Electron ELaNa-19 launch
A Rocket Lab Electron carrying 13 cubesats lifts off Dec. 16 from the company's Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. Credit: Rocket Lab/Trevor Mahlmann

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Most investors believe that the growth in funding for space ventures will continue for the near future, despite some concerns about parts of the industry and a lack of returns.

During sessions of the SmallSat Symposium here, representatives of a number of venture capital (VC) and other financial firms that have made investments in smallsat and other space startups thought that money would continue to flow into such companies in 2019.

Mark Boggett, chief executive of Seraphim Capital, a VC firm focused on the space industry, noted that a recent report by his company measured a 30 percent growth in space investments in 2018, to $3.25 billion. “I think that momentum is only going to build,” he said during a Feb. 6 panel. “There are a whole range of activities going on this year, 2019, in space that is going to maintain that momentum in the market. I think the outlook looks positive.”

A separate finance panel at the conference Feb. 5 unanimously agreed that industry funding would increase in 2019. “It is my expectation that there will be a continued trend towards more investments at higher valuations,” particularly into “breakaway” companies in various market sectors, not just space, said Shahin Farshchi, a partner at Lux Capital.

Not everyone, though, is optimistic. “I think there is going to be a massive crash in [quarter] 3 or 4 later this year, so I’m encouraging all of my companies to take additional ‘dry powder’ or capital now to have the runway for at least the next two years, because next year it will be a lot more difficult to raise capital,” said Tess Hatch, an investor at Bessemer Venture Partners, during a finance workshop at the conference Feb. 4.

She said that crash would not be isolated to space but affect any company seeking funding from VC firms, as part of a general economic downturn. “Any venture-backed startup” will face problems, she predicted.

Other investors didn’t share that sentiment. “You shouldn’t be raising money because you fear that money is going to be scarce down the road,” said Farshchi, who noted that plenty of capital was available in the last recession. “If you are indeed building a great company, then I wouldn’t worry about not finding an investor.”

Mike Collett, managing partner of Promus Ventures, concurred. “We believe that, in another 12 to 18 months, the capital will be there. It’s not going anywhere,” he said. “Great companies will get funded always.”

Investors, though, did raise some issues for space startups. Farshchi said that while there is plenty of early-stage funding available for startups, and capital for large later-stage companies, those in the middle could get squeezed. “We’ll see a hollowing in the middle, what I like to call a dumbbell effect,” he said. “I expect those companies will have a very hard time raising money and will have to get very creative as it related to the types of investors they go after and the way they position themselves to attract financing.”

Another factor is the lack of so-called exits, where investors get a return on their investment through a sale of the company or an initial public offering of stock. There have been few large exits of space startups in recent years.

“There have been a lot of exits in space. They’re just not huge,” said Chris Boshuizen, operating partner at Data Collective VC, during a Feb. 6 panel. An example, he said, is the acquisition of a number of small Earth observation analytics startups by companies like BlackSky and Planet.

“I think the elephant in the room for NewSpace companies at the moment is that none of them are really showing strong revenue growth,” said Boggett. “There’s not going to be any good exits until they can demonstrate that their business model is working by revenue growth. I think it’s still a year or two away before we start to see that.”

Investors, though, may be patient enough to wait until those revenues appear. “The public markets are not operating like they used to,” said Collett, who noted that venture capital funds have much longer timelines than in the past. “Private companies will be around much longer now.”

Those investors will also be keeping an eye on existing companies as they scale up. An example discussed in one panel was broadband satellite company OneWeb, which will launch its first satellites later this month. Some worry that its failure, or setbacks to other large ventures, could jeopardize overall space investment.

“I do worry a little bit about a house of cards crumbling down,” Boshuizen said, particularly in areas like small launch vehicles. “I do worry that it’s all going to unravel at some point if one of these large enterprises doesn’t pan out.”

However, others said skepticism about the viability of such ventures might already be taken into account by investors. “Capital markets in general are built around psychology and expectations,” said Rob Coneybeer, managing director of Shasta Ventures. “I bet more than 50 percent of people who understand this industry think OneWeb isn’t going to work out. So, when you have that sort of sentiment, it’s sort of baked into expectations.”

Any problems with OneWeb or other large ventures are unlikely to influence investment in 2019, said Boggett. “I don’t really think this is a problem for this year. I think it’s going to be a problem for next year.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...