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Africa Roundup: Goldman backs Kobo360, Rwanda commits to EVs, Interswitch IPO update

By Jake Bright

Nigerian freight logistics startup Kobo360 raised a $20 million Series A round led by Goldman Sachs and $10 million in working capital financing from Nigerian commercial banks.

The company — with an Uber-like app that connects truckers and companies to delivery services — will use the funds to upgrade its platform and expand to 10 new countries beyond current operating markets of Nigeria, Togo, Ghana and Kenya.

Kobo360 looks to grow beyond its Nigeria roots to become a truly Pan-African company, co-founder Obi Ozor told TechCrunch .  He co-founded the venture in 2017 with fellow Nigerian Ife Oyedele II.

Since its launch in Lagos, the startup has continued to grow its product offerings, VC backing and customer base. Kobo360 claims a fleet of more than 10,000 drivers and trucks operating on its app. Top clients include Honeywell, Olam, Unilever, Dangote and DHL.

Kobo360’s latest round is also notable for Goldman Sachs’ involvement. Goldman’s participation tracks a growing list of African venture investments made by the U.S. based finance firm.

Chinese mobile-phone and device maker Transsion will list in an IPO on Shanghai’s STAR Market, Transsion confirmed to TechCrunch.

The company — which has a robust Africa sales network — could raise up to 3 billion yuan (or $426 million).

Transsion’s IPO prospectus is downloadable (in Chinese) and its STAR Market listing application available on the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s website.

STAR is the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s new Nasdaq-style board for tech stocks that also went live in July with some 25 companies going public.

Headquartered in Shenzhen — where African e-commerce unicorn Jumia also has a logistics supply-chain facility — Transsion is a top-seller of smartphones in Africa under its Tecno brand.

The company has a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia and recently expanded its presence in India.

Transsion plans to spend the bulk of its STAR Market raise (1.6 billion yuan or $227 million) on building more phone assembly hubs and around 430 million yuan ($62 million) on research and development, including a mobile phone R&D center in Shanghai, a company spokesperson said.

The government of Rwanda will soon issue national policy guidelines to eliminate gas motorcycles in its taxi sector in favor of e-motos, according to a preview of the plan by President Paul Kagame at a public-rally

The director general for the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority, Patrick Nyirishema, confirmed Kagame’s comments were ahead of a national e-mobility plan in the works for the East African nation.

“The president’s announcement is exactly the policy direction we’re in…it’s about converting to electric motos…The policy is prepared, it’s yet to be passed…and is going through the approval process,” Nyirishema told TechCrunch on a call from Kigali.

Motorcycle taxis in Rwanda are a common mode of transit, with estimates of 20 to 30 thousand operating in the capital of Kigali.

Nyirishema explained that converting to e-motorcycles is part of a national strategy to move Rwanda’s entire mobility space to electric. The country will start with public transit operators, such as moto-taxis, and move to buses and automobiles.

Ampersand Africa e motorcycle

Ampersand, a Kigali-based e-moto startup, has already begun to pilot EVs and charging systems in Rwanda and will work with the country’s government on the moto-taxi conversion.

In an ExtraCrunch feature, TechCrunch delved into tech talent accelerator Andela — one of the most recognized and well funded startups operating in Africa.

In a byte, Andela is Series D stage startup ― backed by $180 million in VC ― that trains and connects African software developers to global companies for a fee.

CEO Jeremy Johnson dished on the company’s strategy toward profitability and responded to some of the criticism it receives ― namely a claim the startup is creating a second brain-drain when software developers leave Andela and Africa, to take positions with global companies.

Today Andela has offices in New York and five African countries: Nigeria, Kenya,  Rwanda, Uganda, and Egypt ― which largely align with the continent’s top tech VC markets.

Across this network the company recruits software developers, builds software engineers, and deploys teams of software engineers.

Johnson disclosed numbers on Andela’s expected new hires for the year, current developer staff, how many departures the company expects, and how many of those will likely leave their home countries―which actually amounts to a fairly small percentage.

TechCrunch checked in with Nigerian fintech company Interswitch for the latest on its anticipated dual-listing London and Lagos stock exchanges.

A Bloomberg News story (based on background sourcing) revived speculation the IPO could happen this year for the company — which provides much of Nigeria’s digital banking infrastructure and has expanded its operations presence and payments products across Africa and globally.

