Space

To the moon and back: The top VC investors in space tech

July 18, 2019
As the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing approaches on July 20, there are some startups and investors dissatisfied with simply staying put in the confines of our big blue marble.

While the Russia-US space race is past its peak, a new space race is forming in the private sector that could potentially dwarf the accomplishments of that historic day in 1969. Powered by VC dollars, some well-known entities, such as SpaceX, are shooting for the stars with hopes of a potential landing on Mars. Various lesser-known startups, such as satellite imagery analytics provider Descartes Labs and satellite launch services provider Rocket Lab, are working to enhance life on Earth and support the missions of their peers.

With privately funded space exploration still in its relative infancy, only two VC investors have deal counts in the double digits, leaving plenty of room for both startups and investors to mutually rise up.

Here are the top 10 VC investors in space technology worldwide since the start of 2010, per PitchBook data (including multiple deals for the same company):
 

Topping the list, New York-based Space Angels has previously backed Kepler Communications, NanoRacks and SkyWatch, which provides components required for satellites and space research vessels. Seattle-based Hemisphere Ventures holds stakes in Akash Systems, LeoLabs and Planet, among others. Holding an estimated $2.2 billion valuation as of August 2017, San Francisco-based Planet provides satellite imagery and associated data analytics, which it says can be refreshed daily.

Perhaps owing to the lack of saturation in this industry, Hemisphere made the ranks while not exclusively focusing on space tech, unlike Space Angels, as opportunities such as biotech, robotics and consumer software also fill Hemisphere's portfolio. Both firms have invested in SpaceX, which is one of the most valuable VC-backed companies in the world and an outlier in this arena, with a massive and unmatched $33 billion valuation.

While these two firms lead the current list, investments in this rapidly evolving and youthful industry have generally been growing, with deal count rising steadily over the past decade, even as total value dropped last year, per PitchBook data:
 

Last year saw a record 83 deals banking a combined $1.5 billion, lower than 2017's $1.8 billion across 74 deals. So far, 2019's deal count is slowing, but capital invested is on pace to surpass $2 billion for the first time, due in no small part to SpaceX's fundraising spree.

Activity in Asia heats up

While North America leads the way with 49 VC-backed space tech deals in 2018, up from 46 in 2017, Asia is gaining steam. The continent was home to 14 deals in 2018, up from 10 in 2017 and double the seven seen in 2016. For comparison, Asia did not record any space tech deals between 2010 and 2013, according to PitchBook data.

India, China and Japan are the region's three leading producers of VC deals in space technology. Bangalore-based Devas and Mumbai-based Kawa Space are both focused on developing satellite communication technologies, coinciding with India's stated mission of launching its first manned space mission in 2022. En route to this goal is the scheduled launch of the Chandrayaan-2 rocket, set to take off from an island in the Bay of Bengal on Saturday's anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The rocket aims to explore the south pole of the moon, a difficult-to-chart area that some scientists speculate may have water.

Likewise, Beijing-based Spacety and Tokyo-based Axelspace are two additional Asian startups pursuing satellite technologies, among other notable examples.

While North America and Europe may be the world's central hubs for VC deals in space tech, the wonder of what's out there is universally human, creating global opportunities to pursue the extraterrestrial frontier.

Featured photo courtesy of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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