Virgin Orbit scored a major success on Sunday, with a test flight that not only achieved its goals of reaching space and orbit, but also of delivering payloads on board for NASA, marking its first commercial mission, too. The launch was a success in every possible regard, which puts Virgin Orbit on track to becoming an active launch provider for small payloads for both commercial and defense customers.
Today's sequence of events for #LaunchDemo2 went exactly to plan, from safe execution of our ground ops all the way through successful full duration burns on both engines. To say we're thrilled would be a massive understatement, but 240 characters couldn't do it justice anyway. pic.twitter.com/ZKpoi7hkGN
— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) January 18, 2021
Above, you can watch the actual launch itself – the moment the LauncherOne rocket detaches from ‘Cosmic Girl,’ a modified Boeing 747 airliner that takes off normally from a standard aircraft runway, and then climbs to a cruising altitude to release the rocket, which then ignites its own engines and flies the rest of the way to space. Virgin Orbit’s launch model was designed to reduce the barriers to carrying small payloads to orbit vs. traditional vertical take-off vehicles, and this successful test flight proves the model works.
Virgin Orbit now joins a small but growing group of private launch companies who have actually reached space, and made it to orbit. That should be great news for the small satellite launch market, which still has much more demand than there is supply. Virgin Orbit also offers something very different from current launch providers like SpaceX, which typically serves larger payloads or which must offer rideshare model missions for those with smaller spacecraft. The LauncherOne design potentially means more on-demand, response and quick-turnaround launch services for satellite operators.
Virgin Orbit launched its LauncherOne rocket to orbit for the first time today, with a successful demonstration mission that carried a handful of satellites and will attempt to deliver them to low Earth orbit on behalf of NASA. It’s a crucial milestone for the small satellite launch company, and the first time the company has shown that its hybrid carrier aircraft/small payload orbital delivery rocket works as intended, which should set the company up to begin commercial operations of its launch system very soon.
This is the second attempt at reaching orbit for Virgin Orbit, after a first try in late May ended with the LauncherOne rocket initiating an automatic safety shutdown of its engines shortly after detaching from the ‘Cosmic Girl’ carrier aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 that transports the rocket to its launch altitude. The company said that it learned a lot from that attempt, including identifying the error that caused the failsafe engine shut down, which it corrected in advance of today’s mission.
Virgin’s Cosmic Girl took off at just before 2 PM EDT, and then released LauncherOne from its wing at roughly 2:40 PM EDT. LauncherOne had a “clean separation” as intended, and then ignited its own rocket engines and quickly accelerated to the point where it was undergoing the maximum amount of aerodynamic pressure (called max q in the aerospace industry). LauncherOne’s main engine then cut off after its burn, and its payload stage separated, crossing the Karman line and entering space for the first time.
It achieved orbit at around 2:49 PM EDT, and will release its payload of small satellites in roughly 30 minutes. We’ll update this post to provide the results of this part of its mission later, but this is already a major milestone and huge achievement for the Virgin Orbit team.
Virgin Orbit’s unique value proposition in the small launch market is that it can take off and land from traditional runways thanks to its carrier aircraft and mid-air rocket launch approach. That should provide flexibility in terms of launch locations, allowing it to be more responsive to customer needs in terms of geographies and target orbital deliveries.
In 2017, Virgin Orbit was spun out of Virgin Galactic, to focus exclusively on small payload orbital launch. Virgin Galactic then devoted itself entirely to its own mission of offering commercial human spaceflight. Virgin Orbit itself create its own subsidiary earlier this year, called VOX Space, which intends to use LauncherOne to deliver small satellites to orbit specifically for the U.S. national security market.
Only a few weeks after its SPAC IPO, Porch today announced that it has made four acquisitions, worth a total of $122 million. The most important here is probably the acquisition of Homeowners of America for $100 million, which gets Porch deeper into the home insurance space. In addition, Porch is also acquiring mover marketing and data platform V12 for $22 million, as well as home inspection service Palm-Tech and iRoofing, a SaaS application for roofing contractors. Porch did not disclose the acquisition prices for the latter two companies.
