Vector-R launch
The second Vector-R rocket lifts off on a low-altitude test flight from a site in Camden County, Georgia, Aug. 3. Credit: Vector

WASHINGTON — Vector, one of dozens of ventures developing small launch vehicles to serve perceived high demand for small satellite launches, announced Oct. 19 that it closed a $70 million Series B round to move into full operations.

The Tucson, Arizona-based company said Kodem Growth Partners led the funding round, along with Morgan Stanley Alternative Investment Partners and three earlier investors, Sequoia Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Shasta Ventures.

“Vector is entering an extremely important phase of our journey, transitioning from a focus on research and development to flight operations and profitability,” Jim Cantrell, chief executive of Vector, said in a statement. “This Series B financing is a critical element in Vector’s mission to improve access to space and become a dominant launch provider to the small satellite industry.”

In an emailed response to questions, Shaun Coleman, chief sales and marketing officer at Vector, said the funding will be used to support the company as it shifts into operations. That includes bringing its first launch vehicle, the Vector-R, into service as well as continuing development of a larger vehicle, the Vector-H, slated to make its debut in 2019. The funding will also be used to expand the company’s sales, business development and marketing teams, he said.

Part of that work includes building what the company describes as a “state-of-the-art” factory in Tucson for producing its rockets. With the funding in place, Coleman said Vector will break ground on the factory later this year.

The first Vector-R orbital launch attempt is planned for before the end of the year from Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska. Coleman said the payload for that flight is confidential.

Vector had been planning a suborbital test launch earlier this month from the Mojave Desert in California, but postponed it because of technical problems. “The recent Mojave test campaign proved out several key elements of our concept of operations,” Coleman said, such as testing remote operations and a new transporter and erector. “We are evaluating the results of our test and working with launch ranges to schedule an additional suborbital test prior to our launch in Alaska later this year.”

Kodem Growth Partners, the lead investor in the Series B round, identifies itself as a New York-based investment and commercialization firm “organized to scale technology enabled businesses with capital and access to decision makers” in the public and private sectors. Its investment in Vector is one of the few it has publicly acknowledged.

Morgan Stanley Alternative Investment Partners is a division of Morgan Stanley that makes private equity and other investments. It raised a $425 million fund in January for what it described as “a diversified portfolio of direct co-investment opportunities” alongside other private equity funds. Vector is the first space company it has revealed an investment in.

Vector previously raised a $21 million Series A round in June 2017 and a $4.5 million bridge round in April 2017. The company has now raised a total of about $100 million to date, making it one of the best-funded small launch vehicle startups in the industry. Rocket Lab has raised nearly $150 million for its Electron small launch vehicle, which reached orbit on its second launch in January.

Rocket Lab, Vector and others are seeking to offer dedicated launches for small satellites at a rapid cadence and low cost. “Low Earth orbit satellite launches are projected to grow nearly four times in the next four years, but no dedicated launch platform exists with robust capability to get small satellites into space,” said Alex Taussig, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, in the statement.

Vector has plenty of company trying to provide such a launch platform. A study published at the Conference on Small Satellites at Utah State University in August found more than 100 projects that are, or had been, working on small launch vehicles in the last few years, including 34 in active development.

Some of those ventures have already failed, with the expectation more will follow. “There’s a lot of noise in the system right now,” said Dan Hart, president and chief executive of Virgin Orbit, during a panel discussion in September at the World Satellite Business Week in Paris. He anticipated a shakeout of small launch vehicle ventures “happening over the next year to 18 months.”

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...