German launch startup raises $17 million with help from Airbus Ventures and an ex-SpaceX employee

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WASHINGTON — Isar Aerospace, a German startup developing a small launch vehicle, has raised $17 million in a Series A round led by Airbus Ventures and Earlybird Venture Capital. 

Munich-based Isar Aerospace is developing Spectrum, a two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket designed to launch 1,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit. 

One of the company’s advisers and investors is Bulent Altan, the co-chief executive of German laser communications startup Mynaric who worked at SpaceX from 2004 to 2014 and returned in 2016 for two-year stint working on SpaceX’s Starlink broadband constellation.

Isar Aerospace’s Spectrum is one of the bigger small launch vehicles under development, similar to Firefly Aerospace’s Alpha, which debuts next year, and Relativity Space’s Terran 1, which has a first launch in early 2021. Though it just formed last year, Isar Aerospace says it is developing Spectrum at an “unmatched speed,” with a first launch anticipated in late 2021.  

“Space is becoming the new internet and its commercialization is in full swing,” Daniel Metzler, Isar Aerospace chief executive, said in a Dec. 10 news release. “This funding round enables us to progress substantially in our development of sustainable, environmentally-friendly launch vehicles and further deliver on our vision to make space access affordable for everyone.”

Isar Aerospace is one of around 150 small launch vehicles under development, to one degree or another, joining a frenzy of investment activity as companies seek business launching small satellites weighing tens or hundreds of kilograms. The company joins a growing number of German rocket ventures, which includes ArianeGroup-supplier OHB and HyImpulse Technologies, a 2018 spinoff from the DLR Institute of Space Propulsion. 

Like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, Isar Aerospace’s Spectrum rocket features a cluster of nine first-stage engines and a single vacuum-optimized, second-stage engine. The second stage can complete multiple burns to place satellites in different locations, eliminating the need for kick stages, the company says. 

In an interview, Metzler said Isar Aerospace likes the Falcon 9 engine configuration for its reliability, and that Spectrum, too, will be able to complete a mission even if one of its first-stage engines fails in flight. The second-stage engine will be capable of five reignitions to drop satellites off where needed, he said. 

Alten, who also invested in Isar Aerospace’s multi-million-euro seed round last year, said the launch startup has been successful in differentiating itself by “targeting the right segment with solid engineering.”

“As such this investment decision was an easy one to make,” he said.

Metzler said Spectrum rockets will be lightweight while having extremely high combustion pressures to stand out from other launchers. Isar Aerospace is targeting launch prices below 15,000 euros per kilogram, he said, with the eventual goal of reaching below $10,000 per kilogram, he said. 

Metzler said Isar Aerospace has selected a launch site in mainland Europe, and is in contact with several others to support missions needing different inclinations. Having a European launch site should give the company an advantage with European customers who want to avoid spending time and money exporting their spacecraft to other countries, he said. 

Metzler said Isar Aerospace would like to reach a launch rate of 15 per year, but can break even with just three to four. He said the company is open to making Spectrum’s first stage reusable, but is for now focused on an expendable design. 

Isar Aerospace’s $17 million Series A will fund the 30-person company through to a full-duration engine hot-fire, Metzler said, and will enable the startup to double in size in the coming months. He declined to say how much the company has raised to date. 

European tech investors Vito Ventures, UVC Partners and Apeiron Investment Group participated in Isar Aerospace’s seed round and $17 million Series A. 

Metzler and Isar Aerospace’s other co-founders, Josef Fleischmann and Markus Brandl, studied at the Technical University of Munich and have backgrounds in aerospace engineering. 

Mathieu Costes, Airbus Ventures partner, said the firm’s investment in Isar Aerospace is its first in Germany. 

“Together with our investment round co-leader Earlybird and under the continuing guidance of Bulent Altan, we’re pleased to help draw together the ecosystems of new space excellence in both Germany and in the wider Airbus universe,” he said. 

Airbus Ventures has invested in several other space startups, including Internet of Things startup Astrocast, communications payload startup Cesium Astro, space situational awareness company LeoLabs, and ground communications startup InfoStellar.   

Airbus Defence and Space also has a memorandum of understanding with Isar Aerospace for “multiple satellite constellation launches.”

Earlybird partner Hendrik Brandis said Isar Aerospace is the company’s first space sector investment.