You may still think of Porch as a marketplace for home improvement and repair services — and that’s what it started out as when it launched about seven years ago. Yet while it still offers those services, a couple of years after its 2013 launch, the company pivoted to building what it now calls a “vertical software platform for the home.” Through a number of acquisitions, the Porch Group now includes Porch.com, as well as services like HireAHelper, Inspection Support Network for home inspectors, Kandela for providing services around moving and an insurance broker in the form of the Elite Insurance Group. In some form or another, Porch’s tools are now used — either directly or indirectly — by two-thirds of U.S. homebuyers every month.
As Porch founder and CEO Matt Ehrlichman told me, he had originally planned to take his company public through a traditional IPO. He noted that going the increasingly popular SPAC route, though, allowed him to push his timeline up by a year, which in turn now enables the company to make the acquisitions it announced today.
“In total, we had a $323 million fundraise that allows us now to not only be a public company with public currency, but to be very well capitalized. And picking up that year allows us to be able to go and pursue acquisitions that we think make really good fits for Porch,” Ehrlichman told me. While Porch’s guidance for its 2021 revenue was previously $120 million, it’s now updating that guidance to $170 million based on these acquisitions. That would mean Porch would grow its revenue by about 134% year-over-year between 2020 and 2021.
As the company had previously laid out in its public documents, the plan for 2021 was always to get deeper into insurance. Indeed, as Ehrlichman noted, Porch these days tends to think of itself as a vertical software company that layers insurtech on top of its services in order to be able to create a recurring revenue stream. And because Porch offers such a wide range of services already, its customer acquisition costs are essentially zero for these services.
Porch was already a licensed insurance brokerage. With Homeowners of America, it is acquiring a company that is both an insurance carrier as well as a managing general agent..
“We’re able to capture all of the economic value from the consumer as we help them get insurance set up with their new home and we can really control that experience to delight them. As we wrap all the technology we’ve invested in around that experience we can make it super simple and instant to be able to get the right insurance at the right price for your new home. And because we have all of this data about the home that nobody else has — from the inspection we know if the roof is old, we know if the hot water system is gonna break soon and all the appliances — we know all of this data and so it just gives us a really big advantage in insurance.”
Data, indeed, is what a lot of these acquisitions are about. Because Porch knows so much about so many customers, it is able to provide the companies it acquires with access to relevant data, which in turn helps them offer additional services and make smarter decisions.
Homeowners of America is currently operating in six states (Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia) and licensed in 31. It has a network of more than 800 agencies so far and Porch expects to expand the company’s network and geographic reach in the coming months. “Because we have [customer acquisition cost]-free demand all across the country, one of the opportunities for us is simply just to expand that across the nation,” Ehrlichman explained.
As for V12, Porch’s focus is on that company’s mover marketing and data platform. The acquisition should help it reach its medium-term goal of building a $200 million revenue stream in this area. V12 offers services across multiple verticals, though, including in the automotive space, and will continue to do so. The platform’s overall focus is to help brands identify the right time to reach out to a given consumer — maybe before they decide to buy a new car or move. With Porch’s existing data layered on top of V12’s existing capabilities, the company expects that it will be able to expand these features and it will also allow Porch to not offer mover marketing but what Ehrlichman called “pro-mover” services, as well.
“V12 anchors what we call our marketing software division. A key focus of that is mover marketing. That’s where it’s going to have, long term, tremendous differentiation. But there are a number of other things that they’re working on that are going to have really nice growth vectors, and they’ll continue to push those,” said Ehrlichman.
As for the two smaller acquisitions of iRoofing and Palm-Tech, these are more akin to some of the previous acquisitions the company made in the contractor and inspection verticals. Like with those previous acquisitions, the plan is to help them grow faster, in part through integrating them into the overall Porch group’s family of products.
“Our business is and continues to be highly recurring or reoccurring in nature,” said Porch CFO Marty Heimbigner. “Nearly all of our revenues, including that of these new acquisitions, is consistent and predictable. This repeat revenue is also high margin with less than 20% cost of revenue and is expected to grow more than 30% per year on our platform. So, we believe these deals are highly accretive for our shareholders.”
