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Space entrepreneurs launch ideas at investors

Rocket racers and other concepts are received as mere flights of fancy.

December 10, 2007|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE — Peter Diamandis, the diminutive spiritual leader of a new generation of rocketeers determined to turn space into a paying business, held up a thick wallet.

"Did anybody lose this?"

The roomful of dreamers laughed appreciatively.

Money -- the lack of it and desire for more of it -- drew scores of rocket entrepreneurs last week to the Space Investment Summit, one of the first business events in the budding field of private commercial space travel.

Attendees pitched such equipment as new spacesuits, inflatable launch vehicles and NASCAR-styled rocket racers to an admittedly modest -- and skeptical -- group of venture capitalists.

What they were all hoping for is a replay of the Netscape Moment, that point when investors began throwing billions of dollars into the newfangled contraption called the Internet.

The rocketeers who gathered for the two-day event at the Dolce Hayes Mansion were confident their Sputnik Moment was near, believing it's just a matter of time before venture capital billionaires realize that space is not just a place, but also a cash register.

"We are living in a different time and age now," said Diamandis, head of the X Prize Foundation, which funded the $10-million prize that went to the first private manned craft launched into space three years ago. "For the first time ever the ability to build and operate space systems is in the hands of small companies."

Judging by the grim looks on the faces of investors at the event, the Sputnik Moment is still a long way off.

Remigius Shatas, a partner in RNR Ventures in Huntsville, Ala., said he had invested as much as $10 million in the space business and had yet to make money.

"Maybe the killer app hasn't been invented yet," he said.

Bob Werb, chairman of the board of the New York-based Space Frontier Foundation, conveyed advice from Walt Anderson, one of the largest and most colorful investors in new space businesses.

Anderson couldn't appear because he was in a federal jail cell, serving a sentence for tax evasion.

"Do not invest in miracles," Anderson warned. "Do not buy excuses and failures. Do not let your enthusiasm for space confuse your enthusiasm for a particular company."

There was no shortage of ideas.

Digital Solid State Propulsion, a 2-year-old Reno company, pitched its concept of electrically controllable rocket propellant.

"There's no moving parts, which means fewer accidents," founder Wayne Sawka said.

Jeff Feige, chief executive of Los Angeles-based Orbital Outfitters Inc., pitched a safety suit for suborbital passengers, like those on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic spaceline.

"If you're going to fly in space, you're going to need a spacesuit," Feige said.

John Mankins, chief operating officer of Managed Energy Technologies in Virginia, was seeking support for an idea to create a network of space-based solar power satellites that could supply consumers on Earth.

A power-receiving station on the ground, covering "an area the size of Long Beach Airport . . . could supply gigawatts to the city of Los Angeles," he said.

Such blue-sky imaginings drove investor Shubber Ali crazy.

"They're smoking crack," said Ali, a director of Dallas-based George Group Consulting.

He mentioned one popular idea in the space community, to mine an asteroid for its resources, specifically platinum.

Even if it could be done, "when you increase supply, the price drops through the floor," Ali said. "There's no such thing as a trillion-dollar asteroid."

Those who talked about building cheaper rockets to launch satellites were likewise off-base. Satellite factories are already underutilized, he said.

The real money to be made may be in providing services to consumers.

The general public doesn't care about space, Ali said. What they care about is how many channels they can get by satellite TV.

An example of a good space business, he said, is a ski company he had researched that makes global positioning system tags for skiers so they can be located if lost.

"Everybody loves to talk rockets," Ali said. "But the money's in services. . . . I don't know why they invite me to these things."

But for David King, the romance of space is what it's all about. If it's just another business, where's the fun?

"I saw 'Star Trek' when I was a youngster and I wanted to be Mr. Spock," said King, a former engineer for network equipment maker Cisco Systems Inc. who was pitching inflatable launch vehicles.

Just think of inventor Guglielmo Marconi. "When he was trying to build the first radio station, venture capitalists of that era said why broadcast a radio signal to no one in particular?"

Lee Valentine, executive vice president of the Space Studies Institute in Princeton, N.J., agreed that venture capital was still sitting on the sidelines.

"It may take a big success before [venture capitalists] jump in," he said. "Somebody's going to have to fly and make money."

Even though Virgin Galactic has collected millions of dollars from tourists wanting to fly into space aboard their SpaceShipTwo, the big-money guys want to know if it's only a "one-shot deal," Valentine said.

"They want to see billions of dollars in revenue."


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