Reports that Interswitch could be one of the earliest big tech companies out of Africa to go public trace back to 2016, when CEO and founder Mitchell Elegbe told TechCrunch the company was considering a listing before the end of that year.

Last month, an Interswitch spokesperson would neither confirm or deny a pending IPO, per a TechCrunch inquiry. So, it’s still tough to say if or when the company could list. But there are still several reasons why the business (and its possible IPO) are worth keeping an eye on, which we detailed in the update story.

 

One could be an eventual increase in venture funding to African startups, that could come from Interswitch. Another could be an Interswitch IPO adding another benchmark for global investors to gauge Africa’s tech sector beyond Jumia — the e-commerce company that became the first big tech firm operating in Africa to launch on a major exchange, the NYSE in April.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

African tech around the ‘net

 

Urbvan raises $9 million for its private shuttle service in Mexico

By Jonathan Shieber

As cities in emerging markets grapple with increasingly traffic-clogged and dangerous streets, Urbvan, a startup providing private, high-end transportation shuttles in Mexico, has raised $9 million in a new round of financing.

Co-founded by Joao Matos Albino and Renato Picard, Urbvan is taking the reins from startups like the now-defunct Chariot and tailoring the business for the needs of emerging-market ecosystems.

Hailing from Portugal, Albino arrived in Mexico City as a hire for the Rocket Internet startup Linio. Although Linio didn’t last, Albino stayed in Mexico, eventually landing a job working for the startup Mercadoni, which is where he met Picard.

The two men saw the initial success of Chariot as it launched from Y Combinator, but were also tracking companies like the Indian startup Shuttl.

“We wanted to make shared mobility more accessible and a little bit more efficient,” says Albino. “We studied the economics and we studied the market and we knew there was a huge urgency in the congested cities of  Latin America.”

Unlike the U.S. — and especially major cities like San Francisco and New York — where public transportation is viewed as relatively safe and efficient, the urban environment of Mexico City is seen as not safe by the white-collar workers that comprise Urbvan’s principal clientele.

The company started operating back in 2016. At the time it had five vans that it leased and retrofitted to include amenities like Wi-Fi and plenty of space for a limited number of passengers. The company has expanded significantly since those early days. It now claims more than 15,000 monthly users and a fleet of 180 vans.

Urbvan optimized for safety as well as comfort, according to Albino. The company has deals with WeWork, Walmart and other retailers in Mexico City, so that all the stops on a route are protected and safe. The company also vets its drivers and provides them with additional training because of the expanded capacity of the vans.

Each van is also equipped with a panic button and cameras inside and out for additional monitoring.

Customers either pay $3 per ticket or sign up for a monthly pass that ranges from $100 to $130.

Financing for the company came from Kaszek Ventures and Angel Ventures, with previous investor Mountain Nazca also participating.

For Albino, who went to India to observe Shuttl’s operations, the global market for these kinds of services is so large that there will be many winners in each geography.

“Each city is different and you need to adapt. The technology needs to be adaptable to the city’s concerns, and where it can, add more value,” says Albino. “The Indian market is super different from Latin America… It’s a huge market with a lot of congestion… But the value proposition is a bit more basic [for Shuttl].”

Urbvan is currently operating in Mexico City and Monterrey, but has plans to expand into Guadalajara later this year.

Rocket Lab successfully launches rideshare rocket with two experimental USAF satellites on board

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket Lab has successfully launched its eighth mission, an Electron rocket rideshare flight carrying four satellites to orbit for various clients. The Electron launched from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, at 12:12 AM NZST (8:12 AM ET). This was its second attempt, after a scrub last week due to adverse weather conditions on the launch range.

On board, it carried a rideshare mission from launch services provider Spaceflight, which works to bring together payloads to simplify the process of finding a provider for smaller payloads and companies. The Spaceflight portion of the payload included three satellites: One satellite from BlackSky, which does Earth-imaging, and which will join its twin launched by Rocket Lab in June already in low-Earth orbit to form a constellation.

Spaceflight’s cargo also included two experimental satellites launched by the U.S. Air Force Space Command, which will carry out tests of new technology related to spacecraft propulsion, power, communications and more, and which are designed to pave the way for deployment of related technologies in future spacecraft.

There’s also a fourth satellite on board, a CubeSat that will be the anchor for a new constellation aimed at providing up-to-date and accurate monitoring of maritime traffic, operated by Unseenlabs.

