Big deal: PIF puts $1bn into space companies

The money will go towards Virgin Galactic, Spaceship Company and Virgin Orbit, three subsidiaries of diversified holding firm Virgin Group, and may be followed by another $480m.

Space technologies have increasingly attracted the interest of investors – not least due to the commercial success of space exploration company SpaceX, which itself is backed by diversified conglomerate Alphabet and ranks among the world’s most valuable VC-backed private businesses.

SpaceX, founded by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk – also one of the brains behind payment processing platform PayPal, neurotechnology developer Neuralink and electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, among other businesses – made headlines last year when it successfully landed a reusable rocket on a ship, becoming the first company to do so.

While such historical feats may still be missing from government-backed companies, we should not have to wait too much longer for a flurry of news from the sector. Russian government-owned space agency Roscosmos, for example, launched a fund last month dedicated to the ecosystem.

In the UK, state-owned economic development bank British Business Bank put capital into the $95m Seraphim Space Fund a month ago. The fund, launched in November 2016, was the world’s first space-focused venture capital vehicle. It has also been backed by intergovernmental space exploration organisation European Space Agency, and Satellite Application Catapult, a tech transfer organisation owned by the UK government’s innovation agency Innovate UK, as well as UK Space Agency, the government agency responsible for Britain’s civil space program.

And in Singapore, space debris removal technology developer Astroscale collected $25m in a series C round backed by public-private partnership Innovation Network Corporation of Japan in July – leading Global Government Venturing to taking an in-depth look at Astroscale at the time.

Not to be left behind, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, Public Investment Fund (PIF), announced on Thursday that it, too, is injecting capital into the industry. The beneficiary will be three subsidiaries of diversified conglomerate Virgin, which will share an initial $1bn, with an option for an additional $480m.

The three businesses – commercial spaceflight company Virgin Galactic, spacecraft manufacturer Spaceship Company and satellite launch services provider Virgin Orbit – will receive the capital as part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 initiative, the government’s scheme to diversify the country’s economy and reduce its dependency on oil revenue by 2030. One of PIF’s more notable investments under Vision 2030 was the fund’s $45bn commitment to the $100bn SoftBank Vision Fund in October last year.

Once the $1bn deal has secured regulatory approval, PIF will own a “significant stake” in the three Virgin companies, though details have not been confirmed. PIF will not be the only government backer in the business. Aabar Investments, a diversified investment firm owned by Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Development Company, is already a shareholder, according to Virgin Galactic – though Aabar's website lists only Spaceship Company as a portfolio company.

The money is expected to go towards technology development to bring commercial human spaceflight a step closer to reality. The money will also be used for Virgin Orbit’s manufacturing and operational capabilities, to support the development of small satellite launch systems and to drive the creation of supersonic aircraft.

Saudi Arabia and Virgin may also seek to establish a space-centric entertainment industry in the country, though they have not yet revealed specific plans.

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, said: “We are delighted to welcome Saudi Arabia as our new partner in Virgin Galactic, Spaceship Company and Virgin Orbit.

“We are now just months away from Virgin Galactic going into space with people on board and Virgin Orbit going into orbit and placing satellites around the earth. This investment will enable us to develop the next generation of satellite launches and accelerate our programme for point-to-point supersonic space travel.”

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