As the vaccination campaign to counter COVID-19 gets underway (albeit with a rocky start), a number of companies are attempting to support its rollout in a variety of ways. Healthvana, a health tech startup that began with a specific focus on providing patient information digitally for individuals living with HIV, is helping Los Angeles County roll-out mobile vaccination records for COVID-19 using Apple’s Wallet technology. A cursory appraisal of the implementation of this tech might lead one to believe it’s about providing individuals with easy proof of vaccination – but the tech, and Healthvana, are focused on informing individuals to ensure they participate in their own healthcare programs, not providing an immunity pass.
“I generally consider most of healthcare to look and feel like Windows 95,” Healthvana CEO and founder Ramin Bastani. “We look and feel like Instagram . Why is that important? Because patients can engage in things they understand, it’s easier for them to communicate in the way they’re used to communicating, and that ends up leading them better health outcomes.”
Bastani points out that they began the company by focusing this approach to patient education and communication on HIV, and demonstrated that using their software led to patients being 7.4 times more likely to show up for their next follow-up appointment vs. patients who received follow-up information and appointment notices via traditional methods. The company has built their tooling and their approach around not only producing better health for individuals, but also on reducing costs for healthcare providers by eliminating the need for a lot of the work that goes into clearing up misunderstandings, and essentially hounding patients to follow-up, which can significantly dig into clinician and care staff hours.
“We’re actually also reducing the cost to healthcare providers, because you don’t have 1,000 people calling you asking what are their results, and saying ‘I don’t understand, I can’t log in, I don’t know what it means to be SARS nonreactive,’ or all those things we address through simplicity,” Bastain said. “That’s made a huge difference. Overall, I think the key to all healthcare is going to be to be able to get patients to pay attention, and take action to things around their health.”
That’s the goal of Healthvana’s partnership with LA County on COVID-19 immunization records, too – taking vitally important action to ensure the successful rollout of its vaccination program. All approved COVID-19 vaccines to date require a two-course treatment, including one initial inoculation followed by a booster to be administered sometime later. Keeping LA county residents informed about their COVID-19 inoculation, and when they’re due for a second dose, is the primary purpose of the partnership, and benefits from Healthvana’s experience in improving patient follow-up activities. But the app is also providing users with information about COVID-19 care, and, most usefully, prevention and ways to slow the spread.
While Bastani stresses that Healthvana is, in the end, just “the last mile” for message delivery, and that there are many other layers involved in determining the right steps for proper care and prevention, the way in which they provide actionable info has already proven a big boon to one key measure: contact tracing. In select municipalities, Healthvana will also prompt users who’ve tested positive to anonymously notify close contacts directly from their device, which will provide those individuals with both free testing options and information resources.
“Just us doing this in the greater Los Angeles area for less than two months, 12,000+ people have been notified that they’ve been exposed,” Bastani said. “Each of them likely lives with other people and families – this is how you can help slow the spread.”
Contrast that with the relatively slow uptake of the exposure notification tools built into iOS and Android devices via recent software updates provided by Google and Apple working in a rare collaboration. While the technology that underlies it is sound, and focused on user privacy, its usage numbers thus far are far from earthshaking; only 388 people have sent alerts through Virginia’s app based on the exposure notification framework in three months since its launch, for instance.
Healthvana’s focus on timely and relevant delivery of information, offered to users in ways they’re mostly likely to understand and engage with, is already showing its ability to have an impact on COVID-19 and its community transmission. The startup is already in talks to launch similar programs elsewhere in the country, and that could help improve national vaccination outcomes, and how people handle COVID-19 once they have it, too.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued new final rules to help pave the way for the re-introduction of supersonic commercial flight. The U.S. airspace regulator’s rules provide guidance for companies looking to gain approval for flight testing of supersonic aircraft under development, which includes startups like Boom Supersonic, which has just completed its sub-scale supersonic demonstrator aircraft and hopes to begin flight testing it this year.