Rocket Lab’s New Zealand LC-1 will be joined by a second launch site in Virginia, to provide a U.S.-based complimentary launch site for serving customers on a monthly basis.

The company also plans to eventually make its Electron rockets reusable, even though they were originally intended as fully expendable launch vehicles, using a recovery process that involves catching returning rockets mid-air after they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. Today’s launch included a test of recovery equipment for the Electron’s first stage – an initial test that aimed to have the rocket land back in the Pacific via parachute, where Rocket Lab will attempt to pick it up from the ocean for potential refurbishment.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket will go reusable, with the company aiming for mid-air helicopter recovery

By Darrell Etherington

Private rocket launch startup and SpaceX competitor Rocket Lab made a big announcement today: It’ll be looking to re-use the first stage of its Electron rockets, returning them to Earth with a controlled landing after they make their initial trip to orbit with the payload on board. The landing sequence will be different from SpaceX’s however: They’ll attempt to catch the returned first stage mid-air using a helicopter.

That’s in part because, as Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck told a crowd when announcing the news today, the company is “not doing a propulsive re-entry” and “we’re not doing a propulsive landing,” and instead will leach off its immense speed upon return to Earth through a turnaround burn in space before releasing a parachute to slow it down enough for a helicopter to catch it.

There are a number of steps required to get to that point, but already, Rocket Lab has been looking to measure all the data it needs to ensure this is possible through its last few launches. It’s upgrading the instrumentation for its eighth flight to gather yet more data, and then on flight 10 it’ll have the rocket splash down into the ocean to recover that rocket for even more learning. Then, during a flight to be determined later (Beck is unwilling to put a number on it at this stage) they’ll try to actually bring one down in good enough shape to reuse it.

As for why, there’s a clear advantage to being able to re-fly rockets, and it’s a simple one to understand when you realize that there’s a huge amount of demand for commercial launches.

“The fundamental reason we’re doing this is launch frequency,” Beck said. “Even if I can get the stage done once, I can effectively double production ratio.”

Beck also added that the biggest difficulty will be braking the rocket’s speed as it returns to Earth — a feat next to which he said the actual mid-air capture of the Electron via helicopter is actually pretty easy, from his POV as an amateur helicopter pilot in training.

Rocket Lab has an HQ in Huntington Beach, Calif. and its own private launch site in New Zealand; it was founded in 2006 by Beck. The company has been test launching its orbital Electron rocket since 2017, and serving customers commercially since 2018. It also intends to launch from Virginia in the U.S. starting in 2019.

The company revealed its Photon satellite platform earlier this year, which would allow small satellite operators to focus on their specific service and use the off-the-shelf Photon design to skip the step of actually designing and building the satellite itself.

Automotive marketplace Carro acquires Indonesia’s Jualo, extends Series B to $90M

By Manish Singh

Carro, an automotive marketplace and car financing startup based in Singapore, said it has raised $30 million to extend and close its $90 million Series B financing round and acquired Indonesia-based marketplace Jualo as it looks to further scale its business in Southeast Asia.

The Series B round, for which Carro raised $60 million last year, was funded by SoftBank Ventures Asia, government-linked global investor EDBI, Dietrich Foundation, and NCORE Ventures.

Hanwha Asset Management as well as existing investors including Insignia Ventures, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin’s B Capital Group, Singtel Innov8, Golden Gate Ventures, and Alpha JWC also participated in the round. The three-year-old startup has raised over US$100 million from investors.

“There was an overflow of interest in our Series B round, which we initially closed towards the end of last year. We had a lot of quality strategic investors coming to the and therefore decided to extend the round. The round is now officially closed,” Aaron Tan, founder and CEO of Carro, told TechCrunch.

As part of the announcement, Carro said it had acquired Jualo.com, one of Indonesia’s fastest-growing marketplaces where sellers trade new and used goods in over 300 categories including cars, motorcycles, property, fashion, and electronics. Jualo has amassed 4 million monthly active users and facilitated transactions worth $1 billion last year.

Carro, which operates in Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, said more than $500 million worth of vehicles were sold last year on its platform, up from $250 million in 2017 and $120 million the year before.

Carro has already expanded in terms of services. Initially a vehicle marketplace, it launched Genie Finance and has also forayed into insurance brokerage and road-side assistance. Last year, it introduced a service that completes vehicle sales in 60 minutes — Carro Express. In March this year, Carro launched its first subscription-based car service in Singapore to offer consumers additional flexibility.

