Seattle to Mars: Exploring Substance and Hype in a New Era of Space

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mine them for things people need in space—which is to say, everything—thereby greatly reducing the loads we have to lift into orbit and beyond with enormous, expensive rockets. It’s a grandiose vision, to be sure, but in the end, it amounts to a resources business, as simple and old as selling timber, or supplies to prospectors bound for the Klondike—and therefore familiar here.

“This city was built by resources… This city was built by the Yukon gold rush, fisheries, woodlands, ” Lewicki said of Seattle, which he deems an ideal place for building a new generation of space businesses.

The first target is water—for drinking, and perhaps more importantly, for rocket fuel. And the metals that Planetary Resources aims to mine from nearly 4,000 asteroids in orbit near Earth could be a key enabler of humanity’s evolution into a multi-planetary species. It costs $60 million a ton to lift something into orbit today, Lewicki said. Even if private space companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX reduce launch costs dramatically, Planetary Resources believes it will ultimately be far cheaper to capture resources in space and use them to manufacture and propel spacecraft.

The crowd at a Space Entrepreneurs in Kirkland, WA. Photo by Joe Follansbee / Space Entrepreneurs

The crowd at a Space Entrepreneurs MeetUp in Kirkland, WA. Photo by Joe Follansbee / Space Entrepreneurs

“The platinum apple that’s out at the end of this roadmap, and the perfection of the industry, is ultimately bringing the scarcest and most valuable things all the way back here to the surface of the planet,” he said.

In the meantime, new space companies have to create near-term value in the steps they take toward a long-term goal, he said.

Investment Opportunity

That’s particularly true for those companies attracting private investment—and the ranks of private space investors are growing.

“The best space-related companies are ones that are using the unique vantage point of space or the unique environment of space to provide a service that is needed now, and people are willing to pay for now,” said Joe Landon, chairman of the Space Angels Network, an angel investing group.

Joe Landon

Joe Landon

Examples include satellite imaging for a range of terrestrial applications from business intelligence to economic forecasting to mapmaking—the reason Google paid $500 million for Skybox Imaging. Locally, Spaceflight Inc. launched BlackSky Global earlier this year to provide rapidly refreshed satellite images to government and commercial customers.

Earlier this fall, about 20 members of the Space Angels Network visited companies in the Seattle area on the 9-year-old group’s second “Members Expedition.” The first expedition was to Southern California, Landon said. Seattle was the obvious next choice.

“Seattle reflects the industry at this point where you’ve got so many companies here, many of them newer companies that are looking for angel investment,” he said.

The network has about 70 members worldwide, mainly in the U.S. Half of the investors are people with space or aerospace experience, either as a founder of a company or investor, Landon said. “The other half, which is quickly overtaking that first group, is people who are successful investors and entrepreneurs—largely in other industries, primarily tech—who are really interested in space and want to be an investor,” he said.

The increased interest from investors is a reflection of both growing media and public interest in space, and “a real feeling in the industry that there’s opportunity to make money here as an investor,” Landon said. “SpaceX is a great example. The company went from nothing in 2002 to something like a $12 billion valuation right now. And the pace is quickening.”

San Francisco-based Planet Labs, founded in 2010, raised $118 million earlier this year at a valuation of $1.13 billion.

Of course, those are private valuations, perhaps a bit inflated by the aforementioned hype. Still, it’s great to see investors putting money behind something so big and transcendent, instead of just the next iOS app.

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