Boom, which is in the process of finalizing a $50 million funding round and has raised around $150 million across prior fundraising efforts, rolled out its XB-1 supersonic demonstrator jet in October. This test aircraft is smaller than the final design of its Overture passenger supersonic commercial airliner, but will be used to prove out the fundamental technologies in flight that will then be used to construct Overture, which the company is targeting for a 2025 rollout with airline partners.
Other startups, including Hermeus, are also pursuing supersonic flight for commercial use. Meanwhile, SpaceX and others focused on spaceflight like Virgin Galactic are exploring not only supersonic flight, but how point-to-point flight that includes part of the trip at the outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere might reduce flight times dramatically and turn long-haul flights into much shorter, almost regional trips.
The FAA’s rules finalization comes in under the wire as the agency prepares for a transition when current U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao moves aside for incoming Biden pick Pete Buttigieg. You can read the full FAA final rule in the embed belt.
Virgin Orbit is wasting no time in 2021 getting back to active flight testing: The company has a window for its next orbital demonstration launch attempt that opens on Sunday, January 10, and that continues throughout the rest of the month. This follows an attempt last year made in May, which ended before the LauncherOne rocket reached orbit — shortly after it detached from the Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft, in fact.
While that mission didn’t go exactly as Virgin Orbit had hoped, it was a significant milestone for the small satellite launch company, and helped gather a significant amount of data about how the vehicle performs in flight. LauncherOne was able to briefly light its rocket booster before safety systems on board automatically shut it down. The company had been looking to fly this second test before the end of last year, but issues including COVID-19 meant that they only got as far as the wet dress rehearsal (essentially a run-through of everything leading up to the flight with the vehicles fully fueled).
This next mission will once again attempt an orbital launch, and this time, the stakes are somewhat higher because actual customer payloads from NASA are on board. They include a number of small satellite science experiments and demonstrations, and while they’re specifically selected for the mission profile (meaning it’s not a tremendous loss if the launch fails), it still would make everyone happiest to actually get them to their target destination.
The nature of the launch window means that Virgin Orbit will likely wait for conditions to be as good as possible before taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, so take that January 10 date as the earliest possible launch time, but not necessarily the most likely. If successful, Virgin Orbit will join a select group of private small launch vehicles that have made it to orbit, so the industry will definitely be watching the next time Cosmic Girl takes off with LauncherOne attached.
Voyager Space Holdings continues to build up its portfolio of strategic space service offerings with the acquisition of a majority stake in X.O. Markets, the parent company of Nanoracks. Nanoracks has provided commercial space services for years now, and most recently provided the Bishop Airlock that was installed on the International Space Station. Bishop is the first dedicated commercial permanent airlock on the ISS, and will provide a major increase in capabilities in terms of providing access to the orbital platform for private small satellites and research.
This is Voyager’s third major acquisition this year, after it picked up a majority stake in The Launch Company, a launch support company that provides services and hardware to facilitate launches, and that works with companies including Relativity, Firefly Aerospace and Virgin Orbit. Voyager also picked up Pioneer Astronautics (an R&D company that works on propulsion, fuels, rapid prototyping and much more) in 2020, as well as Altius Space Machines in 2019. Altius is a startup that works on technology for on-orbit satellite servicing.
Nanoracks is probably its highest-profile acquisition, since the company has been involved in over 1,000 ISS projects, spanning on-station research and small satellite launch from the platform, as well as other orbital and deep space missions. Nanoracks created a commercial space testing platform outside o the ISS, and will be demonstrating a technology on a SpaceX mission next year that could eventually be used to convert spent upper stages from launch vehicles into orbital commercial mini space stations.
Voyager Space Holdings continues its strategic acquisition of new space companies, building out a portfolio that can offer clients significantly more ‘full-service’ solutions than any of these individual companies taken together. Commercial details of these arrangements aren’t shared, but they increasingly represent one path to exit for smaller companies addressing elements of the larger commercial space sector in fairly specialized ways.
