Space tourism is one of those ostensibly awesome experiences that often feel anticlimactic because they promise the sublime.
For Blue Origin, the honeymoon is over.
This summer, the company filed a lawsuit against NASA, claiming that the agency ignored its own requirements when it awarded the contract for the Human Landing System, intended to take astronauts to the Moon, to SpaceX. Today, the Court of Federal Claims dismissed the case in a one-page ruling, ending a tumultuous chapter in the relationship between the Jeff Bezos-backed space launch startup and the federal government.
The ruling was brief, simply granting the federal government’s motion to dismiss without going into detail. Judge Richard A. Hertling is giving Blue Origin and the government until November 18 to redact the full opinion before it’s released to the public.
Admittedly, there are a lot of reasons to be cynical about today’s human spaceflight on Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch system.
The company founded by Jeff Bezos has not covered itself in glory of late, falling years short of delivering rocket engines to a key customer, United Launch Alliance, and suing another—NASA—after failing to win a contract to build a lunar lander. Thanks to Blue Origin’s lawsuit, NASA’s work with SpaceX on the Human Landing System has been on hold for nearly five months.
Then, too, there are the recent revelations about a “toxic” work culture at the company. Some former and current employees, all unnamed except Alexandra Abrams who left the company in 2019, have decried a sexist workplace and other cultural ills that have held Blue Origin back from fulfilling its potential.
Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!
I’m back from a very fun and rehabilitative couple weeks away from my phone, my Twitter account and the news cycle. That said, I actually really missed writing this newsletter, and while Greg did a fantastic job while I was out, I won’t be handing over the reins again anytime soon. Plenty happened this week and I struggled to zero in on a single topic to address, but I finally chose to focus on Bezos’s Blue Origin suing NASA.
The big thing
I was going to write about OnlyFans for the newsletter this week and their fairly shocking move to ban sexually explicit content from their site in a bid to stay friendly with payment processors, but alas I couldn’t help myself and wrote an article for ole TechCrunch dot com instead. Here’s a link if you’re curious.
Now, I should also note that while I was on vacation I missed all of the conversation surrounding Apple’s incredibly controversial child sexual abuse material detection software that really seems to compromise the perceived integrity of personal devices. I’m not alone in finding this to be a pretty worrisome development despite Apple’s intention of staving off a worse alternative. Hopefully, one of these weeks I’ll have the time to talk with some of the folks in the decentralized computing space about how our monolithic reliance on a couple tech companies operating with precious little consumer input is very bad. In the meantime, I will point you to some reporting from TechCrunch’s own Zack Whittaker on the topic which you should peruse because I’m sure it will be a topic I revisit here in the future.
Now then! Onto the topic at hand.
Federal government agencies don’t generally inspire much adoration. While great things have been accomplished at the behest of ample federal funding and the tireless work of civil servants, most agencies are treated as bureaucratic bloat and aren’t generally seen as anything worth passionately defending. Among the public and technologists in particular, NASA occupies a bit more of a sacred space. The American space agency has generally been a source of bipartisan enthusiasm, as has its goal to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.
Which brings us to some news this week. While so much digital ink was spilled on Jeff Bezos’s little jaunt to the edge of space, cowboy hat, champagne and all, there’s been less fanfare around his space startup’s lawsuit against NASA, which we’ve now learned will delay the development of a new lunar lander by months, potentially throwing NASA’s goal to return astronauts to the moon’s surface on schedule into doubt.
Bezos’s upstart Blue Origin is protesting the fact that they were not awarded a government contract while Elon Musk’s SpaceX earned a $2.89 billion contract to build a lunar lander. This contract wasn’t just recently awarded either, SpaceX won it back in April and Blue Origin had already filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office. This happened before Bezos penned an open letter promising a $2 billion discount for NASA which had seen budget cuts at the hands of Congress dash its hoped to award multiple contracts. None of these maneuverings proved convincing enough for the folks at NASA, pushing Bezos’s space startup to sue the agency.
This little feud has caused long-minded Twitter users to dig up this little gem from a Bezos 2019 speech — as transcribed by Gizmodo — highlighting Bezos’s own distaste for how bureaucracy and greed have hampered NASA’s ability to reach for the stars:
“To the degree that big NASA programs become seen as jobs programs and that they have to be distributed to the right states where the right Senators live, and so on. That is going to change the objective. Now your objective is not to, you know, whatever it is, to get a man to the moon or a woman to the moon, but instead to get a woman to the moon while preserving X number of jobs in my district. That is a complexifier, and not a healthy one…[…]
Today, there would be, you know, three protests, and the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win. It’s interesting, but the thing that slows things down is procurement. It’s become the bigger bottleneck than the technology, which I know for a fact for all the well meaning people at NASA is frustrating.
A Blue Origin spokesperson called the suit, an “attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System.” But the lawsuit really seems to highlight how dire this deal is to the ability of Blue Origin to lock down top talent. Whether the startup can handle the reputational risk of suing NASA and delaying America’s return to the moon seems to be a question very much worth asking.
Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:
OnlyFans bans “sexually explicit content”
A lot of people had pretty visceral reactions to OnlyFans killing off what seems to be a pretty big chunk of its business, outlawing “sexually explicit content” on the platform. It seems the decision was reached as a result of banking and payment partners leaning on the company.
Musk “unveils” the “Tesla Bot”
I truly struggle to even call this news, but I’d be remiss not to highlight how Elon Musk had a guy dress up in a spandex outfit and walk around doing the robot and spawned hundreds of news stories about his new “Tesla Bot.” While there certainly could be a product opportunity here for Tesla at some point, I would bet all of the dogecoin in the world that his prototype “coming next year” either never arrives or falls hilariously short of expectations.
Facebook drops a VR meeting simulator
This week, Facebook released one of its better virtual reality apps, a workplace app designed to help people host meetings inside virtual reality. To be clear, no one really asked for this, but the company made a full court PR press for the app which will help headset owners simulate the pristine experience of sitting in a conference room.
Social platforms wrestle with Taliban presence on platforms
Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, social media platforms are being pushed to clarify their policies around accounts operated by identified Taliban members. It’s put some of the platforms in a hairy situation.
Facebook releases content transparency report
This week, Facebook released its first ever content transparency report, highlighting what data on the site had the most reach over a given time period, in this case a three-month period. Compared to lists highlighting which posts get the most engagement on the platform, lists generally populated mostly by right wing influencers and news sources, the list of posts with the most reach seems to be pretty benign.
Safety regulators open inquiry into Tesla Autopilot
While Musk talks about building a branded humanoid robot, U.S. safety regulators are concerned with why Tesla vehicles on Autopilot are crashing into so many parked emergency response vehicles.
Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:
The Nuro EC-1
“..Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu aren’t the only Google self-driving project employees to launch an AV startup, but they might be the most underrated. Their company, Nuro, is valued at $5 billion and has high-profile partnerships with leaders in retail, logistics and food including FedEx, Domino’s and Walmart. And, they seem to have navigated the regulatory obstacle course with success — at least so far…”
A VC shares 5 keys to pitching VCs
“The success of a fundraising process is entirely dependent on how well an entrepreneur can manage it. At this stage, it is important for founders to be honest, straightforward and recognize the value meetings with venture capitalists and investors can bring beyond just the monetary aspect..“
A crash course on corporate development
“…If you’re going to get acquired, chances are you’re going to spend a lot of time with corporate development teams. With a hot stock market, mountains of cash and cheap debt floating around, the environment for acquisitions is extremely rich.”
Thanks for reading! Until next week…
Blue Origin, the space company helmed by billionaire Jeff Bezos, is taking NASA to court. The company filed a complaint with a federal claims court on Monday over the agency’s decision to award a lunar lander contract solely to rival company SpaceX.
The complaint, which Blue Origin successfully petitioned to have sealed, says NASA’s evaluation of proposals for the the Human Landing System was “unlawful and improper.”
“Blue Origin filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in an attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System,” a company spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America.”
The Human Landing System, a key part of NASA’s forthcoming Artemis program, is the lander that will return humans to the moon’s surface for the first time since the days of Apollo. NASA aims to have the human lander touching down at the lunar south pole in 2024.
