,’” he says.
Porteous points to each of RRE Ventures’ space investments as testaments to this principle. Spire had close to 80 letters of intent from prospective customers before RRE Ventures invested. Spaceflight Inc., now a company with multiple lines of business, was arguably supporting more global SmallSat launches than anyone else; and Accion Systems, a startup formed by MIT graduate students, had “substantial commercial traction,” around its electric propulsion technology for SmallSats, he says. The market has to support a company, or investors won’t either.
Yes, space is sexy, but looks alone won’t convince investors and venture capitalists that a company is worth putting money in. Joe Landon, chairman of the Space Angels Network, helped build what today is an organization of around 180 angel investors — all focused on the space industry. Founded in 2008, Space Angels Network has invested in 32 companies including NanoRacks, Firefly Space Systems and OmniEarth.
Landon says he helped create the Space Angels Network because of his own passion for the space industry and because he saw a gap in the market that caused good companies and entrepreneurs to go unfunded. But while he stays excited about the space industry, his approach to potential investments is levelheaded.
“I subscribe more to the idea that all startups are hard, just for different reasons. Our challenge at Space Angels Network is to find companies who can quickly identify and systematically eliminate those risks, but that is the same in any industry. There are some unique challenges to space, but so are there in other industries,” he says.
Farshchi cites the high fixed costs associated with getting a business model off the ground as one of those unique challenges for space startups, along with the time associated with proving said model. This creates the need for more rigor with the value proposition. However, new technologies are sanding down these industry-specific barriers.
“Just 10 years ago, space was the exclusive province of governments and large contractors,” explains Sunil Nagaraj, vice president of Bessemer Venture Partners. “Due to standardization such as the CubeSat format as well as cost reductions driven by the consumer electronics industry, satellites can now be built and launched for $200,000 to $400,000. Zooming out, a space startup can now build and launch a constellation of SmallSats for about the same amount of capital that a tech startup can build and launch a mobile app — that’s an absolutely amazing fact!”
Bessemer Venture Partners, the first institutional investor in Yelp, has invested in companies including LinkedIn, Skype and Twitch. In the space industry, the venture capital firm invested in Skybox Imaging back in 2011, which sold to Google for around $500 million in 2015 — a deal that still reverberates throughout the industry to this day. Other Bessemer space industry investments include Spire and Rocket Lab. Nagaraj focuses on developer tools and security company investments, and following the Google-Skybox deal, he took the helm for Bessemer’s space investment practice.
Nagaraj points to Skybox Imaging, since renamed Terra Bella, as demonstrative of other parallels between the space industry and typical technology investing. He says Bessemer invested an amount of capital that was on par with any normal tech company, and that the Skybox exit took place in only four years — faster than the average five to seven years expected in tech investing.
Governments often require space services, and if they don’t conduct them on their own, they tend to look to the private sector to meet those needs. While governments can be a meaningful source of revenue for space companies, and even startups, investors are cautious of anyone whose business plans depend on such customers. Leaning heavily on the government is an attribute of companies that typically fall outside the purview of early stage investors.
“Conventional aerospace companies, because of the fixed-cost issue, tend to be typically government or contract-based companies, and as a result of that, they typically do not fit within the conventional venture model. The conventional venture model is you invest a given amount of capital and create vastly disproportionate enterprise value as a result,” says Farshchi. “This is why you see aerospace companies, contractors and satellite manufacturers who are billion-dollar companies, but they are not worth disproportionately more than their cash flow.”
Landon says traditional aerospace companies tend to rely on big, established markets and customers that often include government. Big aerospace companies are more systematic, he says, and less willing to chase after big ideas in the face of limited resources. This difference is in part how “NewSpace” companies are often separated from the fold. Though sometimes a divisive term, there are differences between how these companies pursue business against their peers.
“There is a reason we use the moniker ‘NewSpace,’” explains Nagaraj. “It denotes an approach to space that is faster, cheaper, and more risk-tolerant. I don’t love the phrase ‘OldSpace,’ but I do think that the bulk of the space industry has a more traditional approach,” he says, adding that there is good reason for this difference in approach. Mentioning governments, contractors, and large satellite operators, Nagaraj says that these entities usually launch one space asset at a time, with each taking years to design, requiring high-cost, hardened parts, with a very low likelihood of failure. He describes this model as “internally consistent” but cumbersome due to its need for several years and hundreds of millions of dollars to put an asset on orbit.
“NewSpace represents a complete rethink of the approach where cheap parts are used in low-cost satellites that may individually fail but are part of a high-availability constellation. This is another internally consistent model and we are just starting [to see] its successes where the overall constellation can be cheaper and more effective. Furthermore, capital can be slowly doled out over time while the approach is tweaked versus a traditional space model that requires a massive capital commitment upfront,” he says.
This does not at all mean government is not helpful to space entrepreneurs. Porteous says the industry’s relationship with government has been a major help in overcoming industry-specific challenges, like access to space, particularly for the companies RRE Ventures has invested in.