A mere two weeks remain until we kick off TC Sessions: Space (December 16 & 17), our first conference focused on the technology designed to push galactic boundaries and the people making it happen. Building successful space programs, whether private, public or hybrid combination, requires a well-trained workforce — today and for generations to come. That’s why we can’t wait for Building the Workforce of the Future, a breakout panel discussion featuring Steve Isakowitz.
Isakowitz is the president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, a national nonprofit corporation that operates a federally funded research and development center. It addresses complex problems across the space enterprise focused on agility, innovation and objective technical leadership.
In his 30+ year career, Isakowitz has held prominent roles across the government, private, space and technology sectors, including at NASA, U.S. Department of Energy and the White House Office of Management and Budget. Prior to joining Aerospace, he was president of Virgin Galactic, where his responsibilities included the development of privately funded launch systems, advanced technologies and other new space applications.
Building the Workforce of the Future focuses on what’s required to advance the United States’ leading role in space, namely developing a workforce that’s up to the challenge. Panelists also include Dava Newman, MIT’s Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics, and Yannis C. Yortsos, Dean, USC Viterbi School of Engineering and former Zohrab Kaprielian Chair in Engineering, University of Southern California.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities to imagine new models for how and where to train the next generation of scientists and engineers. This session will explore how universities and industry can work together to integrate professional experience into the curriculum and how universities and industry can work together to build robust talent pipelines that create digitally fluent, agile workers for the future.
The panelists will weigh in on strategies to build diverse workforces — with different perspectives and experiences that drive innovation — as well as new approaches that promote continuous learning for workers throughout their careers.
The space industry requires a deep bench and a long pipeline of engineers and scientists. Tune in to Building the Workforce of the Future for the latest thinking on this vital topic. It’s one session you don’t want to miss.
Late registration tickets are still available, as are discounts for groups, students, active military/government employees and for early-stage space startup founders who want to give their startup extra visibility.
Is your company interested in sponsoring TC Sessions: Space 2020? Click here to talk with us about available opportunities.
Virgin Galactic has revealed the flight window for the first rocket-powered flight of its VSS Unity spacecraft from the shiny new Spaceport America in New Mexico. The ship could be in the air as early as December 11.
This flight will be the third for Unity out of the future passenger spaceport, but the last two have been gliding flights, not propulsive ones. This will be the first time Unity has hit the throttle in nearly two years — back when it touched the edge of space at something like Mach 2.9.
Since then the company and its aircraft have moved home, from Mojave, California to the spaceport in New Mexico, where it hopes eventually passengers will come and lounge before taking off on a brief visit to space.
The glides, in which Unity is taken to a high altitude by a carrier craft, the VMS Eve, and let go to perform a controlled descent to Earth, show that everything is bolted on tightly and ready for the more substantial rigors of rocket thrust.
Originally this powered flight was intended to happen a bit earlier in the year, but COVID-19-related precautions led to delays. But weather permitting, next week should see Unity flying again.
This flight won’t be strictly for testing purposes, though: It will be taking up several payloads under NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, which contracts with smaller launch providers to perform experiments in and near space. Other aspiring space travel companies, like Blue Origin, have also taken up payloads for brief visits to the edge of the atmosphere.
Of course COVID-19 is still a serious issue, so Virgin Galactic is limiting exposure by minimizing people on site: no media or guests, only essential personnel.
Virgin Orbit has announced the target timing for its next orbital flight attempt, which follows a demonstration launch earlier this year that went mostly well – right up until its rocket separated from the carrier launch craft and fired up its own engines for the crucial rest of the trip to space. The company says that it’s undertaken a number of upgrades based on that first try, however, including updates to the engine systems, carrier aircraft and data systems to hopefully have a better demo flight the second time around.
The new launch window is December 19, between the hours of 10 AM to 2 PM PST. There’s also a backup window set for December 20 ranging across similar hours, the company says, and others in the following weeks, in case it needs to be rescheduled for nay reason. This demonstration will involve a full launch cycle of the entire Virgin Orbit launch system, including its Cosmic Girl launch aircraft (a modiified 747 passenger airliner) and LauncherOne, the rocket that detaches from Cosmic Girl at cruising altitude before firing up its own engines to make the rest of the trip to space with small satellite payloads on board.