In April, NASA awarded the HLS contract to a single company – SpaceX, which submitted a $2.9 billion bid. That NASA selected only one company, rather than two, was a surprise (the agency likes to hedge its bets). Only a few weeks later, Blue Origin and defense contractor Dynetics, which also submitted a bid for the lander program, filed separate protests with the Government Accountability Office over the decision. GAO later upheld NASA’s decision, maintaining that “the [contract] announcement reserved the right to make multiple awards, a single award, or no award at all.”
(Read a blow-by-blow of GAO’s rationale by TechCrunch’s Devin Coldewey here).
When GAO released its decision, it seemed like that might have been case closed: SpaceX won, Blue Origin lost. This new lawsuit, filed to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, is a clear signal that Jeff Bezos’ company has no intention of backing down.
If a federal court filing represents Blue Origin’s buttoned-up protests, the company has also been waging a separate attack on social media, releasing a series of infographics aimed at discrediting SpaceX’s Starship and NASA’s decision to use it for moon missions.
On one infographic, referring to Starship, the words “IMMENSELY COMPLEX & HIGH RISK” blaze across the image in red; another described it as “a launch vehicle that has never flown to orbit and is still being designed.”
The case number is 1:21-cv-01695-RAH. TechCrunch has reached out to NASA for comment and will update the story if they respond.
La Haus, which has developed an online real estate marketplace operating in Mexico and Colombia, has secured $100 million in additional funding, including $50 million in equity and $50 million in debt financing.
The new capital was obtained as an extension to the company’s Series B, the first tranche of which closed in January. With the latest infusion, Medellin, Colombia-based La Haus has now secured $135 million total for the round and over $158 million in funding since its 2017 inception.
San Francisco Bay Area venture firms Acrew Capital and Renegade Partners co-led the round, which also included participation from Jeff Bezos’ Bezos Expeditions, Endeavor Catalyst, Moore Strategic Ventures, Marc Benioff’s TIME Ventures, Rappi’s Simon Borrero, Maluma, and Gabriel Gilinski. Existing backers who put money in this round include Greenspring Associates, Kaszek, NFX, Spencer Rascoff’s 75 & Sunny Ventures, Hadi Partovi and NuBank’s David Velez.
Jerónimo Uribe (CEO), Rodrigo Sánchez-Ríos (president), Tomás Uribe (chief growth officer) and Santiago Garcia (CTO) founded the company after Jerónimo and Tomas met Sánchez-Ríos at Stanford University. Prior to La Haus they started and ran Jaguar Capital, a Colombian real estate development company with over $350 million of completed retail and residential projects.
The company declined to reveal at what valuation the extension was raised, with Sánchez-Ríos saying only that it was “a significant increase” from January.
The Series B extension follows impressive growth for the startup, which saw the number of transactions conducted on its Mexico portal climb by nearly 10x in the second quarter of 2021 compared to the 2020 second quarter. With over 500 homes selling on its platform (via lahaus.com and lahaus.mx) the company is “the market leader in selling new housing in Spanish-speaking Latam by an order of magnitude,” its execs claim. La Haus expects to have facilitated more than $1 billion in annualized gross sales by the end of the year.
The startup was founded with the mission of making it easier for people to buy homes and helping “solve LatAm’s extreme housing inequality.” Its end goal is to accelerate access to new housing by both generating and curating supply and demand and then matching it with its technology, noted Sánchez-Ríos.
“In the last six months, our chief product officer has built a product that allows this to happen 100% digitally,” he said. “Before it would take a lot of time, people involved and visits. We want to provide people looking for a home a similar experience as to people looking for their next flight at delta.com.”
It has done that by embedding its software to developers’ new projects so that it can bring that digital experience to its users.
“They are able to view the projects on our sites, we match them and then they can see in real time which units of a particular tower are available, and then select, sign and pay for everything digitally,” Sánchez-Río said.
The need for new housing in the region and other emerging markets in general is acute, they believe. And the pace of building new homes is slow because small and mid-sized developers – who are responsible for building the majority of new homes in Latin America – are cash constrained. At the same time, mortgages are mostly not affordable for consumers, with banks extending only a fraction of the credit to individuals compared to the U.S., and often at far worse terms.
What La Haus is planning to do with its new capital – particularly the debt portion – is go beyond selling homes via its marketplace to helping extend financing to both developers and potential buyers.It plans to take the proprietary data it has been able to glean from the thousands of real estate transactions conducted on it platform to extend capital to developers and consumers “more quickly, with much lower risk and at better terms.”
Already, what the startup has accomplished is notable. Being able to purchase a home 100% digitally is not that easy even in the U.S. Pulling that off in Latin America – which has historically trailed behind in digital adoption – is no easy feat. By year’s end, La Haus intends to be in every major metropolitan area in Mexico and Colombia.
Its ultimate goal is to be able to help new, sustainable homes “to be built faster, alleviating the inequality caused by lack of access to inventory.”
To Acrew Capital’s Lauren Kolodny, La Haus is building a solution specific to the issues of Latin America’s housing market, rather than importing business models – such as iBuying – from the U.S.
“For many people in the United States home equity is their largest asset. In Latin America, however, consumers have been challenged with an impenetrable real estate market stacked against consumers,” she wrote via email. “La Haus is removing barriers to home ownership that stifles millions of people from achieving financial security. Specifically, Latin America has no centralized MLS, very costly interest rates, no transactional transparency, and few online informational tools.”
La Haus, Kolodny added, is breaking down these barriers by consolidating listings online, offering pricing transparency and educating consumers about their financing options.
Acrew first invested in the startup in its $10 million Series A and has been impressed with its growth over time.
“They have a unique focus on new housing — a massive industry worldwide, but especially in emerging markets where new housing is so necessary,” Kolodny said. “The management team…knows real estate in Latin America better than anyone we’ve met.”
For its part, the La Haus team is excited to put its new capital to work. As Sánchez-Río put it, “$50 million goes a lot further in Mexico and Colombia than in the U.S.”
“We are going to be very aggressive in Mexico and Colombia, and plan to go from four to at least 12 markets by the end of the year,” Jeronimo told TechCrunch. “We’re also excited to roll out our financing solution to developers and buyers.”
Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Blue Origin, is offering to knock up to $2 billion off the cost of developing a lunar lander and to self-fund a pathfinder mission in exchange for a NASA contract.
The specific contract in question relates to developing a lunar lander for the Human Landing System program, which aims to return humans to the moon for the first time since the Apollo days. NASA announced in April 2020 that Blue Origin, SpaceX and Dynetics were chosen for the initial phase of the contract, and it was thought that the competition would likely be whittled down to two final companies to build lunar landers. As TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington notes, it’s not uncommon for NASA to select two vendors, as it did when it awarded both Boeing and SpaceX contracts under its Commercial Crew program.
But a year later, in a move that veered from historical practice, NASA announced it had selected just one company for the contract: SpaceX. That company, headed by Elon Musk, proposed a $2.89 billion plan for its lander – around half of Blue Origin’s $5.99 billion proposal. Bezos is now offering to cut that price tag by $2 billion.
In a document obtained by The Washington Post explaining the rationale behind selecting a sole vendor for the HLS contract, NASA admits that it’s “current fiscal year budget did not support even a single [contract] award.” In response, SpaceX updated its payment schedule so it would fit “within NASA’s current budget.” That the agency has severe budgetary constraints is no secret: Congress approved just $850 million for the HLS program in fiscal year 2021, far short of the $3.4 billion NASA requested.
Enter Bezos’ open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, which addresses the budget issue directly. He writes that the proposed incentives would remedy “perceived near-term budgetary issues” with the Human Landing System Program, which caused NASA to select a single company instead of two.
“Instead of investing in two competing lunar landers as originally intended, the Agency chose to confer a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar head start to SpaceX,” Bezos says in the letter. “That decision broke the mold of NASA’s successful commercial space programs by putting an end to meaningful competition for years to come.”
This is not the first time that Blue Origin has publicly questioned NASA’s decision to go with just one vendor. The company, along with Dynetics, filed protests with the Government Accountability Office just one week after the award was announced. Blue Origin argued that the contract requirements did not give companies an ability to “meaningfully compete.” GAO must rule on the protest by August 4.
