Space companies face difficult investment environment

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WASHINGTON — Rising interest rates are making it more difficult for space startups to raise money, some warn, forcing them to seek alternative sources of funding.

A series of rate hikes by the Federal Reserve, intended to halt the post-pandemic spike in inflation, could have the side effect of driving funding out of risky venture investments, such as space, because of the higher rates offered elsewhere.

“We’ve just come off 15 years of a near-zero interest rate environment that encouraged risk taking,” said Jared Isaacman, the billionaire founder of payments company Shift4, during a Washington Post webinar Oct. 3. Isaacman is best known in the space industry for leading the Inspiration4 private astronaut mission on a Crew Dragon last year and backing the Polaris Program of private missions with SpaceX.

“A lot of industries and a lot of companies were formed that, in more challenging times, would never have been able to survive. That’s not exclusive to space,” he said. “The space industry received a lot of capital, and I am definitely concerned they don’t continue to receive it.”

He predicted that many space startups, as well as those in other technology sectors, will struggle to raise money. “A lot will go away, just like I think across tech and other industries. You’re going to see a lot of business failures as interest rates are now essentially going through the roof,” he said. “In that environment, you have to pick your battles as to where you deploy your capital from an investor’s perspective.”

In its latest quarterly report in July, Space Capital warned that the “macro environment” of higher interest rates and potential recession were having an impact on space investment. The number of deals and overall investment in the industry dropped by more than a third over the previous quarter, according to its assessment.

“While we believe the macro environment will continue to cause headwinds for some space companies, we do not believe that the space economy is at existential risk,” the report noted. However, “we expect the macro environment will disproportionately affect funding for capital-intensive Launch and Emerging Industries companies for the foreseeable future (1-3 years).”

Companies had, starting about two years ago, turned to mergers with special purpose acquisition corporations, or SPACs, as a means of raising money and going public. However, many of those deals failed to raise the expected funding as SPAC investors sought redemptions of their shares, and the companies themselves fared poorly on the market after going public.

Astra, a space launch company that went public through a SPAC merger in mid-2021, announced Oct. 7 it received a delisting warning from the Nasdaq exchange because its shares had traded at a price of below $1 for more than 30 days. Astra has 180 days to get the share price above $1 for at least 10 consecutive days. Astra shares closed at $0.52 Oct. 10, after trading as high as $13.58 in the last year.

Not every company is deterred from SPACs, though. Intuitive Machines, a company developing lunar landers and related technologies, announced Sept. 16 it would go public through a merger with Inflection Point Acquisition Corp., a SPAC on the Nasdaq.

“A SPAC is simply a mechanism to get into the public markets and we have a fantastic opportunity for retail investors, for the first time in history, to invest in space exploration,” argued Steve Altemus, chief executive of Intuitive Machines, during an Oct. 6 webinar by IPO-Edge. “Now, with going public, we have access to the capital we need to essentially fund our business plan moving forward and continue our growth.”

He acknowledged “some variability” in SPAC transactions, which depend on how much of the capital raised by the SPAC is redeemed by shareholders rather than retained in the merged company. Inflection Point has $330 million in cash in trust, plus $105 million in separate lines of capital from other investors. Altemus didn’t explain how the company’s plans would change depending on how much they raise.

“SPACs are still very much an option, but we have to recognize that the complexion of SPAC deals and the SPAC market has changed,” said Nick S. Dhesi, a partner at Latham & Watkins LLP, during the IPO-Edge webinar. “There’s a focus on real revenues and contracts, fully funded business models and paths to profitability.”

He predicted it would be difficult for companies to go public through a more traditional initial public offering through the rest of the year. For private funding, “you’re seeing structured products — preferred equity, convertible debt — and well as strategic investors starting to step in to look for more vertical integration in their business.”

There has been increasing use of debt alongside, or in place of, equity investment in businesses. SpinLaunch’s $71 million Series B round, announced Sept. 20, included a mix of debt and equity, but the company did not disclose the ratio of the two. Astroscale, a Tokyo-based in-space servicing and debris removal company, announced Sept. 30 it raised 5 billion yen ($34.3 million) through a three-year term loan agreement with MUFG Bank, Ltd., leveraging a credit guarantee program by the Japanese government.

Isaacman, despite his concerns about overall funding, said he felt some companies were in good shape. “That’s not to say that the world will just be SpaceX,” he said. “I think there’s a couple really good space companies that have been smart on their capital allocation, they bought other businesses, they diversified their revenue streams, they’re more vertically integrated. I think they’ll succeed.” He didn’t give any examples of such companies.

But, he warned, “A lot of the space industry won’t be able to cut it.”