Virgin Orbit’s system is unique because it takes off and lands from a traditional airport, eliminating the need for specialized launch sites and opening up the potential of relatively low-lift global launch flexibility. It also have the potential to offer cost and scheduling advantages to small satellite companies looking to launch just one or a few spacecraft, without having to wait for timing on a rideshare mission on a larger rocket like one from SpaceX, or pay a premium for something like Rocket Lab’s offering.
Last time around in May, Virgin Orbit’s flight went perfectly from takeoff through the separation of LauncherOne from the carrier aircraft. The rocket even fired up its engines on time as planned, but the engines cut off essentially right away due to a built-in safety system that also worked as planned when it detected some unusual readings.
With this second attempt, Virgin Orbit wants to show that it’s system works from that point on, as well, with a full first-stage powered flight, and operation of the upper stage. Stakes are a bit higher this time around, as on board will be actual customer satellites, even though this is technically still a demonstration mission the primary purpose of which is to collect data.
The 10 payloads on board are from NASA, and represent a number of different scientific and educational programs created entirely by U.S.-based universities and academic institutions.
AMP Robotics, the recycling robotics technology developer backed by investors including Sequoia Capital and Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, is close to closing on as much as $70 million in new financing, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the company’s plans.
The new financing speaks to AMP Robotics’ continued success in pilot projects and with new partnerships that are exponentially expanding the company’s deployments.
Earlier this month the company announced a new deal that represented its largest purchase order for its trash sorting and recycling robots.
That order, for 24 machine learning-enabled robotic recycling systems with the waste handling company Waste Connections, was a showcase for the efficacy of the company’s recycling technology.
That comes on the back of a pilot program earlier in the year with one Toronto apartment complex, where the complex’s tenants were able to opt into a program that would share recycling habits monitored by AMP Robotics with the building’s renters in an effort to improve their recycling behavior.
The potential benefits of AMP Robotic’s machine learning enabled robots are undeniable. The company’s technology can sort waste streams in ways that traditional systems never could and at a cost that’s far lower than most waste handling facilities.
As TechCrunch reported earlier the tech can tell the difference between high-density polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate, low-density polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene. The robots can also sort for color, clarity, opacity and shapes like lids, tubs, clamshells and cups — the robots can even identify the brands on packaging.
AMP’s robots already have been deployed in North America, Asia and Europe, with recent installations in Spain and across the U.S. in California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin.
At the beginning of the year, AMP Robotics worked with its investor, Sidewalk Labs on a pilot program that provided residents of a single apartment building representing 250 units in Toronto with detailed information about their recycling habits. Sidewalk Labs is transporting the waste to a Canada Fibers material recovery facility where trash is sorted by both Canada Fibers employees and AMP Robotics.
Once the waste is categorized, sorted and recorded, Sidewalk communicates with residents of the building about how they’re doing in their recycling efforts.
It was only last November that the Denver-based AMP Robotics raised a $16 million round from Sequoia Capital and others to finance the early commercialization of its technology.
As TechCrunch reported at the time, recycling businesses used to be able to rely on China to buy up any waste stream (no matter the quality of the material). However, about two years ago, China decided it would no longer serve as the world’s garbage dump and put strict standards in place for the kinds of raw materials it would be willing to receive from other countries.
The result has been higher costs at recycling facilities, which actually are now required to sort their garbage more effectively. At the time, unemployment rates put the squeeze on labor availability at facilities where trash was sorted. Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has put even more pressure on those recycling and waste handling facilities, despite their identification as “essential workers”.
Given the economic reality, recyclers are turning to AMP’s technology — a combination of computer vision, machine learning and robotic automation to improve efficiencies at their facilities.
And, the power of AMP’s technology to identify waste products in a stream has other benefits, according to chief executive Matanya Horowitz.
“We can identify… whether it’s a Coke or Pepsi can or a Starbucks cup,” Horowitz told TechCrunch last year. “So that people can help design their product for circularity… we’re building out our reporting capabilities and that, to them, is something that is of high interest.”
AMP Robotics declined to comment for this article.