As Rockets Deliver, Satellite Startups See An Explosion Of Interest From VCs

The voids of space are no longer the sovereign territory of ambitious governments with political points to prove. It’s now popular amongst small cadre of tech billionaires around the globe to regularly blast rockets into space.

But delivering matter, specifically satellites, to the upper bounds of our atmosphere remains wildly expensive. However, the promise of lower launch costs, improved tech, and standardization in satellite technology is attracting entrepreneurs with high-flying ambitions and VCs with funds to match.

Deals Are On The Rise

Satellite startups fall under a myriad of niches. Many of them do not directly launch their own satellites into space. Instead, some startups in the sector attempt to improve satellite hardware, facilitate launches, gather data (such as highly accurate weather reports), or offer new services (such as increased Internet connectivity).

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Crunchbase categorizes this array of startups under the satellite comms category. Using this data, we charted the pace of known investments into U.S.-headquartered satellite startups. As you can see in the chart below, interest from investors into the satellite space industry stayed tepid for over a decade.

However, investment in satellite startups began to lift in 2013— a year that belonged to Kymeta in terms of funding.

The Redmond, Washington-based startup, founded in 2012, raised a $50 million Series C to develop antennas that, according to the company’s website, deliver Internet connectivity to your car, a boat, and even planes. Since 2013, the company has gone on to raise even more impressive sums. It announced a $62 million Series D at the start of 2016, and it announced a little under $74 million as of this year. Today, Kymeta’s total funding sits just under $218 million.

However, while Kymeta has drawn large sums of money, it isn’t the only satellite-focused startup that has attracted notable amounts of investor funds. The largest round in the space belongs to OneWeb and its $500 million Series A. The startup, which offers high-speed Internet in times of natural crisis, received its investment from phone chip maker Qualcomm and funding behemoth Softbank.

But it’s only been in the past two years that dealmaking in satellite space startups have, if you’ll forgive me, achieved lift-off.

Up, Up, And Away

Of the 56 known deals Crunchbase has tracked in the satellite sector, 41 percent of those deals have been made in both 2016 and 2017 year to date. And it’s not because VCs are suddenly feeling as emboldened as Elon Musk. According to Alexander Greenberg, head of operations at Loft Orbital Solutions, the economics are simply making more sense.

“Moore’s law is driving evolution in the satellite space the same way it drove computing to evolve from mainframes to PCs to smartphones,“ Greenberg told Crunchbase News. “Size and cost decline while capability increases.”

Yet cost declines do not negate the difficulties these startups face. Launching satellites into space, Greenberg explained, “is still the biggest bottleneck for satellite companies that want to get their asset into space.”

However, the realities of funding a hardware or software startup in the satellite sector can also put off investors looking for hockey-stick growth.

“The biggest hurdle was distinguishing from the investors who truly want to look at space tech companies, and those that we jokingly referred to as ‘space tourists’,” wrote Greenberg to Crunchbase News. “A lot of investors see ‘space’ and think ‘capex intensive, risky hardware projects that will never be profitable.’ We had to loudly defend ourselves and show investors we aren’t [hardware].”

Yet this resistance to funding satellite startups could lessen as the industry becomes more commoditized.

“The trend impacting the industry that VCs haven’t fully appreciated yet, however, is that satellite manufacturers are increasingly standardizing these satellites, and manufacturing them in large quantities,” said Greenberg.

And it’s this commodification that could explain an uptick in seed-stage deals in the industry. Since 2016, a little over a quarter of known deals are seed stage, with an average round size nearing $2 million.

These startup’s include Greenberg’s Loft Orbital, which raised a $3.2 million round announced just a few days ago, Boston-based Analytical Space, pulling in $3.6 million, and RBC Signals, with a more modest haul of $1.5 million.

It’s Still A Long Way Up

While the uptick in seed-stage dealmaking lays a path for late-stage dealmaking, it’s far from guaranteed that startups in the space will reach the heights of prosperity, accessibility, and investment we’ve seen in desktop, mobile, and cloud computing.

However, ambitions to do so appear to be increasing. And if these startups and their investors are right, they’ve tapped into an industry that could fill space with profit—a welcome result for all parties involved.

iStockPhoto / monsitj

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