Blue Origin and Dynetics are not the only entities to support two contract awards. The Senate recently passed a bill that would, among other things, require NASA to select two companies for the HLS lander – and the extra funds to do so, SpaceNews reported. Not every lawmaker was happy about the inclusion of the extra funding, however: Senator Bernie Sanders called it a “Bezos bailout,” but was ultimately unsuccessful in getting the extra funding stripped from the bill.
“We stand ready to help NASA moderate its technical risks and solve its budgetary constraints and put the Artemis Program back on a more competitive, credible, and sustainable path,” Bezos said.
Jeff Bezos was so triumphant he was practically glowing at a press conference following the Blue Origin’s first crewed mission to space, 21 years after he founded the company in 2000. The billionaire talked about the future of the company and his role in it, and then casually gave away a couple hundred million dollars.
Bezos was one of four that rode in the RSS First Step capsule; the others were his financier brother, Mark; aviation legend and Mercury 13 veteran Wally Funk; and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, the son of the second-highest bidder on the Blue Origin seat auction. (The $28 million dollar winner postponed his seat due to scheduling conflicts.)
The company now joins a very tiny circle of companies that have sent private citizens to space, in the biggest boost yet for the nascent space tourism industry. Tuesday also marks the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the next step in space travel paying homage to the very first.
The press conference opened with the grinning foursome being pinned with astronaut ‘wings,’ a badge traditionally granted to those that have gone to space. “I’m so happy,” said Bezos at the press conference, donning the same cream cowboy hat he wore moments after emerging from the capsule a little over two hours earlier.
Bezos also thanked the city of Van Horn, acknowledging Blue Origin has made “a dent in it,” and followed by thanking every Amazon employee, plus its millions of customers: “Seriously, you paid for this.”
They also showed a brief video of the four crew members cavorting in four minutes of microgravity, including footage of the crew members catching floating Skittles in their mouths.
This is the second suborbital mission crewed entirely by private citizens this month alone, a first in history. The first was accomplished by Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, a rocket-powered spaceplane, on July 11; its founder, billionaire Richard Branson, was aboard, which helped foment a truly petty spat between the two ultra-wealthy founders. That aside, the two flights have helped make space tourism more of a reality than ever before.
The flight will also likely be a boost for Blue Origin’s commercial heavy-lift rocket launch arm, which for the moment is largely occupied by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The same technologies that are used to perfect New Shepard’s reusability could come in handy for the development of New Glenn, the company’s massive orbital launch. Bezos said in February that the company was pushing the inaugural launch of New Glenn from late 2021 to the latter quarter of 2022.
“The fact of the matter is, the architecture and the technology we’ve chosen is complete over-kill” for space tourism, Bezos said. Instead, Blue Origin chose it “because it scales […] the whole point of this is to get practice” for larger and heavier missions.
On why Blue Origin chose liquid fuel, he reiterated that it’s practice for future launches. “Every time we fly this tourism mission, we practice flying the second stage of New Glenn.”
In December 2020, NASA added Blue Origin to its roster of space companies eligible to compete for contracts under its Launch Services II program. While it doesn’t guarantee that New Glenn or any other Blue Origin rocket would be awarded a launch contract, it’s the first step to getting there.
Jeff Bezos confirmed that Blue Origin will fly two additional crewed launches this year alone, but it has yet to announce the price per seat. “We want the cadence to be very high […] We’re approaching $100 million in private sales already.” When asked how to get the cost per seat down, Bezos said the space tourism industry would follow the trajectory of commercial space travel, now widely used by millions of travelers each year.
At the end of the conference, Bezos announced he was starting a $100 million Courage and Civility Award, with CNN contributor Van Jones and Michelin star chef José Andrés as the first two recipients. The winner will give that money away to the charities of their choice. The award is for people who apparently demonstrate civility and resist ad hominem attacks. Reading between the lines (frankly, you don’t even really have to do that) it seems like a commentary on contemporary political discourse, especially the emphasis on civility in disagreement.
Looking to the future, the Amazon founder said he would split his time between Blue Origin and the Bezos Earth Fund, a $10 billion investment fund focused on climate change.
“This is not about escaping Earth. The whole point is, this is the only good planet in the solar system,” Bezos said. “We have to take care of it.”
Rewatch the press conference here:
Blue Origin successfully completed its first crewed launch Tuesday, sending four human passengers to space – including the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos. The result of billions of dollars of investment, dozens of test launches and some petty squabbling amongst ultra-rich founders, the triumph of the New Shepard, along with that of Virgin Galactic earlier this month, undoubtably heralds the dawn of a new age of space tourism.
It was quite the media spectacle. The mission took place at Launch Site One, Blue Origin’s sprawling and secretive facility that sits around thirty miles north of the small town of Van Horn, Texas. Every hotel in Van Horn and nearby towns were sold out of rooms in the days leading to launch as spectators traveled in for the event; meanwhile, a huge gaggle of local, national and online outlets (including yours truly) swarmed the Press Site as early as 2:30 AM CST. Despite some premature calls for rain in the early hours of the morning, the skies stayed clear and things mostly kept to schedule.
The four-person crew – including Bezos, his brother, Mark, 18-year old student Oliver Daemen, and aviation pioneer and Mercury 13 veteran Wally Funk – emerged from the training center and caught a Rivian R1S electric SUV to the launch pad around 45 minutes prior to launch. (Bezos drove a Rivian R1T pickup to the landing site of the rocket after its last test, a nod to Amazon’s sizeable investment in the EV startup). The crew climbed the launch tower and took a brief respite in an adjacent shelter, before climbing into the capsule, dubbed RSS First Step.
There was a brief hold at T-15 minutes, leading to the launch running slightly behind schedule. New Shepard took at 8:11 CST. They passed the Kármán line (more on that later) at 8:15 AM; capsule separation followed, and the booster returned to the launch site autonomously and with a loud boom at 8:19 AM. The crewed capsule floated slowly to Earth via parachute, touching land at 8:22 AM for an eleven-minutes total flight time.
The flight was the result of fifteen tests of the reusable suborbital New Shepard rocket, including a rehearsal launch in April that included a dry run of flight preparations and a mock crew embarked (then disembarked before take-off) into the capsule. Blue Origin now joins rival Virgin Galactic in a very, very small group of commercial space companies to send private citizens to orbit.
Daemon was added to the crew after the anonymous auction winner, who bid $28 million for the seat, had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict. CNBC reported that Daemen’s father, CEO of the Dutch private equity firm Somerset Capital Partners, placed the second-highest bid. Daemen is the youngest person ever to go to space at 18, and Funk is the oldest ever at 82.
The route to space
Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, six years after he started ecommerce behemoth Amazon. The company has zeroed in on space tourism, and it sees this flight as the requisite proof of concept it needs to start flying customers. To that end, the New Shepard capsule has large, tourism-friendly windows – the largest in spaceflight history, according to the company. “These windows make up a third of the capsule, immersing you in the vastness of space and life-changing views of our blue planet,” it says on the Blue Origin website.
The launch is also the culmination of weeks of squabbling between Bezos and his billionaire spacefaring rival, Richard Branson, who was aboard his own flight to space 10 days earlier. But despite ostensibly beating Bezos to the punch, much of the fighting was over what actually counts as space – and whether VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered spaceplane, actually went there.
The kerfuffle is over what’s known as the Kármán line, an internationally recognized imaginary boundary of space that’s around 60 miles above Earth. VSS Unity flew to around 51.4 miles – above the boundary recognized by NASA. “From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name,” Blue Origin tweeted two days before the Virgin launch. The tweet also included a little infographic throwing further shade at on Virgin flights.
From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Kármán line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name. For 96% of the world’s population, space begins 100 km up at the internationally recognized Kármán line. pic.twitter.com/QRoufBIrUJ
— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) July 9, 2021
This is just the beginning for Blue Origin. Director of astronaut sales Ariane Cornell said at a pre-mission briefing on July 18 that she’s been “chatting with many of [Blue Origin’s] future customers who have signed for the subsequent flights.” She added that the company intends on launching two more flights this year, with CEO Bob Smith estimating that a second crewed New Shepard flight could take place in September or October.