Tan said that Jualo, which operates in several more categories than Carro, will continue to operate under its original branding.  “Our aim with Jualo.com is to double down and grow the Jualo.com business; with a strong focus and emphasis on the automotive sector,” he said.

Carro, which sees more than 70% of its transactions come from outside home Singapore, will reveal expansion plans to new markets and more acquisition deals later this year, Tan said. The subscription service will also be extended, he added.

Carro is rivaled by a number of startups, including BeliMobilGue in Indonesia, Carsome, iCar Asia and Rocket Internet’s Carmudi, although with its new raise in the bank Carro is the best-funded by some margin.

iCar Asia, which is managed by Malaysian venture builder Catcha, raised $19 million in late 2017. Last year, Carsome — which covers Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand — raised a $19 million Series B, BeliMobilGue — Indonesia-only — raised $3.7 million and Carmudi landed $10 million.

In the case of Carmudi, the business has retrenched itself. At its peak it covered over 20 markets worldwide across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, but today its focus is on Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

NASA taps SpaceX, Blue Origin and 11 more companies for Moon and Mars space tech

By Darrell Etherington

NASA has selected 13 companies to partner with on 19 new specific technology projects it’s undertaking to help reach the Moon and Mars. These include SpaceX, Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin, among others, with projects ranging from improving spacecraft operation in high temperatures, to landing rockets vertically on the Moon.

Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin will work with NASA on developing a navigation system for “safe and precise landing at a range of locations on the Moon” in one undertaking, and also on readying fuel cell-based power system for its Blue Moon lander, revealed earlier this year. The final design spec will provide a power source that can last through the lunar night, or up to two weeks without sunlight in some locations. It’ll also be working on further developing engine nozzles for rockets with liquid propellant that would be well-suited for lunar lander vehicles.

SpaceX will be working on technology that will help move rocket propellant around safely from vehicle to vehicle in orbit, a necessary step to building out its Starship reusable rocket and spacecraft system. The Elon Musk-led private space company will also be working with Kennedy Space Center on refining its vertical landing capabilities to adapt it to work with large rockets on the moon, where lunar regolith (aka Moon dust) makes and the low-gravity, zero atmosphere environment can complicate the effects of controlled descents.

Lockheed Martin will be working on using solid-state processing to create metal powder-based materials that can help spacecraft deal better with operating in high-temperature environments, and on autonomous methods for growing and harvesting plants in space, which could be crucial in the case of future long-term colonization efforts.

Other projects will tap Advanced Space, Vulcan Wireless, Aerogel Technologies, Spirit AeroSystem, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Anasphere, Bally Ribbon Mills, Aerojet Rocketdyne, Colorado Power Electronics and Maxar, and you can read about each in detail here.

NASA’s goals with these private partnerships are to both develop at speed, and decrease the cost of efforts to operate crewed space exploration, as part of its Artemis program and beyond.

Why this Nigerian fintech startup is volunteering audited financials

By Jake Bright

Nigerian fintech firm Carbon — an early stage financial services startup based in Lagos — has posted financials audited by KPMG on its website.

This comes four months after the company obtained a credit rating as a pre-IPO venture. Carbon — which recently rebranded its OneFi holding company and PayLater product titles into one name  — plans to continue releasing its financial results on an annual basis, co-Founder and CEO Chijioke Dozie told TechCrunch.

This may not be totally unheard of in other global tech markets, but for startups in Africa’s big tech hubs — such as Nigeria — it’s a rarity.

One of the first glimpses into startup financials in Nigeria came when Jumia shareholder, Rocket Internet, went public in 2014, which required it to include limited Jumia data in its annual report. The accompanying prospectus to Jumia’s listing this year on the New York Stock Exchange offered the most expansive financial data to date on a tech venture operating in Africa.

Prior to this — and still for the most part — companies in the continent’s (mostly) pre-public  (earlier stage) startup hubs — such as Nigeria — provide little to no financial performance info.

“Typically, in the local market, we have not seen a lot of voluntary transparency or the availability of data,” said Lexi Novitske — a Lagos based VC investor at Acuity Venture Partners.

“Most startups are concerned such disclosure could expose losses, give market intel to competitors, or attract unwanted attention from regulators. It could also lead to negative negotiation leverage if partners saw that they were making good returns.”

