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Space startups get a go for funding

After the success of nimble companies like as rocket- and capsule-maker SpaceX and Earth-imaging firm Planet, investors are starting to see aerospace startups as viable ventures. But it’s still unclear whether these young firms can work with big, established players such as Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., or deliver the kind of quick returns that some investors expect.

Last month, a few of aerospace startups gathered in El Segundo, Calif., to pitch their ideas to a room of investors and space aficionados at an event co-hosted by Aerospace Corp. and incubator Starburst Accelerator.

Some startups said large aerospace companies or investors expressed interest in their proposals; those talks are in early stages.

For successful space entrepreneurs with good ideas, “there is more and more money,” said Francois Chopard, chief executive of Paris-based Starburst Accelerator. In the year since its founding, the incubator has worked with more than 150 startups and hosted events in cities such as Berlin, Montreal and Seattle. Starburst Accelerator also has a consulting arm, a venture fund and offices in Los Angeles, Singapore and Munich, Germany.

In one month, college friends Deepak Atyam and Alex Finch will graduate from Purdue University armed with master’s degrees in aerospace engineering and ready to change the dynamics of building rocket engines.

The two are co-founders of Tri-D Dynamics, a Cerritos startup that has developed technology and processes that improve on advanced 3-D printing methods for metalworking. Tri-D Dynamics plans to use them to churn out rocket engines of any size in a kind of automated assembly-line process to possibly shave months from the usual production process.

As a University of California, San Diego, undergraduate, Atyam led a student group in developing a 3-D printed rocket engine. Its test firing in the Mojave Desert was financed with money from NASA and $2,000 the group made by selling barbecued chicken. Two years later, Atyam and Finch followed that up with a test-firing of a second-generation engine that was about three times larger, with greater thrust.

The four-person firm already has a contract to produce a rocket engine by early 2018 for a small-satellite launch vehicle company it declined to name. And it has letters of intent from several small companies. Atyam and Finch estimate they have invested a total of $25,000 of their own money in Tri-D Dynamics. They’re looking for a $1 million seed round this year.

“It’s really important to find the right investor who knows exactly what to expect and what’s needed to go into creating the products and services necessary to serve this industry,” Finch said. “That payoff is going to come, but it may not be the two to three years they may have expected from an app or a software company.”

Scott Montgomerie knew his startup was on to something when large crowds gathered to watch a demonstration of its augmented reality training program at a 2012 mining industry conference.

The Scope AR team showed how a worker wearing special glasses could watch computer-generated animations overlaid on a real-world mining truck fuse box to learn how to make repairs.

But when the San Francisco firm started looking for funding in 2015, it was a tough sell since augmented reality wasn’t yet a mainstream concept, said Montgomerie, the company’s chief executive.

That year, Scope AR was accepted into Silicon Valley tech incubator Y Combinator and later raised $2 million in a seed funding round.

The company’s two technological platforms — one for remote assistance and another that enables companies to make “smart instructions” for assembly workers — have been used by Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, NASA and Boeing.

Scope AR’s technology helps assembly-floor technicians avoid paper instructions by using a more interactive approach. Workers can use a tablet, phone or specialized glasses to see 3-D animations superimposed on real-world parts or vehicles that explain assembly or repair steps.

“We’re seeing some real value in terms of business applications,” Montgomerie said. “People see the future.”

Seven years from now, Firmamentum hopes to operate 27 “cellphone towers in space” that would beam cheaper broadband Internet service directly to consumers’ smartphones.

The company plans to manufacture its satellite antennas in space using technology similar to 3-D printing. Several antennas would be attached robotically to a satellite to increase the amount of data it could transmit for customers, company CEO Rob Hoyt said.

Currently, large space antennas are built on the ground and designed to fold up like giant umbrellas to fit inside a rocket. Firmamentum’s antennas — which would look like bigger versions of earthbound satellite dishes — won’t be limited by the rocket’s cargo space. And its process could eventually allow for mass, low-cost antenna production in space — a technology that could be sold to satellite makers, Hoyt said.

The idea gained more traction around 2008 after 3-D printing became more popular in the consumer market, he said. From there, the company figured the technology could be used to make large antennas for a widespread broadband service.

Firmamentum was created about two years ago as a division of Tethers Unlimited, a Bothell, Wash., company that’s been making satellite components for 23 years.

So far, Firmamentum’s funding has come mostly from government research and development contracts such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Venture capitalists and other possible investors, however, are holding back for now, convinced the company is too early in the production process to seek funding, Hoyt said.

“The timeline for getting new technologies developed, proven and on the market in the space industry is much longer than in many other industries,” he said. “Hopefully at some point … the risk-benefit story will make sense for them to work with us.”

When Peter Beck arrived in Silicon Valley in 2013, he gave himself three weeks to secure funding for his small-satellite launch vehicle startup, Rocket Lab.

Instead of blanketing area investors with meeting requests, the New Zealand native focused on a select few venture capital firms that were knowledgeable about space. The decision paid off. Rocket Lab secured A-round funding from Khosla Ventures, a firm that previously had invested in Skybox Imaging, which launched small satellites to capture images of Earth.

Since then, the Huntington Beach company has raised $148 million, including a $75 million Series D round led by venture capital fund Data Collective. (Rocket Lab did not attend the El Segundo pitch event.)

Rocket Lab plans to give small satellites a dedicated ride to space, unlike the usual method of “piggybacking” on launches with larger satellites. That gives customers a more precise launch window and an ability to position the satellite more precisely. The firm has completed construction of its launch pad in New Zealand.

The first test flight of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is planned for sometime in the next couple of months. Rocket Lab has contracts with NASA and Planet to launch small satellites.

Beck said space is “on the tipping point” of being a more commercial domain, meaning his pitches to investors boil down to the impending normality of conducting business in orbit.

“The way I describe Rocket Lab to investors is, yes, there’s fire and there’s rockets,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we’re a glorified freight company.”


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