DFJ's Steve Jurvetson speaking at the EIE2017 conference in Scotland earlier this month. Credit: Steve Jurvetson/Flickr

LOS ANGELES — The Founder Institute plans to attract would-be space entrepreneurs to its worldwide network of incubators with generous financial incentives and mentorship from industry veterans.

“This is an international call for anyone working in space or passionate about space to launch a company,” said Adeo Ressi, co-founder and chief executive of the Founder Institute, a business incubator based in Palo Alto, California. “Our goal, which admittedly might be a bit of a stretch goal, is to have 500 new space and space-exploration companies launched by 2025.”

Since it was founded in 2009, Founder Institute has established operations in 180 cities and become one of the world’s largest incubators for technology startups, helping to establish nearly 3,000 companies. How many have been space-related? “Zero,” Ressi told SpaceNews.  “There is definitely a pipeline problem in space entrepreneurship today. We want to fix it with these incentives.”

Starting May 24, anyone interested in starting a space-related business can apply for the Founder Institute’s new Star Fellow Program, which Ressi and Steve Jurvetson, partner in the Menlo Park, California, venture capital firm DFJ, announced May 24 at the Founder Institute’s bi-annual FounderX event. For anyone accepted into the Star Fellow Program, the Founder Institute will waive the thousands of dollars in fees it usually charges for an intensive three-and-a-half-month curriculum designed to turn promising ideas into successful businesses.

Star Fellows will be paired with mentors including Will Marshall, Planet co-founder and chief executive, Bob Richards, Moon Express co-founder and chief executive, and Eric Anderson, co-founder of Space Adventures Ltd. and Planetary Resources.

The Institute will support Star Fellows once they graduate from the incubator. “We will continue to support you through your first funding, which could be nine to 12 months after graduation,” Ressi said. “The thought process is that entrepreneurship itself is very hard and space entrepreneurship is orders of magnitude harder because you have all the complexities of space itself and you have all the unusual market dynamics of the space industry. Making these companies successful is a longer and harder process that will take more than three-and-a-half months.”

In addition, Star Fellows will have an opportunity to present their business plans to venture capital firms including DFJ, an early backer of SpaceX and Planet, and a Star Fellow Program partner. “We will add more partners over time,” Ressi said.

Sean Casey, Silicon Valley Space Center cofounder and managing director, said the Star Fellow program is a positive step for the industry. “We want to see a lot of entrepreneurs with a lot of ideas and a lot of venture capital to build on the growing space industry supply chain being provided by companies like NanoRacks and Spaceflight.”

Ressi’s interest in promoting space exploration dates back to a trip he took in late 2000 with his University of Pennsylvania roommate Elon Musk. The two men were driving to New York from Ressi’s parents’ home in Long Island along a particularly dark stretch of the Long Island Expressway when they began to question why rocketry was so hard and why humanity was not focusing on space exploration. After the trip, Ressi joined the board of the X Prize Foundation and Musk founded SpaceX.

“A lot of the hopes I had for space exploration are starting to come true,” Ressi said. “I believe that within the next few years humanity will start exploring space again proactively. It’s an effort that was somewhat abandoned for a number of years and has been rekindled only recently.”

Ressi credits people like Marshall and Musk with helping to show the world that entrepreneurs can create viable entrepreneurial space businesses.

“But they can’t do it alone,” he said. “If we really are going to explore space as a species, we need massive innovation around life support, food production and materials. The amount of innovation needed is beyond the capacity of a small collective of innovators. We need a large collection of innovators.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...