Octopus is on a mission to invest in the people, ideas, and industries that can change the world. We sat down with Simon King of Octopus Ventures to hear about one company committed to making its industry better for the planet.
It’s October 1957, Kazakhstan. A sphere of polished aluminium, about the size of an inflatable exercise ball, is trailed by four long whisker-like antennas. This is Sputnik 1.
In the coming hours, Sputnik 1 will make history and trigger the Space Race. It will be the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth.
But getting Sputnik 1 into space won’t be easy. It’ll take 250 tons of carbon intensive fuel – a mix of kerosene and liquid oxygen – to propel the satellite 557 kilometres skyward.
Fast forward to today and there are more than 4,500 man-made satellites orbiting Earth. Yet, until recently, the space industry has placed little focus on its environmental footprint.
A unique rocket
Simon King is a fund manager at Octopus Ventures dedicated to investing in “deep tech” companies – a term for start-ups focused on significant technological innovation.
“Some will say there are so few rockets launched that we shouldn’t worry too much about emissions,” says Simon. “But I draw the comparison to what has happened with air travel. In the 1920s, you might have thought ‘there’s not many planes, so it’s not going to be a big issue’. Now it’s a meaningful percentage of global emissions.”
“If you look at the trajectory of how many rockets are launching and the number of satellites going into space, this is going be a bigger and bigger problem. We need low carbon solutions now before it causes a problem for the future.”
This is one of many reasons Simon and his team ended up investing in a company headquartered in Scotland called Orbex. Its rocket is different.
Most rockets use a fuel called RP-1, an ultra-pure version of jet fuel. But Orbex are unique when it comes to fuel source.
In a first for the industry, Orbex has designed its rocket to use bio-propane which dramatically reduces the carbon emissions of each rocket launch. This is a gamechanger because it allows the fuel to be sourced sustainably. Bio-propane is made from a blend of waste, residues and sustainably sourced materials, allowing rockets to launch with a much lower carbon footprint. Research by the University of Exeter shows that a single launch of the Orbex Prime rocket will produce 96% less emissions than comparable systems using fossil fuels.
Its rocket is also designed to be reusable and not leave debris on Earth, in the ocean, or in the Earth’s atmosphere. And Orbex has committed to offsetting all emissions from the rocket and its launch operations, ensuring every launch is carbon neutral.
The growth of New Space
Orbex is operating in a growing technology sector known as ‘New Space’.
“It’s different from the ‘old space’ sector that was dominated by governments directing funding top-down,” explains Simon. “Now we have a new generation of innovative commercial companies and start-ups developing technology to go into space.”
Why? Part of the reason is the miniaturisation and decrease in costs of building for space.
“If you were putting a satellite up 25 years ago, you’d expect it to be very big and very expensive. And you needed a really big and really expensive rocket to send it up.”
“Now you can fit the same technology that you had in that satellite in your mobile phone. You then need much smaller rockets.”
“We’ve also seen standardisation in satellites and how they’re built. With more off-the-shelf components, building a satellite is much cheaper and faster.”
“This has resulted in a plethora of new and different business models. Satellites with Earth focused cameras are being used to plan solar installations, count cars, and to measure the health of crops.”
“So part of the reason we’re seeing an explosion of the space economy is because it’s getting cheaper to get into space. There is a proliferation of smaller satellites and a huge opportunity for small rockets to carry these up.”
But where are these rockets launching from?
The first rocket to launch from Europe
No company and no rocket has ever launched anything to orbit from mainland Europe. Even the Europe Space Agency uses a spaceport located in South America.
Orbex has permission and funding to build a spaceport in Northern Scotland. Being able to launch a satellite locally can make a big difference to cost and timelines, so the company has an exciting opportunity to support businesses.
“In the UK we’ve got a strong pedigree of building satellites,” says Simon. “But when you want to get those into space, you have to package them up and send them to a launch site. Historically, you might ship them to Kazakhstan to launch on a Russian rocket. That isn’t an option anymore.”
“There can be important and sensitive technologies in satellites. Crossing borders and putting that technology in another country can be complicated. Potentially risky too.”
“There are some types of technology that you cannot export, because they are dual use. They may have defence purposes as well as commercial purposes, so there are some countries you just won’t be able to launch from.”
“With Orbex, we see a big market opportunity as well as a geographic advantage. As we’ve seen with semiconductor and some other technologies, there’s a sovereignty aspect to some of these businesses. Europe doesn’t necessarily want to be dependent on other countries to launch rockets.”
Our investment in Orbex
Octopus first met with Orbex in 2019 and were immediately impressed by the team.
“The CEO actually has no background in space, but that means he has been able to take an objective look at rocketry as a business,” explains Simon. “He’s a serial entrepreneur who’s teamed up with some individuals with brilliant technical skills.”
Orbex was initially set up with the goal of crowdfunding a private spacecraft mission to the moon. The technical team had previously been working together on an amateur project to put a person in space, alongside their day jobs. Over time their goal evolved.
“The team were all involved in rocketry and had built missions for NASA, for ESA, and for various national space agencies. As the group started looking at things in more detail, the moon objective fell away, but they became convinced there was a real opportunity to build a company that could launch satellites into orbit.”
Octopus went on to support the company’s fundraising at their series B in 2020 and at their recent series C. Our logo proudly features on its rocket, which is set to launch in the near future. And it’s another example of the kind of bold entrepreneurial businesses Octopus loves to back.
“We’re really excited by the capabilities of the team at Orbex and their vision, but we’re not kidding ourselves it will be easy. It is rocket science after all.”
Simon King (PhD)
Venture investing is high risk. Company examples are for illustrative purposes only and are not an investment recommendation.