Space resources company co-founder sets sights on next wave of space startups

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WASHINGTON — A longtime space advocate is stepping away from the space resources company he helped found more than five years ago and now plans to help develop the next generation of space startups.

In a statement posted on the social network LinkedIn April 24, Rick Tumlinson said he was stepping down as chairman of the board of Deep Space Industries (DSI), a company he helped establish in 2012. He will remain involved with the company as chairman emeritus but will not be active on a day-to-day basis with DSI.

“After founding the company in 2012 with almost a dozen co-founders, I agreed to stay on for 2 years,” he wrote. “I stayed for five, and am thrilled to hand the reins to an excellent new Chair and Board.”

In an interview, Tumlinson said he’s leaving DSI on good terms, and with the company in good health. “The company is in a great place right now,” he said. “Things are just looking very bright, so it’s a good time to hand it off to others.”

DSI, based in Silicon Valley, announced April 17 raising a Series A round of more than $3.5 million from a group of private investors. It has won contracts for Comet, its smallsat thruster that uses water as propellant. That includes a deal announced April 3 to provide 20 Comet thrusters for LeoStella, the joint venture of Spaceflight Industries and Thales Alenia Space that is building the BlackSky constellation of imaging satellites.

DSI is also developing a high-thrust propulsion system called Meteor that uses green propellants and is intended to be competitive with hydrazine thrusters. In addition to selling those propulsion systems to other satellite developers, the company is incorporating them into its own smallsat bus, Xplorer, specifically designed for missions beyond Earth orbit.

Tumlinson said that, prior to leaving DSI, he worked to get the company through a restructuring and reorganization that paved the way to the recent funding round. “It was a really tough year,” he said. “We had a lot of work to do to get the company back on track.”

DSI announced its asteroid mining plans in early 2013, less than a year after another startup, Planetary Resources, said it had similar ambitions. Both companies, though, have found the path to riches from near Earth asteroids to be more difficult than first envisioned. Planetary Resources laid off some of its staff after it failed to close a funding round recently.

Tumlinson said NASA’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission, announced later in 2013, complicated fundraising efforts for DSI, since any NASA support for asteroid efforts would be linked to that mission. “In 2015, after the company had been around a couple of years, it became clear that it was going to be a bit more challenging than we thought to raise money and stay alive,” he said.

That led the company to develop a “terrestrial” revenue stream through the development and sale of smallsat systems, like the Comet and Meteor thrusters. The success of those products, and the recent funding round, have put DSI on firmer ground, he said.

DSI now has a new board, chaired by Guillermo Söhnlein, founder of the Space Angels Network. While DSI has found success as a smallsat developer, Tumlinson said that he believed the company would retain its long-term focus on asteroid mining.

“There will be over the next few years a very pragmatic focus on enabling technologies,” he said. However, he felt that many of the company’s employees were attracted to working there because they shared an interest in asteroid mining.

The use of water for the Comet thrusters, he notes, is tied to that goal, as water is likely one of the first resources to be extracted from asteroids, making spacecraft that use such thrusters potential customers for those resources. “It’s like getting people to adopt the internal combustion engine while you’re prospecting for oil.”

“I will do all I can, as chairman emeritus, to make sure the company says on track,” he said, adding that he believed DSI could send its first prospecting mission to an asteroid as soon as 2020.

Besides serving as DSI’s chairman emeritus, Tumlinson said he’s working to start a new fund, called Star Century Partners, to support early-stage space ventures. He said such a fund is important to demonstrate that space is open to more than companies backed by billionaire founders like Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos and SpaceX’s Elon Musk.

“Jeff and Elon are not sufficient alone to create a settlement-based economy,” he said. “They may be able to provide the major foundations of the ecosystem, but we need to enable hundreds or thousands of young, brilliant entrepreneurs to create all the other elements that go into an economy.”

The new fund is still in its early stages of development, he said, as he looked for both “vision-based” investors to back it as well as a team of advisers that can provide technical and financial support to startups. Tumlinson, who has been involved in space settlement advocacy efforts for decades, said he will also continue the New Worlds Institute, an organization he founded that runs an annual conference on the topic in Austin, Texas.

“I am proud to have helped create a field that simply did not exist before the space resources companies were born,” Tumlinson wrote of the space resources industry in his LinkedIn post. “Before us this was all science fiction. Now, for tens of millions of people around the world, it is an assumed part of the human future.”