Varda Space Industries has raised a $ 42 million Series A to bring into manufacturing a key capability that can only be found outside of the world: microgravity.
The eight-month-old startup seeks to establish its first manufacturing facility in space beginning in 2023 and, in doing so, bring back to Earth advanced products that can only be manufactured in sustained periods of zero gravity.
The round was led by Khosla Ventures and Caffeinated Capital, with the participation of existing investors Lux Capital, General Catalyst and Founders Fund. It pushes the company’s total increase so far to more than $ 50 million, including a $ 9 million seed round the last December.
Varda’s idea is different from Jeff Bezos, who later said his own journey into space earlier this month that it wants to “move all heavy industry and all polluting industry off Earth.” The company’s co-founders, SpaceX veteran Will Bruey and Founders Fund director Delian Asparouhov, are not envisioning cement mixers and steel plants in orbit. Instead, they want to open manufacturing processes that are not possible on Earth, to make bioprinted organs, fiber optic cables or pharmaceutical products, products that require fundamentally different conditions than those available on the planet.
Building the space factory of the future
The value of microgravity fabrication, Bruey and Asparouhov say, can be found on the International Space Station, essentially a scientific outpost. A steady stream of research has emerged from the ISS over the past decades showing that novel materials and products are possible in space. But until now, getting to, staying, and returning from orbit has been too costly to consider scaling these findings.
“In a way, much of our R&D has already been done for us in the public sector, and we are essentially a ramp into commercializing that research that has already been proven,” Bruey told TechCrunch.
Right now, the company is building a three-module spacecraft comprised of a ready-to-use satellite platform, a central platform where microgravity fabrication will take place, and a reentry vehicle to bring materials back to Earth. During the first 10 launches, Bruey said that Varda would manufacture the products himself. Once the company has established that its process is reliable and cheap, he added that in the long term the goal is to become a contract manufacturing platform for other companies that want to build products in space.
Asparouhov compared it to the iPhone and the App Store: “The iPhone did not come out with the App Store. Apple developed the first 10 or 11 apps to share the value of that. So we are developing those first apps ourselves to show the value of this commercial capability that we are bringing to the market, but over time, we will start launching an app store. “
A key part of Varda’s plan is to automate all manufacturing. By keeping humans out of the picture (for now at least), the company can cut critical overhead by skipping the development of human-rated spacecraft (and the safety concerns associated with crewed launches).
“I think that what investors, NASA and the [Department of Defense], what I really see as exciting about our approach is that compared to everyone else who has ever discussed ‘space manufacturing’, we are by far the most pragmatic, commercially viable and short term approach, launching and producing materials in less than 18 months from now. , unlike plans that are normally five, ten or decades away from being viable, “said Asparouhov.
He added that one way to think about space manufacturing is that there is a dollar per unit of mass that Varda will need to spend to get things into microgravity, and a dollar per unit of mass value of manufacturing in microgravity. The key to profitability is finding the products that maximize the difference between these two equations. New pharmaceuticals, for example, could yield huge benefits if the benefits of zero-gravity innovation are commensurately high.
The company is envisioning “multiple missions” in 2023, Bruey said, then moving to one per quarter and even envisioning multiple reentry pods returning with products per day. Varda’s co-founders are convinced that the scale of demand for novel products manufactured in space is potentially high enough to meet this type of launch and re-entry program.
Compared to a burgeoning industry like space tourism, Bruey said space manufacturing has the potential to positively affect a much larger portion of humanity.
“It will touch many different parts of humanity’s experience here on Earth, with significant improvements in the quality of life,” he said.