“Government agencies have been among the earliest supportive customers and partners, and through partnerships with government agencies, these companies are doing advanced technology development that they frankly would not be able to fund otherwise. They are getting new capabilities on orbit sooner — that’s true for Accion, Spire and BlackSky because of partnerships with the government,” he says.
Farshchi agrees, adding that government can be a huge help by guaranteeing some of the revenue or taking risks that private entities might not take, like trialing new launch vehicles. The risk is for entrepreneurs to get hooked on government solicitations; it’s up to wise entrepreneurs to avoid this pitfall, he says.
Many early-stage investors putting financial resources into the satellite industry invest in multiple other fields too. Farshchi says it is more common to meet people in highly technical fields like aerospace that don’t know their limitations nor do they know where to look to find advice. Nescient entrepreneurs who “don’t know what they don’t know,” and who “don’t recognize where they need help,” are his two biggest warning signs that would discourage investing.
Farshchi says these entrepreneurs should look to learn from entrepreneurs who have built venture-backed companies that don’t involve cutting-edge technology. Pointing to fields like mobile, social or enterprise, he says learning from experts can help nascent space companies understand the basic fundamentals of business.
“These entrepreneurs tend to have a lot more interaction with each other, whereas aerospace tends to be very small and confined to entrepreneurs who are accustomed to the government contract funded research process. I think if these two got to know each other better … there is a lot that can be benefited there,” suggests Farshchi.
Should entrepreneurs from the space sector branch out to meet these other industries, they would learn that what is occurring today in space is not an isolated phenomenon.
“There are really big enterprise software companies that are being disrupted by Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) companies,” says Landon. “So NewSpace companies are like the software as a service version of that. This is not unique to space, it’s just the startup philosophy being applied to yet another industry — and that’s good for the space industry.”
The reason entrepreneurs are celebrated is because of their courage, boldness, and willingness to accept the very real outcome of creating a company that does not ultimately succeed.
The causes for failure can be subtle or obvious. Before joining Lux Capital, Farshchi started a company around an $800 medical device capable of monitoring vital signs for hospitals to track patients as they moved around. Hospitals showed interest, but could not buy anything in volume, or pay much, and were furthermore not ready to pay, which made for a poor customer to a fledgling company.
“There are many amazing technologies that aren’t necessarily good products. There are many good products that don’t necessarily underlie great businesses, and there are many businesses that aren’t necessarily attractive investments. What I learned was having built an amazing technology that customers wanted, I was able to build a product that was attractive, but the business that we built around it wasn’t successful,” he says.
Entrepreneurs may also struggle to gain the financial support they need for new technologies or businesses, even when there is potential, if the investors they talk to have different goals. Porteous says, for example, that startups focusing on component-level technologies are challenging to fund, despite having good ideas, just because of the size of their addressable customer base.
“To achieve our rates of return and our overall objective in terms of business growth trajectories and impact, we need large markets and there are only a few within the space industry that we can really go after. We have turned down people doing really important, innovative work — people we like a lot, I should add, as entrepreneurs — because the market opportunity they are focused on we just think is not that big.”
Nagaraj says he has met with more than 150 different space startups over the past 24 months, which to date has resulted in two investments. Having also founded a tech company, and being very enthusiastic about space, he encourages those weighed down by the challenge of starting a company to do their best to make sure they are bringing something the market will crave.
“For entrepreneurs who are struggling to raise money, I would humbly recommend that they focus on their number one priority: customers,” he says. “If they can spend more time with current and prospective customers, they can hone their product or approach further. Armed with more concrete customer input and signals of real customer demand, I believe investor meetings will be more fruitful.”
Though starting a space business is a rigorous and challenging process, many early stage investors expect investment activity to continue to climb over the coming years, spurred on by a growing number of success stories.
“We are at the beginning of an exciting new phase of commercial space,” says Nagaraj. “The ecosystem is primed and ready for a massive amount of growth in applications for commercial space ranging from remote sensing, microgravity production of materials, communications, and more. The NewSpace segment is smartly borrowing best practices from the tech industry and I expect that it will benefit tremendously.”
Richard Rocket, co-founder and CEO of NewSpace Global, a research firm covering the burgeoning space industry, expects the momentum to reach a fever pitch in a decade’s time.
"When NSG started in 2011 we were tracking around 100 companies — a mix of publicly traded and privately held,” he says. “Today we are tracking over 1,000 companies globally. We will get to 10,000 companies in the next 10 years. Every single company that’s in the satellite and launch market — regardless of size, whether or not they are public or privately held, if they are based in Seattle, Denver, or Nigeria, it doesn’t make a difference — everything is going to be flipped upside down in the next 10 years."
Space sector private investment reached a high water mark in 2015, Porteous says, because of the $1 billion SpaceX investment from Google and Fidelity. Excluding this investment, he expects a “reasonable uptick” going forward. In particular, Porteous highlights new businesses that rise from the influx of data and the new needs of today’s young satellite companies as a major catalyst for investors of the future.
“What nobody is counting on is that there is an entire community of experienced space and particularly satellite investors that is downstream from where these companies are today. Satellite investing historically has been a lot riskier than it’s going to be going forward,” he says. VS