Varda Space Industries, a start-up founded less than a year ago by a pair with experience at Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, has now raised more than $50 million as it works toward its first mission in the first quarter of 2023.
“The Varda mission is to build the first space factory – essentially the first industrial park on orbit,” CEO Will Bruey, who spent much of the past decade working on SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon spacecraft, told CNBC.
Varda raised $42 million in a round led by Khosla Ventures and Caffeinated Capital, and joined by investors including Lux Capital, General Catalyst, and Founders Fund. With $11 million raised in a prior seed round, the company has brought in $53 million since its founding eight months ago.
Based in Torrance, California, Varda was founded by Bruey and Founders Fund principal Delian Asparouhov. The pair have assembled a team of 16 from across the aerospace world so far, with several from Musk’s company, and expect to grow Varda to a team of more than 40 by the time of its first launch.
The product: Returning materials to Earth quickly
Manufacturing materials in space is not a novel concept, as the International Space Station has served as a test bed for a variety of companies and products. SpaceX notably brings thousands of pounds of cargo and research to and from the ISS about every six months. But Varda wants to take that a step further, to launch and return space-made products more quickly.
“The way that we judge our success is the frequency of reentry, because that’s the frequency of us bringing value back down to Earth,” Asparouhov said.
Asparouhov differentiated Varda from other companies that work with in-space manufacturing by saying his company is focused on how that adds value to those on Earth, rather than in space. Varda will look to tap markets for products such as semiconductors, fiber optic cables, or pharmaceuticals – “extremely large” marketplaces here on the ground, Asparouhov said. He also said that “Varda can exist because we don’t have to build the entire” technology system “ourselves,” a point Bruey emphasized.
“Nothing we are doing is novel, other than in the aggregate,” Bruey said.
Varda is creating a three-piece spacecraft, consisting of a commercially-available spacecraft platform, the manufacturing module, and a heatshield-protected capsule to reenter through the atmosphere and land under parachutes. The company is aiming to have its first launch and reentry in 18 months, with the goal of bringing back about 100 kilograms (or 220 pounds) of material. Varda is at preliminary design review-level currently, Bruey said, going through final details with regulators and stakeholders.
Bruey said that Varda expects its first mission will launch on a “rideshare” launch, riding a rocket alongside other spacecraft. Asparouhov added that the company will reenter its capsule in the U.S. over land “to keep the cost as low as possible.” The targeted landing site is yet to be announced, but Asparouhov noted that there are only a few places suitable, as it needs to be a large area without a local population, “likely a desert.”
The funds Varda raised so far will get the company “to our first mission,” Asparouhov said, and “might even be able to skate through to our second mission” as well.
“But I feel like it’s actually quite relevant [to Varda], as we are bringing the benefits of space to everybody down here on Earth and we’re able to do so for the same reasons … which is that launch costs are cheaper, infrastructure is cheaper,” Asparouhov said.
“I think [Varda can go after] a much larger market than space tourism, in terms of products that … impact a ton of people’s lives here on Earth,” Asparouhov added. “We’ve got to start off in a commercially pragmatic step-by-step approach. So it’s first with a [low Earth orbit] mission, and then we’ll steadily expand from there we to larger missions and will go to more fixed stations in orbit.”