What does this mean for the rest of us (as in, those that don’t have a couple extra million floating around in our bank accounts)? While the so-called billionaire space race is a petty squabble, both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic’s respective launches are the likely heralds of a new age of space travel for consumers and scientists alike. It will be limited to the wealthy at first, but as TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm argues, costs will go down and more humans will go to space – including scientists and researchers, maybe even me or you.
In case you missed it, you can catch the entire launch on Blue Origin’s archived livestream here:
Blue Origin is set to launch its fully reusable New Shepard spacecraft with humans on board for the first time on Tuesday, and it’s sending Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos up along with his brother and two record-setting astronauts. The launch live stream above is scheduled for 6:30 AM CDT (7:30 AM EDT/4:30 AM PDT), with the actual liftoff targeted for 8 AM CDT (9 AM EDT/6 AM PDT).
The full flight profile includes a takeoff from Blue Origin’s remote West Texas facility, followed by an ascent to a height of roughly 62 miles above the Earth’s surface. Those on board, including Bezos, his brother Mark, 82-year old Wally Funk and 18-year old Oliver Daemen will then experience between 3 and 4 minutes of weightlessness inside the New Shepard capsule, before it returns to Earth slowed by parachutes for a touchdown in the West Texas desert and then a recovery by Blue Origin staff.
This is not significantly different in terms of timing or sequence from the 15 prior New Shepard flights that Blue Origin has flown, but this is the first one with humans on board (including the world’s richest), so it’s obviously the one to watch.
The mystery of who will occupy the final seat on Blue Origin’s debut human spaceflight next week is a mystery no longer: The company revealed today that the winning bidder who forked over $28 million for the privilege is actually going to fly on a later mission, and instead the final seat on the debut flight will go to Oliver Daeman, an 18-year-old high school graduate bound for the University of Utrecht. He’ll be the youngest person to travel to space, which means this launch will include both the youngest and the oldest people ever to make the trip.
Blue Origin is planning to fly its founder Jeff Bezos to space in just a few days on July 20, on its debut human spaceflight. That spacecraft will also be carrying Bezos’ brother, along with 82-year old aerospace pioneer Wally Funk, on the trip to suborbital space for a few minutes of weightlessness and unparalleled views before coming back down for a controlled landing in West Texas.
The final seat was auctioned off via a multi-stage process that culminated in a live online bidding rally, which brought the final total paid for the ticket to that whopping $28 million, which is much more than the regular price of the average seat will be during regular commercial flight of the New Shepard spacecraft. That winner, who remains anonymous for now, has declined to go on this one due to “scheduling conflicts.” The funds from the ticket auction are actually being donated to charity, however, rather than acting as revenue for Blue Origin in a commercial sense, going instead to its registered non-profit Club for the Future, which is dedicated to furthering STEM education.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch vehicle is designed for suborbital commercial human spaceflight, including both tourism and research uses. The fully reusable system consists of a booster and an upper stage that includes a crew capsule, and after a series of test flights that began in 2015, Blue Origin is now ready to fly it with people on board for the first time, as a final set of
On a recent episode of Extra Crunch Live, Retail Zipline founder Melissa Wong and Emergence Capital investor Lotti Siniscalco joined Managing Editor Jordan Crook to walk attendees through Zipline’s Series A deck.
Interestingly, the conversation revealed that Wong declined an invitation to do a virtual pitch and insisted on an in-person meeting.
“She was one of the few or maybe the only CEO who ever stood up to pitch the entire team,” said Siniscalco.
“She pointed to the screen projected behind her to help us stay on the most relevant piece of information. The way she did it really made us stay with her. Like, we couldn’t break eye contact.”
Full Extra Crunch articles are only available to members.
Use discount code ECFriday to save 20% off a one- or two-year subscription.
Beyond Wong’s pitch technique, this post also examines some of the key “customer love” metrics that helped Zipline win the day, such as CAC, churn rates and net promoter score.
“In retrospect, I really underestimated the competitive advantage of coming from the industry,” said Wong. “But it resulted in the numbers in our deck, because I know what customers want, what they want to buy next, how to keep them happy and I was able to be way more capital-efficient.”
Read our recap with highlights from their conversation, or click though to watch a video with their entire chat.
Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch this week!
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
Investors don’t expect the US startup funding market to slow down
Global venture capital reached $156 billion in Q2 2021, a YOY increase of 157%. A record number of unicorns found their feet during the same period and valuations rose across the board, report Anna Heim and Alex Wilhelm in today’s edition of The Exchange.
Even if round counts didn’t set all-time highs, “the general vibe of Q2 venture capital data was clear: It’s a great time for startups looking to raise capital.”
Anna and Alex are interviewing VCs in different regions to find out why they’re feeling so generous and optimistic. Today, they started with the following U.S.-based investors:
- Amy Cheetham, principal, Costanoa Ventures
- Marlon Nichols, founding managing partner, MaC Venture Capital
- Vanessa Larco, partner, New Enterprise Associates
- Jeff Grabow, venture capital leader, EY US
Despite the hype, construction tech will be hard to disrupt
The construction industry might seem like a sector wanting innovation, Safe Site Check In CEO and founder David Ward writes in a guest column, but there are unique challenges that make construction firms slow to adapt to new technology.
From the way construction projects are funded to complicated local regulations, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for the construction industry’s tech problems.
Construction tech might be appealing to investors, Ward writes, but it must be “easy to use, easy to deploy or access while on a job site, and improve productivity almost immediately.”
3 analysts weigh in: What are Andy Jassy’s top priorities as Amazon’s new CEO?
Now that he’s stepping away from AWS and taking over for Jeff Bezos, what are the biggest challenges facing incoming Amazon CEO Andy Jassy?
Enterprise reporter Ron Miller reached out to three analysts to get their take:
- Robin Ody, Canalys
- Sucharita Kodali, Forrester
- Ed Anderson, Gartner
Amazon is listed second in the Fortune 500, but it’s not all sunshine and roses — maintaining growth, unionization, and the potential for antitrust regulation at home and abroad are just a few of his responsibilities.
“I think the biggest to-do is to just continue that momentum that the company has had for the last several years,” Kodali says. “He has to make sure that they don’t lose that. If he does that, I mean, he will win.”
The most important API metric is time to first call
Publishing an API isn’t enough for any startup: Once it’s released, the hard work of cultivating a developer base begins.
Postman’s head of developer relations, Joyce Lin, wrote a guest post for Extra Crunch based on the findings of a study aimed at increasing adoption of APIs that utilize a public workspace.
Lin found that the most important metric for a public API is time to first call (TTFC). It makes sense — faster TTFC allows developers to begin using new tools quickly. As a result, “legitimately streamlining TTFC results in a larger market potential of better-educated users for the later stages of your developer journey,” writes Lin.
This post isn’t just for the developers in our audience: TTFC is a metric that product and growth teams should also keep top of mind, they suggest.
“Even if your market is defined as a limited subset of the developer community, any enhancements you make to TTFC equate to a larger available market.”
Q3 IPO cycle starts strong with Couchbase pricing and Kaltura relisting
Couchbase and Kaltura offered new filings Monday, with NoSQL provider Couchbase setting an initial price range for its IPO and Kaltura resurrecting its public offering with a fresh price range and new financial information.
“Both bits of news should help us get a handle on how the Q3 2021 IPO cycle is shaping up at the start,” Alex Wilhelm writes.
5 advanced-ish SEO tactics to win in 2021
Mark Spera, the head of growth marketing at Minted, offers SEO tips to help smaller sites stand out.
He writes in a guest column that Google’s algorithm “errs on the side of caution,” which leads the search engine to favor larger, more established websites.
“The cards aren’t in your favor, so you need to be even more strategic than the big guys,” he writes. “This means executing on some cutting-edge hacks to increase your SEO throughput and capitalize on some of the arbitrage still left in organic search. I call these five tactics ‘advanced-ish,’ because none of them are complicated, but all of them are supremely important for search marketers in 2021.”
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic went to space (or the vicinity of space) in a PR-suffused event over the weekend. It was all rather twee, packed with maudlin riffs about childhood dreams and riddled with hero worship. And the stream kept stuttering while some of the planned vehicle-to-Earth communications failed.
