Branson, Bezos and the next space boom

Plus: Blackstone's ESG play, the robotaxi funding frenzy and more
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The Weekend Pitch
July 11, 2021
Presented by Capital Allocators
Billionaire Richard Branson's leap into space is a made-for-the-internet media event that shows Virgin Galactic is nearly ready to take uber-wealthy tourists on celestial journeys.

The opening of the launch window for VSS Unity comes just nine days before Amazon founder Jeff Bezos hopes to make his inaugural space visit on Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket. Branson insists this isn't a space race, but that comparison seems inescapable, probably because it's fun to think that billionaires' lives are governed by petty little dramas just like ours.

You can reach me at james.thorne@pitchbook.com or on Twitter at @jamescthorne.
(Courtesy of Virgin Galactic)
Billionaire Richard Branson's leap into space is a made-for-the-internet media event that shows Virgin Galactic is nearly ready to take uber-wealthy tourists on celestial journeys.

The opening of the launch window for VSS Unity comes just nine days before Amazon founder Jeff Bezos hopes to make his inaugural space visit on Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket. Branson insists this isn't a space race, but that comparison seems inescapable, probably because it's fun to think that billionaires' lives are governed by petty little dramas just like ours.

Operation Billionaire Blastoff provides the clearest evidence yet of how private investors have grabbed the torch of space exploration from the grips of national pride and ambition. The emergent venture-backed space economy is now starting to affect life on Earth in beneficial ways.

Still, some will say that the event reflects badly on society. There's an ugly irony to the fact that the billionaires are pushing the bounds of Earth's gravitational pull shortly after much of the world shattered long-standing heat records. Worse, those heat waves have been exacerbated by decades of excess and inaction by people in rich countries.

If that's how you feel, take solace in the knowledge that space travel is still no picnic, despite massive improvements to launch technology in the past decade.

Before takeoff, early space tourists will reportedly be asked to indemnify their escorts against loss of life and limb, and they'll pay handsomely for the experience: around $250,000 or more.

Journeying to the edge of space is also a stomach-churning event. Those that manage to avoid puking on their visor will enjoy out-of-this-world views and retain a memory that will make the rest of their life seem tedious.

Another reason to be sanguine: These events amount to marketing stunts for the entire space tech industry, which will bring more attention and dollars to opportunities that help the rest of us.

Earth's orbit can feel far away, but the capitalist space race has affected terrestrial markets in ways that are hard to ignore.

Lest we forget, it was Virgin Galactic's SPAC deal in 2019 that catalyzed the blank-check gold rush. There are now at least eight space tech companies that have completed or are planning deals to go public through a SPAC merger, according to PitchBook data.

Rocket maker SpaceX is currently the second-most valuable VC-backed company in the US, according to PitchBook data, and has reportedly raised upward of $6 billion. And if it weren't for his love of the stars, Bezos may not have handed over Amazon's CEO suite to its new chief, Andy Jassy.

Globally, space tech startups managed to raise $5.5 billion in VC funding last year, setting a record that 2021 is on pace to beat, according to PitchBook data.

While people like to talk about space tourism and Martian colonies, the space economy currently exists to serve the Earth economy, as my colleague Ryan Vaswani detailed in a new report on the sector. Some of those services are remarkably useful for humankind, including tools to deal with climate change.

For example, aptly named Planet sells Earth observation data beamed from satellites that is used to manage our terrestrial resources. Startups using such data have found ways to monitor forests for carbon offsets (see Pachama), track greenhouse gas emissions (GHGSat) and predict environmental changes (Salo Sciences).

SpaceX's Starlink internet service recently became operational for test users. And despite occasional periods of unreliable connections, reviewers have hailed it as a godsend in areas that lack broadband.

Over time, the Earth-centered paradigm will start to shift. As our network of satellites and stations grows, we'll start to see what Vaswani calls the space-for-space economy. Eventually we may develop the kind of infrastructure that makes it possible to depart Earth for longer periods, but that reality is a long way off.

As the Branson-Bezos drama captures the public's attention, it is also likely to bring renewed focus from policymakers. That's a good thing, considering some of the most influential rules that govern space date back to the Cold War era.

In the near term, the proliferation of satellites has resulted in a growing threat posed by space trash. Left unregulated, there's a distinct possibility that accidental collisions with artificial space debris could wipe out the hard-won infrastructure of low-Earth orbit.

Like any global commons—air, the ocean, polar regions—Earth's orbit is a shared resource that requires collective agreement and action. In their own way, Bezos and Branson are ensuring that we all start paying attention.
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Quote/Unquote

"CEOs are very willing to transact over a couple of Zoom conversations, straight to the point, no time wasted, not three or four dinners to get there. People have less patience, things are quicker, and they're going to stay that way."

—Thoma Bravo co-founder Orlando Bravo discussing the pandemic's impact on dealmaking

Datapoints

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Robotaxi companies like Waymo and Cruise are aiming to achieve self-driving technology that matches and surpasses human driving capabilities. That day could be as soon as five to 10 years away, according to an estimate by PitchBook senior analyst Asad Hussain in a new research note.

To reach that point, robotaxi companies are loading up on venture capital at eye-popping rates. Investors have already poured $5.7 billion into the autonomous driving sector in the first half of 2021, led by Waymo's $2.5 billion June round, versus the all-time record of $8.3 billion that was set last year, according to PitchBook data.

Did you know ...

... That the opacity of the private markets has made it increasingly difficult for LPs to fully understand fund performance? And to make matters worse for the PE industry's image, firms have recently come under fire for smoothing returns.

But a recent PitchBook analyst note sheds some positive light on the asset class. According to a study conducted by analyst Andrew Akers, a 20% allocation to PE buyout funds in a 60/40 portfolio produced an average of 0.6% in annualized excess returns in 100 simulations run between 1997 and 2020.

Deal Flow

(robertsrob/Getty Images)
Add Blackstone to the growing list of private equity firms devoting ever more resources to ESG investment goals. This week, the buyout shop agreed to acquire Sphera, a provider of ESG software, data and consulting services, from Genstar Capital in a deal that values the Chicago-based business at about $1.4 billion.

Funds for the investment will come via Blackstone's flagship PE fund. Genstar has backed Sphera since 2016.
  • EQT also struck a deal in the ESG space, agreeing to acquire Cypress Creek Renewables, a US-based provider of solar energy and storage solutions, from HPS Investment Partners and Temasek.

  • The news comes as LPs increasingly pressure PE firms to take a proactive approach toward ESG investing. And it's led to some consolidation within the ESG compliance industry. Last month, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board and International Integrated Reporting Council merged to become the Value Reporting Foundation, a nonprofit that sets uniform standards for ESG investing practices.

Biden's battle to end surprise hospital billing

(the_burtons/Getty Images)
It appears that surprise medical bills could finally be banned in the US, as long as you don't need to ride in a ground ambulance.

This week, President Biden implemented the first part of the No Surprises Act, a piece of legislation passed by Congress last December that aims to protect patients from surprise medical bills after they've been treated by an out-of-network physician at an in-network facility. Unfortunately, ground ambulance companies will still be allowed to render surprise bills after being exempted from the law.

PE-backed private physician networks have come under fire in recent years for sticking patients with out-of-network charges.
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This edition of The Weekend Pitch was written by James Thorne, Adam Lewis and Alec Davis. It was edited by Alec Davis, Angela Sams, Kate Rainey and Sam Steele.

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