So why’d Carbon go to the trouble of putting its pre-public accounting out in the open for anyone to see?

Clients and recruiting were two reasons. “From a customer perspective, we are trying to get people to trust us with their financial services…so they can see this is the institution I’m dealing with and this is their financial position,” explained Carbon’s Dozie.

Carbon has evolved from its original focus as an online lender, to offer a broader array of mobile-based financial services — including payments, investment products, credit reports, and business banking services. In March, the company acquired Nigerian payment solutions company Amplify for an undisclosed amount.

By stats offered by Briter Bridges and a 2018 WeeTracker survey, fintech now receives the bulk of VC capital and deal-flow to African startups, many of which are attempting to reach the continent’s large unbanked and underbanked populations.

Carbon fits into that category and its CEO believes being up front about the startup’s financial position will attract top talent. “From a recruitment perspective, we want recruits to know we have good prospects — that this is a company that’s doing well and wants to keep doing well,” said Dozie.

That impression is buoyed by Carbon’s initial results, which were fairly positive for a Series A stage startup. The company had revenues in 2018 of $10 million, according to its online annual report, and turned a profit of around $500,000.

It’s helped with recruiting interest, according to Dozie, who said he’d marked an increase in candidates inquiring about open positions since the results were posted.

Carbon Financial Results 2018 Nigeria Fintech II

The other reasons to volunteer financial data is to reassure investors (current and potential), shake off stereotypes for Nigeria, and better position Carbon globally.

“When you look at some of these challenger banks in the West, and you look at their numbers and our numbers, we could easily fit in with Monzo, N26, or Atom,” said Dozie.

“But we don’t get considered because investors don’t really think that you can get the results or this performance in the markets that we’re in,” he added —  noting that Carbon has operations in Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa and is considering expansion in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, and Egypt.

Investor Lexi Novitske thinks Carbon offering financial performance data is a good thing for Africa’s tech ecosystem. “The move builds trust from clients, partners, or investors in a market where there is not a lot of openness,” she said. “I am encouraged to see how other companies will react. My hope is that more will openly report their own metrics…”

Carbon CEO Chijioke Dozie says the company will continue to post audited financials on an annual basis, even if they show losses. If the startup continues to expand, attract capital, talent, and grow revenues, other Nigerian fintech firms may follow suit.

 

 

 

Tesseract makes spacecraft propulsion smaller, greener, stronger

By Devin Coldewey

Launch vehicles and their enormous rocket engines tend to receive the lion’s share of attention when it comes to space-related propulsion, but launch only takes you to the edge of space — and space is a big place. Tesseract has engineered a new rocket for spacecraft that’s not only smaller and more efficient, but uses fuel that’s safer for us down here on the surface.

The field of rocket propulsion has been advancing constantly for decades, but once in space there’s considerably less variation. Hydrazine is a simple and powerful nitrogen-hydrogen fuel that’s been in use since the ’50s, and engines using it (or similar “hypergolic” propellants) power many a spacecraft and satellite today.

There’s just one problem: Hydrazine is horribly toxic and corrosive. Handling it must be done in a special facility, using extreme caution and hazmat suits, and very close to launch time — you don’t want a poisonous explosive sitting around any longer than it has to. As launches and spacecraft multiply and costs drop, hydrazine handling remains a serious expense and danger.

Alternatives for in-space propulsion are being pursued, like Accion’s electrospray panels, Hall effect thrusters (on SpaceX’s Starlink satellites), and light sails — but ultimately chemical propulsion is the only real option for many missions and craft. Unfortunately, research into alternative fuels that aren’t so toxic hasn’t produced much in the way of results — but Tesseract says the time has come.

“There was some initial research done at China Lake Naval Station in the ’90s,” said co-founder Erik Franks, but it fizzled out when funds were reallocated. “The timing also wasn’t right because the industry was still dominated by very conservative defense contractors who were content with the flight proven toxic propellant technology.”

rigel thruster test

A live fire test of Tesseract’s Rigel engine.

The lapsed patents for these systems, however, pointed the team in the right direction. “The challenge for us has been going through the whole family of chemicals and finding which works for us. We’ve found a really good one — we’re keeping it as kind of a trade secret but it’s cheap, and really high performance.”

You wouldn’t want to rinse your face with it, but you can fuel a spacecraft wearing Gore-Tex coveralls instead of a hermetically sealed hazmat suit. Accidental exposure doesn’t mean permanent tissue damage like it might with hydrazine.