The Exchange is continuing its look into Q2 venture capital results this week. If you’re a VC with a hot take on the numbers, we’re collecting comments and observations at email@example.com. Use subject line “hot dang look at all this money.” Thanks! — Alex and Anna
But the launch accomplished what it set out to do: A few folks made it to into zero gravity after launching their rocket-powered space plane from a larger aircraft, flipping it around at the top of its arc so that its passengers could get a good view of our home while floating. Then it came back to the surface and, we’re sure, much champagne was consumed.
In the aftermath of the event, lots of folks are pissed. Complaints have rolled in, dissing the event and generally mocking the expense involved when there are other issues to manage. A sampling follows. Note that these are merely illustrative examples of a general vibe. I have precisely zero beef with anyone in the following tweets or articles:
And from the media side of things, this stood out today from the Tribune:
Sure, it’s maddening that Jeff Bezos’ new yacht will require a second boat so that he can have a mobile heliport on the go — his new boat has sails, so you can’t chopper to it — while the company that built his fortune churns through workers with abandon and squeezes its drivers so much that they have to piss in bottles due to scheduling constraints.
And, yes, Branson is annoying quite a lot of the time. He also owns an island and likes himself too much.
It’s not easy following a larger-than-life founder and CEO of an iconic company, but that’s what former AWS CEO Andy Jassy faces this week as he takes over for Jeff Bezos, who moves into the executive chairman role. Jassy must deal with myriad challenges as he becomes the head honcho at the No. 2 company on the Fortune 500.
How he handles these challenges will define his tenure at the helm of the online retail giant. We asked several analysts to identify the top problems he will have to address in his new role.
Ensure a smooth transition
Handling that transition smoothly and showing investors and the rest of the world that it’s business as usual at Amazon is going to be a big priority for Jassy, said Robin Ody, an analyst at Canalys. He said it’s not unlike what Satya Nadella faced when he took over as CEO at Microsoft in 2014.
Handling the transition smoothly and showing investors and the rest of the world that it’s business as usual at Amazon is going to be a big priority for Jassy.
“The biggest task is that you’re following Jeff Bezos, so his overarching issue is going to be stability and continuity. … The eyes of the world are on that succession. So managing that I think is the overall issue and would be for anyone in the same position,” Ody said.
Forrester analyst Sucharita Kodali said Jassy’s biggest job is just to keep the revenue train rolling. “I think the biggest to-do is to just continue that momentum that the company has had for the last several years. He has to make sure that they don’t lose that. If he does that, I mean, he will win,” she said.
Maintain company growth
As an online retailer, the company has thrived during COVID, generating $386 billion in revenue in 2020, up more than $100 billion over the prior year. As Jassy takes over and things return to something closer to normal, will he be able to keep the revenue pedal to the metal?
After several years of fighting and jockeying for position by the biggest cloud infrastructure companies in the world, the Pentagon finally pulled the plug on the controversial winner-take-all $10 billion JEDI contract today. In the end, nobody won.
“With the shifting technology environment, it has become clear that the JEDI cloud contract, which has long been delayed, no longer meets the requirements to fill the DoD’s capability gaps,” a Pentagon spokesperson stated.
The contract procurement process began in 2018 with a call for RFPs for a $10 billion, decade long contract to handle the cloud infrastructure strategy for The Pentagon. Pentagon spokesperson Heather Babb told TechCrunch why they were going with the. single-winner approach: “Single award is advantageous because, among other things, it improves security, improves data accessibility and simplifies the Department’s ability to adopt and use cloud services,” she said at the time.
From the start though, companies objected to the single winner approach, believing that the Pentagon would be better served with a multi-vendor approach. Some companies, particularly Oracle believed the procurement process was designed to favor Amazon.
In the end it came down to a pair of finalists — Amazon and Microsoft — and in the end Microsoft won. But Amazon believed that it had superior technology and only lost the deal because of direct interference by the previous president, who had open disdain for then CEO Jeff Bezos (who is also the owner of the Washington Post newspaper).
Amazon decided to fight the decision in court, and after months of delay, the Pentagon made the decision that it was time to move on. In a blog post, Microsoft took a swipe at Amazon for precipitating the delay.
“The 20 months since DoD selected Microsoft as its JEDI partner highlights issues that warrant the attention of policymakers: when one company can delay, for years, critical technology upgrades for those who defend our nation, the protest process needs reform. Amazon filed its protest in November 2019 and its case was expected to take at least another year to litigate and yield a decision, with potential appeals afterward,” Microsoft wrote in its blog post about the end of the deal.
It seems like a fitting end to a project that felt like it was doomed from the beginning. From the moment the Pentagon announced this contract with the cutesy twist on Star Wars name, the procurement process has taken more twist and turns than a TV soap.
In the end, there was a lot of sound and fury and now a lot of nothing. We move onto whatever cloud procurement process happens next.
Note: We have a request into Amazon for a comment and will update the story when they respond.
Max Q is a weekly newsletter from TechCrunch all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Mondays in your inbox.
It’s a space race of the most indulgent kind, plus there’s a new commercial launch enterprise in the games and another is prepping for production at a massive scale. Also, Starlink aims for the stars — ‘the stars’ in this case being not going bankrupt.
The billionaire bragging rights battle no one asked for
Richard Branson surprised absolutely no one by announcing last week that he’d be aboard the next Virgin Galactic to fly to low Earth orbit, which is set to take off on July 11, and be the space tourism company’s first to carry a full crew complement. Jeff Bezos is heading up in his company’s own phallic reusable rocket on July 20, which means if all goes to schedule, Branson will beat him by just over a week.
If you find you have a hard time mustering a lot of enthusiasm or really any feelings at all about these two grown man boys burning cash in a race to be the first billionaire to spend a couple minutes at an altitude technically considered ‘space’ by a more or less arbitrary definition, then congratulations: You should not care. No one should, and yet here we are, writing and reading about it in a newsletter.
These ‘events’ will be worth watching because of the technical achievements they represent for the companies involved, and the teams that worked hard on making sure either spacecraft is able to safely transport humans to space; the billionaires on board are mere chattel, weight and mass simulators that can provide a surprisingly good, but not altogether perfect, simulacrum of a human passenger.
Elon actually wins some rare kudos for not apparently giving much of a shit about this particular bro off.
SpaceX and Virgin Galactic deliver
SpaceX and Virgin Orbit have delivered payloads on behalf of paying customers this past week — par for the course for the former, but a novel experience for the latter. SpaceX sent up 85 satellites on behalf of customers during its second official rideshare mission, along with three of its own, and Virgin Orbit launched its first official commercial mission (after its successful demonstration launch earlier this year), carrying a number of small satellites including the first ever for the Netherlands military.
If Virgin Orbit succeeds in ramping its operations according to its plan, a week like this with multiple launches from a number of commercial launch providers capable of sending up small satellites might become a lot more common. Virgin Orbit joins SpaceX and Rocket Lab now as having the potential to fly on any given week, and others are hot on their heels, including Astra (which is now an officially publicly traded company) and Relativity.
Speaking of that last one, Relativity announced a new 1 million square foot factory that will house a lot of its massive 3D printers to ramp up production of its larger Terran R rocket. The company has yet to fly its Terran 1, the first of its 3D printed spacecraft, but that’s still on track to happen later this year.
SpaceX’s Starlink terminal costs over 2x what it costs
Elon Musk virtually joined the MWC conference in Barcelona to talk about Starlink, and when asked what success for the bourgeoning global connectivity service would look like, he said that essentially they’ll be happy if it doesn’t go bankrupt. Then, if they can jump that hurdle, they’ll start thinking longer term.
He pointed out that everyone who has tried to do what Starlink is trying to do so far has gone bust, and admitted that the company has probably already sunk between $5 and $10 billion into its work on the constellation and service so far, with another $30 billion expected to be invested long-term. He also pointed out that the $500 terminal and modem kit customers need to buy to get connected actually costs SpaceX over $1,000 to produce, so it’s selling them at a significant loss for now.
Starlink could be a big source of ongoing revenue, and more consistent and predictable than the launch business, but it’s obviously going to take a long time to get there. Now it make sense why the company is launching Starlink satellites with such frequency, as it aims for global coverage, and the larger customer base that brings.
