A New Shepard booster comes to a rest Jan. 23 in West Texas after carrying its capsule and eight NASA experimental payloads to a peak altitude of 106.9 kilometers. It was the capsule and booster’s fourth mission and the 10th test flight overall for the New Shepard program since 2015. Credit: Blue Origin

COLORADO SPRINGS — Investment into space companies hit a record high in 2018, exceeding $3 billion with no sign of an imminent downturn, according to a new report by a consulting firm.

The “Start-Up Space” report, published April 9 by Bryce Space and Technology, found that various types of investment into space companies, from venture capital to debt financing, totaled $3.23 billion in 2018. That tops the $3.03 billion invested in space companies in 2016, and $680 million more than in 2017.

That total came without a single deal larger than $1 billion. The Bryce report estimates the largest single deal last year was $750 million invested in Blue Origin by its founder, billionaire Jeff Bezos. There were also three separate late-stage investments in SpaceX that the report estimates to be worth more than $200 million each.

“2018 was the biggest year yet, and it’s really interesting because there were no billion-dollar deals,” said Carissa Christensen, chief executive of Bryce, in an interview. “This was a lot of more diversified investment.”

Bryce Start-Up Report Blue Origin grpahicVenture capital investment alone grew by 22 percent in 2018 to $2 billion, she noted. “Those are the investors that are looking for financial return,” she said, as opposed to those who invest for broader strategic reasons or have other non-financial motivations.

That growth is a positive sign for the industry, she said, because these investors are convinced by the business cases of these startups despite the limited number of companies in the sector that have provided a return to their investors. “There are a lot more VCs in the game, including many new investors to space,” she said.

Another significant trend, she said, is the growth in the number of investors from outside the United States. While the majority of seed and venture funding in 2018 came from American investors, nearly half of the investors are from outside the United States, led by Britain and China.

The was little in the way of acquisitions of space companies in 2018. The Bryce report found eight such acquisitions with a total value of roughly $100 million. The lack of such deals, or other exits for investors, have led some to worry that the space industry is in a bubble that could burst in the near future, drying up investment.

Christensen said current investors are far more risk tolerant than those of two decades ago who stopped investing in the industry after companies like Globalstar and Iridium filed for bankruptcy protection, wiping out their stakes.

“The risk now is similar to the risk that Iridium faced” in terms of market uncertainty around new markets, she said. “But the investors now are aligned with that risk, whereas the corporate and equity investors in Iridium were not.”

Current investors, she believes, won’t panic when startups inevitably fail. “When we start seeing failures, which we will, the venture and the advocacy-oriented billionaire ecosystem will not react in the same way,” she said.

The Bryce report, while not giving specific estimates for projected investment in 2019, concluded that investment will continue to grow in 2019, driven in large part by the development of so-called megaconstellations of broadband satellites by companies like OneWeb, SpaceX and Telesat. OneWeb announced March 18 it closed a $1.25 billion funding round, increasing the total it has raised to date to $3.4 billion.

Recent reports that Amazon is planning its own satellite constellation may also drive investment. “Those business cases are not yet proven,” she said of megaconstellations, “but you look at them through a different lens when a company like Amazon enters the playing field.”  

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...