The times have changed as well. The trend in space right now is away from satellites that cost hundreds of millions and stay in geosynchronous orbit for decades, and towards smaller, cheaper birds intended to last only five or ten years.

More spacecraft being made by more people makes safer, greener alternatives more attractive, of course: lower handling costs, less specialized facilities, and so on further democratize the manufacturing and preparation processes. But there’s more to it than that.

If all anyone wanted was to eliminate hydrazine-based propulsion, they could replace the engine with an electric option like a Hall effect thruster, which gets its thrust from charged particles exiting the assembly and imparting an infinitesimal force in the opposite direction — countless times per second, of course. (It adds up.)

But these propulsion methods, while they have a high specific impulse — a measurement of how much force is generated per unit of fuel — they produce very little thrust. It’s like suggesting someone take a solar-powered car with a max speed of 5 MPH instead of a traditional car with a V6. You’ll get there, and economically, but not in a hurry.

Consider that a satellite, once brought to low orbit by a launch vehicle, must then ascend on its own power to the desired altitude, which may be hundreds of kilometers above. If you use a chemical engine, that could be done in hours or days, but with electric, it might take months. A military comsat meant to stay in place for 20 years can spare a few months at the outset, but what about the thousands of short-life satellites a company like Starlink plans to launch? If they could be operational a week after launch rather than months, that’s a non-trivial addition to their lifespan.

“If you can get rid of the toxicity and handling costs of conventional chemical propulsion, but maintain performance, we think green chemical is a clear winner for the new generation of satellites,” Franks said. And that’s what they claim to have created. Not just on paper either, obviously; here’s a video of a fire test from earlier this year.

“It’s also important at end of life, where doing a long, slow spiral deorbit, repeatedly crossing the orbits of other satellites, dramatically increases the risk of collision,” he continued. “For responsibly managing these large, planned constellations the ability to quickly deorbit at end of life will be especially important to avoid creating an unsustainable orbital debris problem.”

Tesseract has only 7 full-time employees, and was a part of Y Combinator’s Summer 2017 class. Since (and before) then they’ve been hard at work engineering the systems they’ll be offering, and building relationships with aerospace.

tesseract

A render of Tesseract’s two flagship products – Adhara on the left and Polaris on the right.

They’ve raised a $2M seed round, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that’s not the kind of money that puts things into space. Fortunately the company already has its first customers, one of which is still in stealth but plans to launch a moon mission next year (and you better believe we’re following up on that hot tip). The other is Space Systems/Loral, or SSL, which has signed a $100 million letter of intent.

There are two main products Tesseract plans to offer. Polaris is a “kickstage,” essentially a short-range spacecraft used to deliver satellites to more distant orbits after being taken up to space by a launch vehicle. It’s powered by the company’s larger Rigel engines; this is the platform purportedly headed to the moon, and you can see it propelling a clutch of 6U smallsats on the right in the image above.

But Franks thinks the money is elsewhere. “The systems we think will be a bigger market opportunity are the smallsat propulsion systems,” he said. Hence the second product, Adhara, a propulsion bus for smaller satellites and craft that the company is focusing on keeping straightforward, compact, and of course green. (It’s the smaller rig in the image above; the thrusters are named Lyla.)

“We’ve heard from customers that complete, turnkey systems are what they mostly want, rather than buying components from many vendors and doing all the systems integration themselves like the old-school satellite manufacturers have historically done,” Franks said. So that’s what Adhara is for: “Keep it simple, bolt it on there, let it maneuver where it needs to go.”

Engineering these engines was no cakewalk, naturally, but Tesseract wasn’t reinventing the wheel. The principles are very similar to traditional engines, so development costs weren’t ridiculous.

The company isn’t pretending these are the only solutions that make sense now. If you need to have the absolute lowest mass or volume dedicated to propulsion, or don’t really care if it takes a week or a year to get where you’re going, electric propulsion is still probably a better deal. And for major missions that require high delta-V and don’t mind dealing with the attendant dangers, hydrazine is still the way to go. But the market that’s growing the most is neither one of these, and Tesseract’s engines sit in a middle ground that’s efficient, compact, and far less dangerous to work with.

Is space truly within reach for startups and VC?