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has always liked to motivate his employees by saying every day is Day 1. Well, it is actually Day 1 for his successor Andy Jassy, who officially moves into the corner office at Amazon today.
Bezos announced that he would be stepping down as CEO in February to focus on other interests including his charities Day 1 Fund and the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, the billionaire’s space company and The Washington Post, the newspaper he bought in 2013.
As he steps away, he will remain as executive chairman, but it will be Jassy, who up until now has spent most of his career at Amazon building the tremendously successful AWS cloud infrastructure arm, to keep a good thing going.
Jassy joined Amazon in 1997 and spent some time working as Bezos executive assistant and helped formulate the idea that would become Amazon Web Services, a series of integrated web services. He has been at AWS since its earliest days, helping build it from the initial idea to a $50 billion juggernaut. He was promoted to AWS CEO in 2016.
The Wall Street journal reported the other day that AWS would be ranked 69th on The Fortune 500 if it were a stand-alone company with the cloud unit currently on a $54 billion run rate. While that’s impressive he is taking over the full company, which itself ranks #2 on the same list, and which generated $386 billion in revenue last year as the pandemic pushed shopping online and Amazon was able to increase sales dramatically.
Jassy will face a number of challenges as he takes over including keeping that growth going as COVID slows down and people can begin to shop in person again. He also needs to deal with a federal government antitrust movement in the U.S. and the EU, a push to unionize Amazon warehouses and a general fear of Amazon’s growing market clout.
As part of the executive musical chairs such a shift in leadership tends to force, former Tableau CEO Adam Selipsky, who spent over a decade with Jassy helping to build the unit before moving to run Tableau in 2016, will take over as AWS CEO replacing Jassy.
In pre-market trading, Amazon stock was up 0.42% suggesting perhaps that Wall Street expects a smooth leadership transition at the company. Jassy has been a key member of the executive team for a number of years, and highly successful in his own right as he built AWS from humble beginnings to its current status, but now Amazon is his company to run and he will need to prove that he is up to the task.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has given Virgin Galactic the green light to begin transporting commercial passengers to space aboard its VSS spacecraft. This is an expansion of the company’s existing license, which had granted it permission to fly professional test pilots and astronauts to space using its spaceplane. The updated license comes on the heels of Virgin Galactic’s successful test flight on May 22.
This means that the way is cleared for Virgin Galactic to being operating as the first official ‘spaceline’ — which is like an airline, but for space. The company aims to provide regular service for space tourists and researchers to suborbital space, with an experience that includes unparalleled views of Earth and a few minutes of weightless during the roughly 2 hour trip.
The FAA’s approval is a big step, but it’s not the final one before Virgin Galactic begins its actual regular service flights for paying customers: The company still needs to complete three remaining test flights before that happens. These will be the first flights of the Virgin spacecraft and its carrier plane while carrying a full crew, and at the goal is still to fly the first of those sometime “this summer,” according to CEO Michael Colglazier.
A report from earlier this month claims that Virgin Galactic backer Sir Richard Branson could fly on the next test flight, and that it might occur as early as the coming July 4 weekend, which would mean he makes it to space faster than his billionaire rocket riding rival Jeff Bezos, who is set to make a trip on his own Blue Origin New Shepard spaceship on July 20. Virgin Galactic hasn’t said officially when its next test flight would occur, however.
Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
This is Equity Monday, our morning coffee chat with you that is all about the weekend, what to expect this week, and some funding rounds you may have missed. I’m subbing in for Alex Wilhelm today, who is deservedly out on vacation. You can find me on Twitter @nmasc_, and Equity on Twitter (turn on those notifications!) @equitypod.
Biden and world leaders are congregating at the NATO summit, which kicks off this week. Also, the Dublin Tech Summit is happening on Thursday with yours truly, other TC folks, and many entrepreneurs making a virtual appearance.
Now, onto the news!
- The weekend: The seat next to Jeff Bezos as he launches into space just got filled for $28 million. Also, Elon Musk tweeted about how Tesla might start accepting Bitcoin as a payment once at least half of it can be mined using clean energy. The comment sent Bitcoin up more than a few percentage points, hovering at $39,173 at the time of the recording.
- This morning: The FT reports that Flagship Pioneering, which is responsible for incubating and launching Moderna, has raised a new venture capital fund at $3.4 billion. Flagship isn’t your traditional VC. It forms teams around problem areas and brainstorms solutions, incubates the most promising ones, and then eventually spins out and finances those companies.
- Funding rounds: Byju’s got a check from UBS and Zoom founder Eric Yuan, making it the most valuable startup in India. The company is now valued at $16.5 billion post-money. Plus, The Pill Club has raised an extension Series B round with former Uber exec Liz Meyerdirk newly at the helm of the company.
- Finally, please take the Equity Listener Survey. We want to make the show better for you, so spending a few seconds filling out our survey and we will be very grateful.
And that’s all. Be kind with yourself this week, and take more than a 5-minute lunch because true glamour is being present and chewing slowly.
A ticket to take a brief trip to space with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos next month has been sold at auction for $28 million.
The bidding process, which began in early May, drew offers from more than 7,000 participants from 159 countries, Blue Origin said. The price had stood at $4.8 million ahead of Saturday’s live auction, which was streamed online.
The identity of the winning bidder has not yet been made public but will be revealed in the coming weeks, Blue Origin said.
Blue Origin has its winning bidder for its first ever human spaceflight, and the winner will pay $28 million for the privilege of flying aboard the company’s debut private astronaut mission. The winning bid came in today during a live auction, which saw 7,600 registered bidders, from 159 countries compete for the spot.
This was the culmination of Blue Origin’s three part bidding process for the ticket, which included a blind auction first, followed by an open, asynchronous auction with the highest bid posted to the company’s website whenever it changed. This last live auction greatly ramped up the value of the winning bid, which was at just under $5 million prior to the event.
This first seat up for sale went for a lot more than what an actual, commercial spot is likely to cost on Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule, which flies to suborbital space and only spends a few minutes there before returning to Earth. Estimates put the cost of a typical launch at someone under $1 million, likely closer to $500,000 or so. But this is the first, which is obviously a special distinction, and it’s also a trip that will allow the winning bidder to pretty much literally rub elbows with Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, who is going to be on the flight as well, along with his brother Mark, and a fourth passenger that Blue Origin says it will be announcing sometime in the coming “weeks,” ahead of the July 20 target flight date.
As for who won the auction, we’ll also have to wait to find that out, since the winner’s identity is also going to be “released in the weeks following” the end of today’s live bidding. And in case you thought that $28 million might represent a big revenue windfall for Blue Origin, which has spent years developing its human spaceflight capability, think again: The company is donating it to its Club for the Future non-profit foundation, which is focused on encouraging kids to pursue careers in STEM in a long-term bid to help Bezos’ larger goals of making humanity a spacefaring civilization.
You can re-watch the entire live bidding portion of the auction via the stream below.
Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and myself here.
It’s WWDC week, so expect a deluge of Apple news to overtake your Twitter feed here and there over the next few days. But there’s a lot more going on, so let’s dig in:
- The Weekend: A supercharged, supercharged Model S Tesla car is not coming out. Instead, a merely supercharged version will come out. It’s still stupid fast and expensive. And Nigeria’s war with Twitter continued, with new efforts from the African nation to limit access to the social media service within its borders.
- This Morning: Flipkart is raising $3 billion at a roughly $40 billion valuation The deal underscores not just how big the Indian tech scene is, but also how much investor interest there is in ecommerce bets more generally. And Jeff Bezos is going to space. Soon!
- Funding Rounds: Trulioo raised a $394 million Series D. The Canadian startup is now worth far more than $1 billion. And Chinese company Kanzhun is going public in the United States, which raised an eyebrow here amongst the Equity Morning Crew.
- Take The Damn Equity Survey: Take it! All the cools kids are taking it!
And that’s your start to the week. More to come from your friends here on Wednesday, and Friday. Chat soon!
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has revealed on Instagram that he plans to fly on Blue Origin’s first human spaceflight next month.
