Startups are blasting into the heavens. The last few years have seen the number of rocket launches spike as companies — especially SpaceX, founded by billionaire Elon Musk — and government agencies have put thousands of satellites into low-Earth orbit.
And space backers say this is only the beginning. Today, satellites help us analyse hurricanes and wildfires, give us internet, allow us to communicate with planes and ships and — thanks to GPS pinpointing — get us home in our Ubers and Bolts. Someday, space may be the place where we make new drugs and materials.
One small wrinkle: VC money for space is harder to come by now than it was just a few years back.
Median spacetech deal sizes in Europe remain more than half the size of similar deals in the US and Asia, according to analysis from VC firm Seraphim Space, though investor appetite recovered slightly last year, following a really quiet 2022.
A handful of European companies are defying the downturn and fetching big deals, not least Munich-based rocket startup Isar Aerospace, which pulled in one of the biggest spacetech rounds globally in 2023, with its $165m Series C.
A few chunky raises have already caught the eye in 2024, including a $30m Series B for Reims-based launch startup Latitude and a €100m Series C for Italian space logistics company D-Orbit.
And what about the next space challengers; the ones flying just under the radar? We asked five investors for their picks and explanations for why these companies stand out. The one catch — they couldn’t choose from their own portfolios.
From startups helping satellites to dodge masses of space junk to those building suborbital gas stations, here are 15 spacetechs VCs say are worth fixing your telescope on.
Christian Ziach, principal, High-Tech Gründerfonds
The German-based VC has around €1.4bn under the management of its four funds.
This startup was founded by Laurynas Mačiulis, one of the few who can call himself a serial space entrepreneur. His previous company was NanoAvionics, which was sold to Kongsberg Defence & Aerospace. What excites me about Astrolight is its plan to provide fast, secure and scalable laser communication terminals (LCT) for telecom satellites. Since companies around the world began building satellite constellations, we have been running out of free bandwidth in the radio frequency spectrum. Deploying LCTs is the right way to future-proof our communications satellites.
Navigating congested space is of utmost importance for satellites, especially in the face of an exponentially increasing number of operators and space junk. While powerful propulsion systems are providing the means for any manoeuvre, fuel consumption is a critical issue, as we lack the means for refuelling in space. Here’s where ClearSpace comes in. The startup, recognised for its expertise in space debris removal, is working with Colorado-based Orbit Fab to introduce in-space refuelling services, with the aim of bringing gas directly to customers.
Arctic Space Technologies (AST), Sweden
A startup operating from the very north of Sweden that’s addressing the growing challenge of beaming data down to Earth. The startup’s approach optimises the use of frequency bands, which are a limited resource, in crowded orbits. AST is already supporting customers such as OneWeb, touted as a potential rival to Elon Musk's Starlink, and American internet provider ViaSat.
Adam Niewinski, cofounder and general partner at OTB Ventures
OTB Ventures is a VC firm with $300m AUM focused on spacetech, AI and automation, fintech and cybersecurity. Its portfolio includes spacetech companies like ICEYE, HydroSat and SpaceKnow.
ATMOS Space Cargo, Germany
This company is developing a proprietary capsule that would offer a frequent and affordable shuttle service to return experiments done in space back to Earth. This solution aims to overcome the significant barriers to developing new kinds of tech and products using space’s unique microgravity properties. The potential here is to make new discoveries that would benefit society across the board, including breakthroughs in life sciences, semiconductors and materials science.
This startup has emerged as a dynamic player in space data management, offering flexible and high-performance processing capabilities tailored for satellite outputs. By helping space companies develop better in-house data pipelines, space missions can reach their full potential.
This company’s deploying a network of ground-based instruments to monitor clouds and atmospheric turbulence by analysing starlight and sunlight. This approach provides real-time accurate data, essential for the future of high-speed broadband telecom satellites.
Maureen Haverty, principal at Seraphim Space
Seraphim Space was Europe’s first fund to focus on spacetech. It runs an accelerator programme for seed-stage companies while its fund is focused around Series A investing, from proof of concept to scaleup. Portfolio includes D-Orbit, Satellite Vu and All.Space.
UNIO Enterprise, Germany
This company is revolutionising mobile connectivity in automotive and logistics industries, where reliable internet will be critical in the next decade. UNIO solves the problem of patchy coverage by merging terrestrial and satellite networks, ensuring uninterrupted connectivity. CEO Katrin Bacic has an impressive telecoms background and has assembled an impressive team to adopt a software-first strategy.
This startup uses thermal datasets, analytics and AI-driven predictive modelling to address a pressing global issue: the escalating threat and costs of wildfires. In 2022, wildfire suppression in the US and Canada alone cost a staggering $4.5bn. OroraTech improves fire suppression efforts by providing rapid situational awareness, with technology operating around the clock that can detect wildfires within minutes of ignition.
This startup is tackling the pain of managing $100tn worth of global infrastructure assets, by leveraging data from more than 900 satellites that monitor and help predict the condition of critical resources on Earth. Traditional methods of managing these assets, by contrast, are not only costly but time-consuming, relying on manual data collection. The company has already seen substantial customer traction, gaining major clients like utility company E.ON.
Pierre Festal, partner, Promus Ventures
VC firm, split between the US and Europe, that backs early-stage deeptech startups. In 2021, the firm closed a €120m fund focused on investing in early-stage, space-related companies.
Orbio Earth, Germany
A geospatial intelligence company, which makes methane visible to the energy industry by filtering out “noisy” surrounding environments. The company’s goal is to help oil and gas operators, and credit and equity investors, monitor their emissions.
Look Up Space, France
This company is building radars on the ground to track debris as small as a few centimetres in low-Earth orbit. The startup was founded by the retired major general of the French Air and Space Force, Michel Friedling, and the former head of the space situational awareness office of the French Space Agency, Juan Carlos Dolado.
Glint Solar, Norway
This company has built a cloud-based platform that leverages Earth observation in order to help developers identify the best sites for solar farms. With Glint’s platform, not only do solar developers save time identifying sites, but they can also optimise their development pipeline, reduce risk and increase the yield and financial profile of any given solar project.
Matteo Cascinari, general partner, Primo VC
Primo Space Fund, launched in 2020, is the first Italian VC fund specialising in spacetech.
Ecosmic, the Netherlands
The huge amount of space debris is jeopardising all space activities and the situation is getting worse every day. As a consequence, the need for “space situational awareness” solutions is growing and becoming more and more relevant. Ecosmic operates in this domain with its collision avoidance software, which helps operators assess threats and identify the best avoidance manoeuvres to perform. What makes the startup even more interesting is that it’s a team of young women founders.
IENAI Space, Spain
IENAI is developing a propulsion system based on so-called electrospray technology, which would allow satellites to perform in-orbit manoeuvres including last-mile delivery, collision avoidance and de-orbiting. The modular nature of this system makes it applicable to small satellites too.
With its proprietary satellite constellation that's equipped with micro-LiDAR sensors, Airmo aims to improve the quality of real-time CO2 and methane measurements on Earth. Applications for this data range from supply-chain emission monitoring to carbon accounting.