By Darrell Etherington

Elon Musk’s SpaceX managed to pull off something very few people thought it could — by disrupting one of the most fixed markets in the world with some of the most entrenched and protected players ever to benefit from government contract arrangements: rocket launches. The success of SpaceX, and promising progress from other new launch providers including Blue Origin and Rocket Lab, have encouraged interest in space-based innovation among entrepreneurs and investors alike. But is this a true boom, or just a blip?

There’s an argument for both at once, with one type of space startup rapidly descending to Earth in terms of commercialization timelines and potential upside, and the other remaining a difficult bet to make unless you’re comfortable with long timelines before any liquidity event and a lot of upfront investment.

Cheaper, faster, lighter, better

GettyImages 840530492

Image via Getty Images / Andrey Suslov

There’s no question that one broad category of technology at least is a lot more addressable by early-stage companies (and by extension, traditional VC investment). The word ‘satellite’ once described almost exclusively gigantic, extremely expensive hunks of sophisticated hardware, wherein each component would eat up the monthly burn rate of your average early-stage consumer tech venture.

ispace becomes the first private Chinese company to launch satellites to orbit

By Darrell Etherington

With a successful launch from the Gobi Desert blasting off at around 1:10 PM Beijing time (1:10 AM ET), Chinese space launch startup ispace (which, awesomely, is also called StarCraft Glory Space Technology Co.) became the first private Chinese commercial space launch provider. The company’s SQX-1 Y1 rocket delivered two commercial satellites to an orbit of about 300 km (about 186 miles) above Earth.

The launch is the first successful commercial mission for the SQX-1 Y1 solid-propellant rocket developed by ispace, which is a four-stage design that can carry up to 260 kg (around 575 lbs) and weights around 68,000 lbs.

This is a major milestone for the Chinese space industry, and ispace beats out a healthy crop of competitors, including LandSpace and OneSpace, both of which did not succeed in earlier attempts to be the first in China to the private launch market.

Founded in October 2016, ispace secured a Series A funding round of an undisclosed amount in June, including investment from CDH Investment, Matrix Partners China and Shunwei Capital . The company completed sub-orbital flights in 2018 as precursors to the SQX-1 Y1 rocket.

Rocket Lab successfully launches seventh Electron rocket for ‘Make It Rain’ mission

By Darrell Etherington

Private rocket launch startup Rocket Lab has succeeded in launching its ‘Make It Rain’ mission, which took off yesterday from the company’s private Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand. On board Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket (its seventh to launch so far) were multiple satellites flow for various clients in a rideshare arrangement brokered by Rocket Lab client Spaceflight.

Payloads for the launch included a satellite for Spaceflight subsidiary BlackSky, which will join its existing orbital imaging constellation. There was also a CubeSat operated by the Melbourne Space Program, and two Prometheus satellites launched for the U.S. Special Operations Command.

Rocket Lab had to delay launch a couple of times earlier in the week owing to suboptimal launch conditions, but yesterday’s mission went off without a hitch at 12:30 AM EDT/4:30 PM NZST. After successfully lifting off and achieving orbit, Rocket Lab’s Electron also delayed all of its payloads to their target orbits as planned.

Later this year, Rocket Lab hopes to have a second privately owned launch complex fully constructed and operational, located in Virginia on Wallops Island. The company, founded by engineer Peter Beck, intends to be able to serve both U.S. government and commercial missions as frequently as monthly from this second launch site.

Laundrapp and Zipjet merge to form largest on-demand laundry service in UK, seal new funding

By Mike Butcher

Two of Europe’s biggest on-demand laundry startups are merging today. Laundrapp from London and Zipjet from Berlin are confirming the completion of a previously-rumored merger through which the combined business will become the largest on-demand laundry business in the UK.

Alongside this, the combined business has completed a funding round from existing investors including Toscafund, Hargreave Hale VCT, Henkel, Rocket Internet and further minority shareholders. The amount involved has not been disclosed. News of a planned merger was broken by Sky News back in April this year.

The European on-demand laundry and dry-cleaning market is estimated to be worth around €20bn per annum. Both Laundrapp and Zipjet have benefitted from this demand, with revenues, they say, rising more than 30% yoy. Together, the businesses currently process over 150,000 items of washing each month, with the ‘Wash & Fold’ service representing approximately 25% of volumes. The business says customers tend to start with the classic dry-cleaning offering, but later convert to the laundry and linen offering, driven by its convenience.

London is currently the main market for both Laundrapp and Zipjet, and this transaction gives the combined business-critical operational mass, whilst maintaining two separate brands in the short term.