“I want to go on this flight because it’s a thing I’ve wanted to do all my life,” Bezos, the richest person in the world, said in a post published Monday morning. “It’s an adventure. It’s a big deal for me.”
Bezos said he invited his younger brother, Mark, whom he described as his best friend, to go along. The two brothers will join the winner of an auction for a third seat on the flight, which is set to take place on July 20 of this year. Bidding for this seat is already at $2.8 million but is likely to go higher during a live auction on July 12. Proceeds from this auction will be donated to Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future.
Jeff Bezos is going to be one of the passengers on his spaceflight company Blue Origin’s first ever human space launch on July 20. The Amazon founder announced the news via his Instagram on Monday morning, revealing that his brother Mark will also be coming along for the ride. Bezos and his brother will join the winner of an online auction Blue Origin is currently hosting, which currently stands at $2.8 million as the highest bid for that seat.
The Blue Origin launch of its suborbital, reusable New Shepard rocket on July 20 will be the first time it has ever flown with people on board. It’s unusual for a company to make its first ever human spaceflight a mission with a paying passenger, and now we know that it’s also going to be carrying one of the world’s richest people, another bold choice for a first human flight. Virgin Galactic, by contrast, has flown to space multiple times with test pilots and astronauts before its forthcoming trip with Sir Richard Branson. Elon Musk has also never flown on a SpaceX launch, though he has suggested in the past that he will fly on one of his company’s vehicles at some point.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard has flown plenty of times without people, however, and save for the first flight where the reusable booster was lost, has had a complete success for each of those 15 missions, including landing of the booster (except that first time) and recovery of the capsule (for all of the launches). The New Shepard rocket doesn’t go all the way to orbit, but instead flies to the edge of space, where passengers experience a few minutes of weightlessness and an unbeatable view of Earth through the capsules many windows, before returning to a parachute-assisted landing on the ground in Texas near Blue Origin’s launch site.
The auction for Blue Origin’s first paying customer seat currently sits at $2.8 million, and it’s been there for a while now after the price raised from $1.4 million when Blue Origin opened unsealed bidding on May 19. The final phase of the auction, set for June 12, will include live online bidding from remaining participants who bump their existing bid to match the high offer.
Fintech in Africa is a goldmine. Investors are betting big on startups offering a plethora of services from payments and lending to neobanks, remittances and cross-border transfers, and rightfully so. Each of these services solves unique sets of challenges. For cross-border payments, it’s the outrageous rates and regulatory hassles involved with completing transactions from one African country to another.
Chipper Cash, a three-year-old startup that facilitates cross-border payment across Africa, has closed a $100 million Series C round to introduce more products and grow its team.
It hasn’t been too long ago since Chipper Cash was last in the news. In November 2020, the African cross-border fintech startup raised $30 million Series B led by Ribbit Capital and Jeff Bezos fund Bezos Expeditions. This was after closing a $13.8 million Series A round from Deciens Capital and other investors in June 2020. Hence, Chipper Cash has gone through three rounds totalling $143.8 million in a year. However, when the $8.4 million raised in two seed rounds back in 2019 is included, this number increases to $152.2 million.
SVB Capital, the investment arm of U.S. high-tech commercial bank Silicon Valley Bank led this Series C round. Others who participated in this round include existing investors — Deciens Capital, Ribbit Capital, Bezos Expeditions, One Way Ventures, 500 Startups, Tribe Capital, and Brue2 Ventures.
Chipper Cash was launched in 2018 by Ham Serunjogi and Maijid Moujaled. The pair met in Iowa after coming to the U.S. for studies. Following their stints at big names like Facebook, Flickr and Yahoo!, the founders decided to work on their own startup.
Last year, the company which offers mobile-based, no fee, P2P payment services, was present in seven countries: Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya. Now, it has expanded to a new territory outside Africa. “We’ve expanded to the U.K., it’s the first market we’ve expanded to outside Africa,” CEO Serunjogi said to TechCrunch.
In addition and as a sign of growth, the company which boasts more than 200 employees plans to increase its workforce by hiring 100 staff throughout the year. The number of users on Chipper Cash has increased to 4 million, up 33% from last year. And while the company averaged 80,000 transactions daily in November 2020 and processed $100 million in payments value in June 2020, it is unclear what those figures are now as Serunjogi declined to comment on them, including its revenues.
When we reported its Series B last year, Chipper Cash wanted to offer more business payment solutions, cryptocurrency trading options, and investment services. So what has been the progress since then? “We’ve launched cards products in Nigeria and we’ve also launched our crypto product. We’re also launching our US stocks product in Uganda, Nigeria and a few other countries soon,” Serunjogi answered.
Crypto is widely adopted in Africa. African users are responsible for a sizeable chunk of transactions that take place on some global crypto-trading platforms. For instance, African users accounted for $7 billion of the $8.3 billion in Luno’s total trading volume. Binance P2P users in Africa also grew 2,000% within the past five months while their volumes increased by over 380%.
Individuals and small businesses across Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya account for most of the crypto activity on the continent. Chipper Cash is active in these countries and tapping into this opportunity is basically a no brainer. “Our approach to growing products and adding products is based on what our users find valuable. As you can imagine, crypto is one technology that has been widely adopted in Africa and many emerging markets. So we want to give them the power to access crypto and to be able to buy, hold, and sell crypto whenever,” the CEO added.
However, its crypto service isn’t available in Nigeria, the largest crypto market in Africa. The reason behind this is the Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN) regulation on crypto activities in the country prohibiting users from converting fiat into crypto from their bank accounts. To survive, most crypto players have adopted P2P methods but Chipper Cash isn’t offering that yet and according to Serunjogi, the company is “looking forward to any development in Nigeria that allows it to be offered freely again.”
The same goes for the investment service Chipper Cash plans to roll out in Nigeria and Uganda soon. Presently, Nigeria’s capital market regulator SEC is keeping tabs on local investment platforms and bringing their activities under its purview. Chipper Cash will not be exempt when the product is live in Nigeria and has begun engaging regulators to be ahead of the curve.
“As fintech explodes and as innovation continues to move forward, consumers have to be protected. We invest millions of dollars every year in our compliance programs, so I think working closely with the regulators directly so that these products are offered in a compliant manner is important,” Serunjogi noted.
Six billion-dollar companies in Africa; the fifth fintech unicorn
During our call, Serunjogi made some remarks about Nigeria’s central bank which resembles comments made by Flutterwave CEO Olugbenga Agboola back in March.
While acknowledging the central banks in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda for creating environments where innovation can thrive, he said: “Nigeria has probably the most exciting and vibrant tech ecosystem in Africa. And that’s credit directly to CBN for creating and fostering an environment that allowed multiple startups like ourselves and others like Flutterwave to blossom.”
Most fintechs would argue that the CBN stifles innovation but comments from both CEOs seems to suggest otherwise. From all indication, Chipper Cash and Flutterwave strive to be on the right side of the country’s apex bank policies and regulations. It is why they are one of the fastest-growing fintechs in the region and also billion-dollar companies.
“Obviously, we’re not getting into our valuation, but we’re probably the most valuable private startup in Africa today after this round. So that’s a reflection of the environment that regulators like CBN have created to allowed innovation and growth, ” Serunjogi commented when asked about the company’s valuation.
Up until last week, the only private unicorn startup in Africa this year was Flutterwave. Then China-backed and African-focused fintech came along as the company was reported to be in the process of raising $400 million at a $1.5 billion valuation. If Serunjogi’s comment is anything to go by, Chipper Cash is currently valued between $1-2 billion thus joining the exclusive billion-dollar club.
But to be sure, I asked Serunjogi again if the company is indeed a unicorn. This time, he gave a more cryptic answer. “We’re not commenting on the size of our valuation publicly. One of the things that I’ve been quite keen on internally and externally is that the valuation of our company has not been a focus for us. It’s not a goal we’re aspiring to achieve. For us, the thing that drives us is that we have a product that is impactful to our users.”
Serunjogi added that this investment actualizes the importance of possessing a solid balance sheet and onboarding SVB Capital and getting existing investors to double down is a means to that end. According to him, a strong balance sheet will provide the infrastructure needed to support key long-term investments which will translate to more exciting products down the road.
