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Billion Dollar Unicorn: Rocket Lab Launches into the Unicorn Club

Posted on Friday, Sep 15th 2017

According to a report by the Space Foundation, the global space market was worth $329 billion in 2016 with commercial space activities accounting for 76% of the spend. Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab is a new entrant to the Billion Dollar Unicorn club within the space industry.

Rocket Lab’s Offerings

Rocket Lab was founded in 2006 by New Zealander Peter Beck, an acclaimed scientist and engineer. He set up Rocket Lab with a mission to remove the barriers to commercial space by providing frequent launch opportunities to low Earth orbit. Since its inception, the company has delivered a range of complete rocket systems and technologies for fast and affordable payload deployment.

Rocket Lab is focused on improving commercial launch capabilities for satellite launches. In 2009, it developed and launched Atea 1, the first rocket to reach space from the Southern Hemisphere. As the demand for satellite launches increased, it focused on the development of the Electron. Electron is its two-stage launch vehicle that uses proprietary 3D printed Rutherford engines on both stages to deliver payloads of 150 kilograms to a 500 km Sun-synchronous orbit for a projected cost of less than $5 million per launch. Compare that with the $132 million average price tag of a space launch in the US.

Here is an interesting infographic, courtesy the SpaceNews Magazine, that shows the rapid growth of micro/nano satellite launches globally.

Most rocket technology is still based on sending big payloads into space. Smaller satellite launches thus must be clubbed with bigger payloads before they can be launched. Electron aims to deliver these smaller payloads into orbit at a fast rate. Rocket Lab wants to mass produce these rockets and use its launch facility in New Zealand to launch as many as a rocket a week. In fact, it has secured licenses to launch every 72 hours for the next 30 years. Launches of that frequency would make New Zealand the nation with the highest frequency of space launches anywhere in the world.

Rocket Lab has already lined up 30 launches with customers like NASA, Planet, and Moon Express to use its rocket launching capabilities.

Rocket Lab’s Test Launch

The market and Rocket Lab were eagerly waiting for the test launch of its first Electron rocket. Unfortunately, things did not go as well as planned. Four minutes into the launch, the vehicle lost contact with the ground equipment, which led the officials to stop the flight. It appears that the loss of communication was due to a misconfigured communication equipment. It is hopeful that it will turn around and deliver a successful launch in the near future.

Rocket Lab’s Financials

Rocket Lab does not disclose its financials. It has raised $210 million in funding so far with investments from Bessemer Venture Partners, Data Collective, Khosla Ventures, and Promus Ventures. Its last funding round was held earlier this March when it raised $105 million at a valuation of over $1 billion. Rocket Lab plans to use these funds for the construction of a series of Electron rockets.

Rocket Lab is not the only company in the micro-satellite launch space. Other companies like Firefly Space Systems and Swiss Space Systems have been working on a similar objective, but have failed so far. Swiss Space filed for bankruptcy and Firefly Space announced the sale of all its assets at an auction due to an intellectual property lawsuit. It would still need to worry about Vector, founded by SpaceX alumni –  Jim Cantrell and John Garvey, which recently successfully launched a test rocket from Georgia’s Spaceport Camden earlier last month.

More investigation and analysis of Unicorn companies can be found in my latest Entrepreneur Journeys book, Billion Dollar Unicorns. The term Unicorn was coined in a TechCrunch article by Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures.

This segment is a part in the series : Billion Dollar Unicorn

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