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Made In Space parabolic flight
Made In Space, a space startup based in Silicon Valley, tests technology for a 3-D printer than can work in weightlessness during a parabolic aircraft flight in June. (credit: Made In Space)

The Silicon Valley of space could be Silicon Valley

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For nearly a decade, many have called the Mojave Air and Space Port the Silicon Valley of the entrepreneurial space, or NewSpace, industry, and understandably so. The spaceport is home to Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic’s The Spaceship Company, XCOR Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, Stratolaunch Systems, and others, filling the spaceport’s hangars and buildings to capacity. More recently, the Seattle area has tried to brand itself as a Silicon Valley for NewSpace, with a diverse set of companies ranging from Blue Origin to Planetary Resources.

“We're building this company not as a typical space company. We’re building it as a typical Silicon Valley startup,” Dunn said of Made In Space. “We can accept risk more, I think, than a typical aerospace company is used to.”

During that time, few considered Silicon Valley as an entrepreneurial space hub. The region remains best known as a hotbed of computer hardware, software, and Internet ventures, from Hewlett Packard and Apple to Google and Facebook. It’s a world-leading center of innovation, home to one of the densest concentrations of people working in technology, and a major source of venture funding. That reputation, though, has traditionally not extended to space.

The aerospace industry, to be certain, has had a presence in Silicon Valley for decades. Space Systems Loral (now owned by Canadian company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates) is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of commercial communications satellites, building them at its facilities in Palo Alto. Lockheed Martin Space Systems works primarily on government programs in Sunnyvale. And the Ames Research Center not only predates Silicon Valley, but NASA itself, having been established nearly three quarters of a century ago under the space agency’s predecessor, NACA.

What’s different this time around is that the space companies taking root in the region are looking less like the large, established aerospace companies—sometimes dubbed, at least somewhat pejoratively, as “OldSpace”—but more like the other entrepreneurial companies in the region. For example, there’s NanoSatisfi, a startup that, like so many others, is based in San Francisco’s South of Market, or SoMa, neighborhood, just up the street from the offices of game company Zynga. Inside the cramped offices a group of employees sit at workstations and lab benches, as if they were working on the next consumer gadget.

There’s no immediate evidence that NanoSatisfi is, in fact, a satellite company, developing CubeSat-class spacecraft that can be used on demand by customers for a wide variety of applications. That’s in part because the company’s first two satellites have already left their offices: “our babies are already in Japan for the launch in a couple of weeks,” explained NanoSatisfi CEO Peter Platzer last week; the satellites will be flown to the International Space Station (ISS) on a Japanese cargo spacecraft slated for launch in early August.

NanoSatisfi is not alone. Several blocks away, also in SoMa, Planet Labs has its offices, where its employees are working on a constellation of CubeSat-sized Earth imaging satellites that could be launched as soon as late this year. Down the 101 freeway in Mountain View, Skybox Imaging is also developing its own remote sensing smallsats, with the first planned for launch later this year (see “Smallsat constellations: the killer app?”, The Space Review, July 1, 2013). At the NASA Research Park on the Ames campus, Moon Express is working on commercial lunar landers, while Made In Space is developing a 3-D printer that can operate in weightnessless. In Sunnyvale, Space Propulsion Group (SPG) has built and tested a series of hybrid rocket motors and has partnered with Atlanta-based Generation Orbit to use them on an air launch system.

In the case of Made in Space, the company got its start as a project at Singularity University—also based at Ames—in 2010. Initially, said company co-founder and chief technologist Jason Dunn in an interview last week during the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2013 conference in San Jose, Made In Space planned to adapt a commercially available 3-D printer for use in space, but after a series of tests in weightnessless on parabolic flights, they found it was better to develop a new 3-D printer. “At the end of the day, you would be replacing almost every component” of a commercial printer, he said.

The company has developed a prototype of their first 3-D printer, which passed a series of tests on parabolic flights last month. The flight version of that printer is slated to launch to the ISS next year on the fifth SpaceX Dragon commercial resupply mission. A second printer will follow within a year to become a permanent part of the station.

“For ten years I was looking for space opportunities, and I never found a single business plan prior to SpaceX that I thought was worth bringing to the partnership,” Jurvetson said. “The economics made no sense.”