“We look at our investors as key partners to the business. So having very strong partners around the table makes us a stronger company. These are partners who can put capital into our business, and we’re also able to learn from them in several other ways,” he said of the investors backing the three-year-old company.
Just like Ribbit Capital and Bezos Expeditions in last year’s Series B, this is SVB Capital’s first foray into the African market. In an email, the managing director of SVB Capital Tilli Bannett, confirmed the fund’s investment in Chipper Cash. According to him, the VC firm invested in Chipper Cash because it has created an easy and accessible way for people living in Africa to fulfil their financial needs through enhanced products and user experiences.
“As a result, Chipper has had a phenomenal trajectory of consumer adoption and volume through the product. We are excited at the role Chipper has forged for itself in fostering financial inclusion across Africa and the vast potential that still lies ahead,” he added.
Fintech remains the bright spot in African tech investment. In 2020, the sector accounted for more than 25% of the almost $1.5 billion raised by African startups. This figure will likely increase this year as four startups have raised $100 million rounds already: TymeBank in February, Flutterwave in March, OPay and Chipper Cash this May. All except TymeBank are now valued at over $1 billion, and it becomes the first time Africa has seen two or more billion-dollar companies in a year. In addition to Jumia (e-commerce), Interswitch (fintech), and Fawry (fintech), the continent now has six billion-dollar tech companies.
Here’s another interesting piece of information. The timeframe at which startups are reaching this landmark seems to be shortening. While it took Interswitch and Fawry seventeen and thirteen years respectively, it took Flutterwave five years; Jumia, four years; then OPay and Chipper Cash three years.
Blue Origin is taking a novel approach to selling the first available private spaceflight seat on its New Shepard rocket, with an auction that will award the spot to the highest bidder. The company used a sealed bidding process for the first part of the contest, but it is now revealing the amount of the top bid and from here until June 10, all online bidding will happen in the open.
The current top bid for the coveted spot is at $1.4 million, after a bidding process that saw 5,200 applicants put in an offer, spanning bidders from 136 countries. Blue Origin will now be taking open bids on its website, and the current high bid (which is already up to $2 million as of this writing) will be displayed prominently for all to see.
On June 12, there will be one final, live online auction, among remaining participants who have registered and are willing to compete at whatever the high price is at the time. The winner then gets a seat on that first flight, which is currently set for July 20, and which will include other, yet-to-be-named passengers selected by Blue Origin.
The Jeff Bezos-founded space company has been working towards this moment for a long time, but this winning bid isn’t a direct payday for the private spaceflight venture: Instead, it’s donating the amount of the winning offer to its Club for the Future non-profit, which is aimed at encouraging kids to pursue a STEM education.
This will be Blue Origin’s first ever human spaceflight, and the fact that they’re opening up at least one seat to a member of the public means they’re extremely confident in the reliability of the suborbital, reusable New Shepard launch system.
On Wednesday, Blue Origin officially announced that its first crewed flight to space is targeted for July 20, suggesting that its extended period of test flights is finally coming to an end. Rather than simply placing a seat on sale, however, the company announced it will auction one off, with the proceeds going to the company’s charity.
New Shepard flights will take passengers above much of the atmosphere and into space then allow them an extended period of apparent weightlessness as the capsule free-falls back to Earth. The capsule itself is relatively spacious and is equipped with large windows and cushy-looking seats, which are clearly meant to make flight a pleasant experience. The free fall is followed by a parachute-assisted landing, with the booster performing a powered landing separately.
If that sounds like a compelling experience to you, your first chance to get in on it is via an auction for a single seat on its first crewed flight. You can get the process started now by submitting a bid at the Blue Origin website. On May 19th, the highest bids will be unsealed, and any further online bidding will have to exceed an existing bid. On June 12th, the auction will wrap up with live online bidding.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is offering up one seat on the inaugural flight of its sub-orbital rocket New Shepard, set to take place July 20 – but instead of a fixed price ticket sale, the seat will go to the highest bidder.
It’ll work like this: from May 5-19, bidders will be able to bid any amount on an auction website. From May 19, the bids will be made “unsealed,” or made visible, and bidders have continually exceed the highest bid to remain in the running for the seat. Bidding will conclude June 12 with a live online auction.
From Blue Origin’s website, it looks like the overall flight will be relatively quick, with the craft reaching apogee, or its highest point, four minutes after takeoff. The capsule containing the astronauts (and the lucky bidder) will land 10 minutes after takeoff near its launch site in West Texas.
Blue Origin said the winning bid will be donated to its charitable foundation, Club for the Future.
In recent weeks Blue Origin has conducted a dress rehearsal of astronaut loading and unloading. This is only the most recent move from the company, which has been testing and flight-certifying its spacecraft for the past few years. We will update the story as more information becomes available on the auction.
Restoring and preserving the world’s forests has long been considered one of the easiest, lowest cost, and simplest ways to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
It’s by far the most popular method for corporations looking to take an easy first step on the long road to decarbonizing or offsetting their industrial operations. But in recent months the efficacy, validity, and reliability of a number of forest offsets have been called into question thanks to some blockbuster reporting from Bloomberg.
It’s against this uncertain backdrop that investors are coming in to shore up financing for Pachama, a company building a marketplace for forest carbon credits that it says is more transparent and verifiable thanks to its use of satellite imagery and machine learning technologies.
That pitch has brought in $15 million in new financing for the company, which co-founder and chief executive Diego Saez Gil said would be used for product development and the continued expansion of the company’s marketplace.
Launched only one year ago, Pachama has managed to land some impressive customers and backers. No less an authority on things environmental than Jeff Bezos (given how much of a negative impact Amazon operations have on the planet), gave the company a shoutout in his last letter to shareholders as Amazon’s outgoing chief executive. And the largest ecommerce company in Latin America, Mercado Libre, tapped the company to manage an $8 million offset project that’s part of a broader commitment to sustainability by the retailing giant.
Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund is an investor in the latest round, which was led by Bill Gates’ investment firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Other investors included Lowercarbon Capital (the climate-focused fund from über-successful angel investor, Chris Sacca), former Über executive Ryan Graves’ Saltwater, the MCJ Collective, and new backers like Tim O’Reilly’s OATV, Ram Fhiram, Joe gebbia, Marcos Galperin, NBA All-star Manu Ginobilli, James Beshara, Fabrice Grinda, Sahil Lavignia, and Tomi Pierucci.
That’s not even the full list of the company’s backers. What’s made Pachama so successful, and given the company the ability to attract top talent from companies like Google, Facebook, SapceX, Tesla, OpenAI, Microsoft, Impossible Foods and Orbital Insights, is the combination of its climate mission applied to the well-understood forest offset market, said Saez Gil.
“Restoring nature is one of the most important solutions to climate change. Forests, oceans and other ecosystems not only sequester enormous amounts of CO2from the atmosphere, but they also provide critical habitat for biodiversity and are sources of livelihood for communities worldwide. We are building the technology stack required to be able to drive funding to the restoration and conservation of these ecosystems with integrity, transparency and efficiency” said Diego Saez Gil, Co-founder and CEO at Pachama. “We feel honored and excited to have the support of such an incredible group of investors who believe in our mission and are demonstrating their willingness to support our growth for the long term”.
Customers outside of Latin America are also clamoring for access to Pachama’s offset marketplace. Microsoft, Shopify, and Softbank are also among the company’s paying buyers.
It’s another reason that investors like Y Combinator, Social Capital, Tobi Lutke, Serena Williams, Aglaé Ventures (LVMH’s tech investment arm), Paul Graham, AirAngels, Global Founders, ThirdKind Ventures, Sweet Capital, Xplorer Capital, Scott Belsky, Tim Schumacher, Gustaf Alstromer, Facundo Garreton, and Terrence Rohan, were able to commit to backing the company’s nearly $24 million haul since its 2020 launch.
“Pachama is working on unlocking the full potential of nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere,” said Carmichael Roberts from BEV, in a statement. “Their technology-based approach will have an enormous multiplier effect by using machine learning models for forest analysis to validate, monitor and measure impactful carbon neutrality initiatives. We are impressed by the progress that the team has made in a short period of time and look forward to working with them to scale their unique solution globally.”