New Space slowly shifting into hype mode

As New Space companies proliferate, so too will their efforts to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack.  Three separate announcements this week illustrate a gradual shift in the sector away from simply building hardware into more aggressive self-promotion. With more entrants coming into play, individual companies will need to both establish who they are and expand the marketplace, especially in the areas of IoT and image processing.

This week saw the announcement of former Shazam executive James Pearson joining Spire Global, Steven Levy’s “exclusive” Stratolaunch story for Wired magazine, and Relativity Space’s latest advisor pick.  Each event is a different exercise in building awareness and mindshare, the first swells in a sea of building waves.

Public relations (PR) serves several functions.  Properly executed PR builds brand awareness and is a tool for generating customer leads and stimulating partnerships.  It informs the marketplace, partners, customers, investors, and potential customers and investors as to what a company is doing and how those activities provide benefit. It is easier to buy a product or service from a company you know and (hopefully) trust, rather than a firm coming in cold without any background.

New Space companies also need to raise awareness to grow their markets, sustaining themselves and capturing new customers beyond the traditional “pie.” Dozens of companies are flooding the Internet of Things (IoT) and image mining sectors with new services, but a flood of new data is useless if customers aren’t buying. Planet and others are building tools to process and use imagery faster, but there is still plenty of work necessary to move commercial imagery into the IT mainstream.

Outside of New Space and the sectors it serves (maritime, aviation, weather), few know about Spire Global.  Yet the company operates the third-largest constellation of commercial satellites today and wants to use its in-house manufacturing capabilities to build satellites for others. Hiring a PR executive outside of the traditional aerospace world suggests Spire wants to raise its awareness to a larger audience and could lead to a public offering (IPO) down the road.

Stratolaunch has built the world’s largest aircraft to carry a family of rockets for putting satellites and maybe even people into space. The airplane hasn’t flown yet and won’t start launch operations until 2020 for small satellites, with a medium-sized booster in development for a 2022 first flight. Prices for launch haven’t been formally set, but Statolaunch will have to compete with a wide range of competitors by the time it moves into commercial operations.  Northup Grumman estimates there are over 100 projects working on new satellite launch solutions today.

Wired felt Stratolaunch was cool enough to assign Steven Levy, the guy who wrote Hackers and helped introduce the Apple iPod to the world through his podium, to write an “exclusive” story about the history of how the immense plane was designed and built with funding and drive from Paul Allen and design brainpower from aviation legend Burt Rutan.

As Wired touted its exclusive last week, Stratolaunch stirred the pot further by dropping a press release announcing its work on its family of rockets to complement the aircraft, including initial design work on a spaceplane to carry astronauts to low earth orbit. Coincidence? Hardly.

Rocket start-up Relativity Space announced it has hired Tim Buzza as an advisor to the company. Buzza was employee number five at SpaceX, clocking over 12 years there as the company started building rockets from scratch, then spending another four years at Virgin Galactic/Virgin Orbit working on the LauncherOne air-launched rocket.  Relativity is promoting its use of integrated additive manufacturing to 3D print a rocket from scratch in 60 days and wants to be the first company to print a rocket on Mars.  The company is looking at starting commercial launches in 2021.

To date, Relativity has raised over $45 million in venture funding so far; high-quality, larger structure aerospace metal “printing” isn’t cheap. By the time the company starts printing rockets for profit, Rocket Lab, Vector Space Systems, and others in the small launcher space will have clocked a couple of years of operations and built a customer pipeline. As a “new” entrant, Relativity will have to compete on the measures of price to orbit and time-to-orbit once a contract is signed.

With dozens of companies flooding the skies with satellite IoT and imaging solutions, plus the promise of three to four LEO broadband constellations on the horizon, there’s a lot of PR and marketing work ahead to secure customers and expand the overall customer base with new applications and sectors. The uphill battle for many will be building brand outside of their zone of comfort and engaging with new audiences.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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