NASA is interested in the 3-D printer because it could be used to print spare parts on an as-needed basis, rather that launching and storing individual space parts there. Dunn estimates that his company’s printer could produce 30 percent of the spare parts needed for the ISS. The printer can also produce other items, like the structures for CubeSats that could then assembled and launched from ISS. Such a technology may also be essential for deep space exploration missions. Dunn added his company is looking at terrestrial applications of what is, in essence, a ruggedized 3-D printer.

Being located in Silicon Valley has been a key part of Made In Space’s success to date, Dunn said. “We're building this company not as a typical space company. We’re building it as a typical Silicon Valley startup,” he said. That includes, he said, a willingness to take risks. “The Silicon Valley mindset is, ‘Fail early, fail often, iterate.’ We can accept risk more, I think, than a typical aerospace company is used to.”

The region’s deep pool of talent has also helped the company. “We put out a craigslist ad for a mechanical engineer, and we had to sort through something like 900 applicants, and they’re all amazing,” he said. “Maybe you can find that elsewhere, but certainly you can find that here.”

NASA has, directly and indirectly, helped foster the growth of this cluster of space startups in Silicon Valley. Ames, for example, has been a nexus of activity in the area of small satellites; Planet Labs’s three co-founders, for example, all previously worked at the center. Asked what factors had helped support this hub of space activity in the region, NanoSatisfi’s Platzer said, “NASA and Pete and the access to financing,” the second item referring to Ames center director Pete Worden, who has supported smallsat development.

That last item, though—access to the volumes of venture capital (VC) available in Silicon Valley—may be the biggest factor. Winning over VC firms has been a long-standing challenge for many NewSpace companies, who have traditionally relied on either wealthy backers or smaller angel investors for funding. And some of these companies have had success raising money from Silicon Valley-based VCs: Planet Labs and Skybox Imaging have, combined, raised more than $100 million from several VC firms.

The venture capitalist who is perhaps the friendliest to entrepreneurial space efforts is Steve Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ), one of the largest VC firms in Silicon Valley. “For ten years I was looking for space opportunities, and I never found a single business plan prior to SpaceX that I thought was worth bringing to the partnership,” he said in a luncheon speech Friday at the NewSpace conference. “The economics made no sense.”

DFJ did invest in SpaceX back in 2009 (and has also invested in Tesla, the electric car company that, like SpaceX, is led by Elon Musk.) Jurvetson has become a major supporter of the company, extolling its virtues at conferences like NewSpace, where he showed a previously-unreleased video of SpaceX’s latest flight of its Grasshopper reusable launch vehicle technology demonstrator. “I’m just so proud of what they’ve been able to do,” he said.

“It’s not aerospace engineers who are the bottleneck: you need good people, but the rate-limiting factor for the modern versions of all these businesses is software,” said Jurvetson.

While SpaceX isn’t based in Silicon Valley, DFJ has more recently invested in Planet Labs, participating in that company’s initial, or Series A, $13.1-million round. Jurvetson sees it as a prime example of a shift in aerospace and other businesses from a hardware-centric to software-centric emphasis, allowing rapid iteration and innovation for far less money. “They weren’t software businesses at their core,” he said. “That’s why we’re excited by these new businesses that formerly felt like hardware businesses, with all the unattractive economics a hardware business has. It’s really a software business now.”

That shift plays right into Silicon Valley’s strengths, he said in an interview after his speech. “The extent to which the basis for competition moves to IT, software-like things, you’ve got a great pool of software talent” in Silicon Valley, he said. “It’s not aerospace engineers who are the bottleneck: you need good people, but the rate-limiting factor for the modern versions of all these businesses is software.”

The entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley in general also plays a role in this surge of space-related companies, he said. And access to venture capital? “Luckily I don’t think of that first,” he joked. Having VC firms located in the same region as startups, he said, allows the VCs to help their portfolio companies more easily than those that are outside the region in terms of recruiting and team-building, he said.

Certainly there are parts of the space industry that still have a strong hardware focus will find homes outside of Silicon Valley, particularly given the challenges of doing large-scale hardware development and testing in the region: Jurvetson notes that suborbital launch vehicle development “has been the most geographically dispersed of any of the categories I’ve seen” in entrepreneurial space, with companies existing around the US and overseas as well. (In the case of SPG, the company has its offices in Sunnyvale but tests its large hybrid rocket motors at a site in Montana.) For those companies that are focused on the software-centric advances that Jurvetson and others find so compelling, though, Silicon Valley could become the industry’s next, well, Silicon Valley.