Commerce Department seeks to encourage more space industry investment

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SANTA FE, N.M. — Even amid growing venture capital investment in space companies, the Commerce Department is making efforts to encourage more institutional investment into the industry.

In a speech earlier this month, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that improving financing and insurance for the space industry was one of the major priorities for the department’s efforts to grow the overall space economy.

“How do we get to the trillion-dollar space economy?” Ross said in a Dec. 6 speech at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce space industry event in Washington. “We must seize this moment.”

One of the ways to do so, he said, was to encourage “better financing and insurance” for the industry. “There continues to be strong and growing venture capital equity funding for the space industry,” he said. “But missing from space finance are the bigger institutions, especially banks. Their participation will be necessary to execute longer-term commercial plans.”

As part of those efforts, the Commerce Department convened an invitation-only space investment seminar Dec. 12 at its Washington headquarters, featuring representatives of both the space industry and the financial sector. One purpose of that event, Ross said in a media roundtable afterwards, was to identify obstacles to greater investment in space companies and how to overcome them.

Some financial firms, he said, have seen inquiries from pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and others interested in the industry. “There’s getting to be a broadening of interest in the idea of investment in space,” he said.

Ross said he wants to encourage that additional investment, which can tap pools of capital far larger than typically available from venture capital funds. “One of the things that interested me is that there really hasn’t been high-yield financing done yet for the space companies,” he said, such as bonds that carry higher interest rates. “That’s strange, because when you think about it, between equity and bank debt there’s a logical space that’s sort of in-between.”

One issue has been awareness about the industry and data developed to measure it. He said he was pleased that some major financial firms, such as Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, had research teams in place to cover the industry. “So, for the first time, we’re starting to see thoughtful analytical work coming out of the financial community on space,” he said. “That’s a big breakthrough, because institutions don’t invest in things they don’t know anything about.”

Commerce, through its Office of Space Commerce, could support those efforts by developing its own data on the industry, which is scant today. “It’s a very new field. It doesn’t have a lot of publicly quoted securities,” he said. “So the first thing is going to be an educational process.”

That effort, Ross said, could include development of “sensible metrics” about the industry. That work would be similar to the development of metrics by internet companies to measure the number of unique visitors to websites, he suggested.

“We think that there’s a real ignorance barrier that we need to help overcome in order to facilitate lending,” he said. “We need to come up with a group of metrics here so that people can figure out what they have to do to get to the next level of value.”