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Virgin Galactic rockets toward Wall Street with reverse merger

Virgin Galactic and tycoon Richard Branson are planning to take their promise of space tourism to the public markets—with a little help from Social Capital and founder Chamath Palihapitiya.

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Virgin Galactic and tycoon Richard Branson are planning to take their promise of space tourism to the public markets—with a little help from Social Capital and founder Chamath Palihapitiya.

A special-purpose acquisition company called Social Capital Hedosophia has agreed to purchase a stake of up to 49% in Virgin Galactic at an enterprise value of $1.5 billion, with Palihapitiya contributing $100 million and taking over as chairman of the newly combined entity. Social Capital Hedosophia will put about $800 million into the deal, according to The Wall Street Journal, a bet on Virgin Galactic’s ability to safely send earthlings into the stratosphere—and, of course, bring them back.

The company is one of three businesses founded by noted billionaires that are racing to achieve the same dream, joining Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. When it comes to financing their pursuit, the three are taking different paths. Blue Origin is reportedly funded almost entirely by Bezos himself, similar to how Branson and Virgin Galactic were handling things until this week’s reverse merger. SpaceX, meanwhile, has been raking in billions from VCs and was valued at an estimated $31.5 billion in May.

Virgin Galactic, though, may be the closest to making suborbital space tourism a reality. In February, the company completed a mission that sent a passenger into space for the first time: Beth Moses joined pilots Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci on a trip that climbed nearly 56 miles above the earth’s surface. It was the highpoint of the company’s ongoing recovery from a fatal accident during a test run more than four years ago that prompted serious questions about the company’s viability.

But now, Virgin Galactic claims to have already collected some $80 million in deposits from more than 600 prospective customers who have reserved slots once the company’s spaceplanes are fully approved. Last summer, The New Yorker published a thorough, thrilling report that delves much deeper into Virgin Galactic’s past.

The company’s future is now closely linked to Social Capital and Palihapitiya, who formed the data-driven firm in 2011 after making his fortune as an early executive at Facebook. The firm’s past year has been an interesting one, including an exodus of employees and a shift away from a traditional VC model toward operating as something more like a family office.

The Social Capital Hedosophia SPAC, though, predates that drama. The holding company completed its IPO back in September 2017, selling 69 million units for $10 apiece to raise a total of $690 million. It was created in tandem by Social Capital and Hedosophia, an under-the-radar VC based in London. At the time, the entity said it would use all that cash to pursue a deal that would create “an alternative path to a traditional IPO for disruptive and agile technology companies.”

Mission accomplished? For now. But the bigger missions are likely just beginning.

Featured image via Alexyz3d/iStock/Getty Images Plus

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    Written by Kevin Dowd

    Kevin Dowd wrote The Weekend Pitch newsletter for PitchBook, covering startups, buyouts and the rest of the private market.

    A native of the Pacific Northwest, he’s an alumnus of the University of Washington with a degree in creative writing and journalism. He enjoys books and basketball and, most especially, books about basketball. He feels uncomfortable writing about himself in the third person.

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