Oliver Bedford at Hargreave Hale commented: “Bringing together two significant operators within the on-demand laundry industry will help lay the foundations for the next wave of investment into technology and infrastructure. Laundrapp aims to put convenience, choice and value at the centre of its customer proposition and we see this transaction as an important step towards building a sector leading capability.”

Lorenzo Franzi, CEO of Laundrapp, commented on the deal: “Bringing the two businesses together allows us to realise synergies, leveraging our technological advantage and critical mass to better serve customers and partners, and in the process cement our position as the #1 player.”

SpaceRyde wants to make access to space more available and more affordable

By Darrell Etherington

Life can be tough for a small satellite operator – it may be relatively cheap and easy to build small sats (or CubeSats, as they’re sometimes called), but arranging transportation for those satellites to get to orbit is still a big challenge. That’s why SpaceRyde is pursuing a novel way of launching light payloads, that could help small sat companies skip the line, and save some cash in the process.

SpaceRyde’s co-founders, wife and husband team Saharnaz Safari and Sohrab Haghighat, saw the opportunity to address this growing customer base by making launches easier by reducing the impact of one of the biggest complicating factors of getting stuff into space: Earth’s atmosphere.

In an interview, Safari explained that SpaceRyde’s technology works by making it possible to use a relatively tiny rocket rather than a huge one by attaching it to a stratospheric balloon and launching from much closer to orbit. Because of the size of the rocket and the lift limitations of the balloons, SpaceRyde ends up carrying much smaller payloads than say, SpaceX or Rocket Lab, but on the upside, clients don’t have to share rides like they do with the big rocket providers.

“Just getting a ride to orbit for these small satellite, even if they have the money, or they want to pay as much as they’re getting charged right now, on big rockets, is a big problem,” Safari said. “Because they have to wait until a mission with their parameters, to the orbit they want, the inclination they want, all that becomes available and then if there’s space, they can, you know, hitch a ride. So it’s more or less like a bus system.”

No one loves waiting for the bus, least of all the emerging crop of space startups hoping to build sustainable businesses. Many of these young companies, like fellow Canadian startup Wyvern, are looking to launch and operate small sats as the backbone of their go-to-market plan. Trouble is, they’re at the whim of whatever primary client current launch providers are serving, with launch condition requirements for the largest, most expensive satellites on board dictating when, where and if launches will happen for the tag-along smaller customers.

SpaceRyde’s stratospheric balloon-based rocket launch platform concept.

“What we’re building is, instead of this bus system, where it’s a set schedule, and it can get delayed,” Safari explained. “We want to give them the taxi or Uber service to space, where they buy an entire rocket and we provide the payload capacity that smaller satellite companies typically use in one launch, and so they can basically buy the entire rocket, and they can put a bunch of their satellites, depending on how big their satellites are, and then they just tell us where they want us to drop it for them.”

SpaceRyde is early in its own journey, having been founded less than a year ago. But Haghighat, the company’s CEO in addition to being Safari’s husband and co-founder, has a PhD in Aerospace, Aeronatical and Astronautical Engineering from the University of Toronto and was an early employee of success story Cruise Automation. Safari brings business and sales expertise, as well as a Master’s degree in Bioanalytical Chemistry from the University of Waterloo . But more important than either of their credentials, they’ve already demonstrated a sub-scale prototype of their system in action.

Earlier this year, SpaceRyde launched a stratospheric balloon carrying a scaled down version of their launch platform and rocket in Northern Ontario, Canada. The test wasn’t a complete success – a modification to the off-the-shelf rocket engine they used didn’t work exactly as expected – but it did demonstrate that their in-flight launch platform orientation tech worked as intended, and Safari says the malfunction that did occur is relatively easy to fix.

Next up for SpaceRyde is to work towards a full-scale demonstration of their platform, which Safari says should happen sometime next year. The company is hiring to grow its small team and accelerate its pace of development, and Safari says they’re excited specifically about the potential SpaceRyde has to bring back domestic launch capabilities to Canada – the country hasn’t had a rocket launch in 21 years.

For the private space economy, the startup can’t commercialize its product fast enough: Safari says they’ll be able to offer their launches at “around half” of what their customers would be charged currently (thanks to using mostly off-the-self rocket parts and balloons), but again she stressed that it’s actually not cost, but availability that is the biggest challenge for most.

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