Prime Movers Lab
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Prime Movers Lab

New Space by the Numbers

A breakdown of the 89 early-stage space startups we’ve screened this past year.

I’m extremely fortunate to be leading Prime Movers Lab’s investments in the space sector in partnership with an incredibly talented team of technical partners (Christie Iacomini, Liz Stein, and Bryan Bauw) and a deep bench of venture partners and advisors (Chris Hadfield, Bulent Altan, and others).

This is a sector that’s seen a tremendous amount of activity over the past 18 months, driven by what will likely be over a dozen space companies announcing exits this year. This is in stark contrast to over a decade with only two notable exits by Virgin Galactic and Skybox. While many new investors are inevitably going to be enticed to dip their toe into the w̶a̶t̶e̶r̶ vacuum, we’ve been one of the most active investors in space since the fund started. Some of our investments to date include Momentus (in-orbit services), Axiom Space (commercial space station), Space Perspective (space tourism) and Alpha Insights (Earth observation). In the midst of preparing a longer piece outlining our investment strategy in space, I thought it would be interesting to share a brief breakdown of what we’re seeing at the early stage.

Quick context on this dataset:

  • These are companies that we’ve screened over the past ~18 months.
  • They were generally at the Seed or Series A stage when we screened them.
  • This is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of new space. It is one viewpoint and also reflects our areas of interest.

Here are some high-level takeaways:

Launch

I wanted to start here because, as many have discussed, the massive decreases in launch costs are the largest enabling factor of the new space economy. This has of course been primarily driven by SpaceX which has pushed launch costs down an order of magnitude over the past 15 years. Today, we believe there are an unsustainable amount of companies pursuing launch, particularly on the small-lift launch segment (<2,000KG payloads). As a result, this is not an area where we are actively sourcing deals but we do review novel approaches, like launching rockets from balloons. The more exciting question for us is: now that’s it’s 10x cheaper to get payloads in orbit, what will be going up there?

Payloads

The largest payload category that we’re seeing right now is Earth observation. Startups are utilizing a wide variety of sensing modalities (optical, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), hyperspectral, near-IR, etc.) to collect and sell information about the Earth. These systems have been historically dominated by governments and their defense contractors, where the costs to build and deploy a single satellite could cost hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. Today, the combination of decreased launch costs, the proliferation of the CubeSats platform, and plummeting hardware costs allow a startup to launch a single system into low Earth orbit (LEO) for low single millions of dollars. As a result of these lower barriers to entry, you have dozens of new companies forming in this area right now.

However, the smaller form factors and lower altitudes used by these startups mean that they often need large constellations before they can offer a complete product to the customer. As a result, often my first question is: what’s your minimum viable constellation size and how are you going to raise enough money to get there? We’ve made one investment here thus far in an advanced SAR platform, Alpha Insights.

The other two payload areas that I want to highlight include one large legacy segment, space-based telecom, and one highly unproven segment, space-based manufacturing. Outside of launch, telecom has been the largest commercial segment of the space economy. That includes satellite internet for consumers and devices, ground station infrastructure, and new applications like LEO relay networks or optical hardware.

Meanwhile, you have a number of intrepid founders looking to take advantage of the unique materials that can be manufactured in micro-gravity like ZBLAN fiber or various life science applications like growing cell cultures in three dimensions.

In-Orbit Servicing

Finally, I want to touch on in-orbit servicing, which is a broad area that includes everything from moving satellites to their final destination, hosting payloads, removing orbital debris, repairing satellites, refueling satellites, etc. This is the “picks and shovels” segment of the space economy. This is where we’ve made our largest investment to date with Momentus. This is an exciting area for us as its success is agnostic to which applications ultimately end up proliferating.

To be clear, this is separate from in-space propulsion, where companies are building and selling propulsion systems that would be fixed onto satellites to replace legacy technologies like cold gas thrusters. These companies generally don’t create as much value as the servicing companies.

There’s a lot more to be said here but if you enjoyed this post, keep a lookout for additional space commentary that I’ll continue to share in future posts. In the meantime, I hope this provides some insight on where the next set of space unicorns will emerge over the coming 5–10 years.

Prime Movers Lab invests in breakthrough scientific startups founded by Prime Movers, the inventors who transform billions of lives. We invest in companies reinventing energy, transportation, infrastructure, manufacturing, human augmentation, and agriculture.

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