The space investment environment could not be worse than 2022, right? Halfway through 2023, we can start to draw some conclusions. There have been plenty more challenges, not least the failure of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), the bank for many new space companies. However, SpaceX is still being SpaceX, i.e. impressively successful. Heavy-hitters like Apple, SpaceX, Iridium, Qualcomm, and newer space startups like Skylo are all working to deliver satellite-to-cell. How has investing changed?
Some Improvement but Still No Megarounds
First, the good news from the first quarter. There was a big rebound in global space investing, up 75 percent from the last quarter in 2022 — $1.4 billion vs $800 million. Last year was a stellar year for new startup formation but the number of deals continued to climb to its highest ever in a quarter: 128. After CEOs delayed fundraising in 2022, growth stage companies were forced to return to market. Investment at this stage was up 120 percent compared to the fourth quarter of 2022. Yet, megarounds have still not returned. This had a particular effect on the U.S. market, where most capital is deployed in megarounds. As a result, investing in the U.S. continues to fall, even compared to a subdued late 2022.
2023: The Year of Europe?
Investment may be down in the U.S. but Europe had a very, very good quarter. For the first time, European space investment overtook North America. What’s more, five of the top 10 largest funding rounds in early 2023 were European companies. This is surprising to say the least. Europe has always had challenges in funding at the growth stage as European investors are particularly risk-averse. As a result, European companies have struggled for lack of access to capital, often forced to seek investment in the U.S. What has changed?
European governments and the European Union are increasingly vocal about space sovereignty. The thinking goes, if space is critical infrastructure, should Europe be reliant on the U.S. and U.S. companies to deliver it? We can debate the merits of this thinking, but investors are obviously intrigued, reassured by the perceived reduction in market risk. This is essentially the “SpaceX playbook” — win government contracts, leverage these to win private investment, and then use this investment to build large, commercial businesses. If successful, this model could potentially transform the European market.
Of course, with its much larger investor base and its own focus on space sovereignty, it’s unlikely the U.S. would ever allow another market to catch it. However, improved funding, particularly at the growth stage, could lead to the development of real European challengers in specific subsectors. European companies that realize early on that the U.S. will remain the largest market and that most of their customers will be American will be the most successful.
Insights from a VC
In a constrained capital environment, what can startups do to stand out to investors? Here’s what I’m seeing from space startups in 2023. Companies are now truly, impressively fast. Many startups now tackle very hard engineering problems with space demonstrations just 18 to 24 months after founding the company. To be frank, I can’t think of a single “fundable” seed stage company I’ve met recently that was not planning a space demo in its seed round. Space startups have often claimed they need several funding rounds to get to revenue. No more. With the increased focus on revenue all startups are getting more creative on how they generate revenue early.
Finally, for the growth stage: downrounds. Understandably, CEOs avoided fundraising in 2022, working to minimize dilution. Most cannot afford to do so much longer, and the huge pressure on valuations will only increase as more and more companies are forced to return to market. This must be frustrating for many CEOs, who probably feel that they are receiving a worse valuation, even though their company has improved. Just remember: “Flat is the new up.” All your peers are under the same pressure. Reduced valuations just reflect the fact that capital is expensive right now. If a downround gets you the capital you need to grow your business, then it will be worth it.
Have Things Improved?
All in all, 2023 has been a surprisingly good year for space investing. More and more startups, the growth companies of 2026 and beyond are being founded. Restricted access to capital has increased the quality of those startups, right from foundation, which can only be good for them long-term. The partial return of growth investing should allow companies that have found product-market fit to scale. The virtuous cycle of higher quality companies attracting more investment while their less successful peers have their access to capital constrained will likely accelerate the establishment of market leaders. Markets that typically saw less investment are growing, which will increase competition globally. However, limited access to capital will certainly delay or even cancel some of the largest space projects: constellations, launchers, and infrastructure. How these get funded in an era of high interest rates remains to be seen. VS
Dr. Maureen Haverty is the vice president of Investment for Seraphim Space