Seattle Space Sector Ready for Its Close-up

The Seattle area’s commercial space businesses will showcase themselves and the region to the broader industry as the NewSpace conference kicks off here for the first time Tuesday.

More than 500 people are expected for the three-day event, put on by the Space Frontier Foundation, which will also be highlighting its new initiatives meant to support space-focused startup companies, including one to groom them for traditional startup accelerators.

The space entrepreneurs will be in town at the same time as DockerCon, a sold-out conference focused on server containerization technology, which runs at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, today and Tuesday.

The Space Frontier Foundation formed in 1988 with a mission to champion permanent human settlement in and utilization of space with free enterprise as the driving force. Now, it’s undertaking new initiatives under the leadership of executive director Hannah Kerner, who wants the organization to do more to support the nascent commercial space ecosystem, says Jeff Matthews, who joined the organization a year ago as director of venture strategy and research.

The biggest new effort, which will have its public debut at the conference taking place at the Motif Seattle hotel this week, is called NewSpace Ventures Labs. Matthews describes it as “a virtual accelerator… to empower new space enthusiasts, investors, and entrepreneurs to transform innovative ideas into launch ready ventures.”

There is no shortage of innovative ideas and technologies to fill market gaps in aerospace and the commercial space sector, he says. But the people behind them tend to be technologists and engineers first. “Too many of the entrepreneurs that we see [have] if-you-build-it-they-will-come go to market models, and that doesn’t work,” Matthews says.

Matthews says NewSpace Venture Labs, which will not charge businesses or take equity, will offer a limited set of services, including networking and guidance to help early-stage space entrepreneurs get the business aspects of their ventures in shape to apply to startup accelerators such as Techstars and Y Combinator. (Techstars Seattle’s latest class included Kepler Communications, which aims to improve satellite data links.)

Investors are showing an appetite for investments in new space companies. Some $1.8 billion in venture investment went to space companies in 2015, more than in the previous 15 years combined, a record level, according to the Tauri Group. Though it should be noted that Google and Fidelity’s $1 billion investment in SpaceX early last year accounted for more than half of that total.

Other Space Frontier Foundation efforts include research and publications on topics such as incentivizing creation of commercial space companies, and the evaluation of different regions around the U.S. for their potential as hubs for commercial space economic development. (The Washington legislature did not advance a proposed bill to extend aerospace tax preferences to the space industry.)

“San Francisco has been a great incubation hub for new space, and the early space companies in the last five to 10 years and we really appreciate their role, but they don’t have to be the only hub. The industry is large enough. The market needs are vast,” Matthews says.

Places like Houston, the Gulf Coast, and Florida that already have a significant NASA presence, including launch facilities, have obvious advantages. The Los Angeles area has its legacy of “old space” and aerospace heavyweights like Boeing, Northrup, and Lockheed, and SpaceX, a leader in the new era of commercial space activity, which opened a Seattle-area satellite office last year. “Yet there is still this challenge of even with all this infrastructure, how do you bring more of a new space cluster into the fold,” says Matthews, who is based in L.A.

Washington State Space Coalition

Washington State Space Coalition

Seattle is a leader among the emerging clusters, Matthews says, which is a big part of why the NewSpace conference is being held here for the first time. The local industry also helped itself, forming a coalition a few years back to elevate its presence locally and with the industry. Leaders of several local space companies began meeting with Alex Pietsch, formerly Gov. Jay Inslee’s point person on the aerospace industry. They reached out to the SFF with the idea of holding the NewSpace conference in Seattle, ideally in the summer when the city is at its most attractive—a boost for recruiting candidates to local space companies.

Speakers at the event include the leaders of many of the area’s space companies including Charles Beames, president of Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace; Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin, the Jeff Bezos-backed venture which staged a successful test of its New Shepard rocket ship on Sunday; Jason Andrews, CEO of Spaceflight Industries; and Chris Lewicki, president and CEO of Planetary Resources.

The conference—which has a distinct focus on the new commercial space business, in contrast to other major confabs that feature defense contractors and big government agencies—has been held in the Bay Area for its first nine years. The plan is to alternate between Seattle and San Jose in the future.

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