WNSF: The VC-Funded Dotcom Disruption of Outer Space

Jonny Dyer of Google helped us answer questions like these as he lead a conversation about this new new space sector at What’s Now: San Francisco. Dyer grew up as a self-described space nerd and garage-shop rocket builder in Texas before studying mechanical engineering at Stanford University and doing early work at SpaceX, Blue Horizon and Space Propulsion Group. He joined the founding team of Skybox Imaging, which launched in 2009, raised around $100 million of venture money and was at the leading edge of these new commercial space startups. Skybox Imaging set out to dramatically drop the cost of high resolution images from satellites and open the data up for many new uses. By 2014, after early successes, Google bought the company and brought the team in.

Here we go again. We’ve got another dotcom disruption taking place in—of all places—outer space. There was a time, not long ago, when space was the exclusive domain of nation states. Driven by national imperatives (and funded accordingly), the early space age truly was “rocket science”. But the commercial potential of space was quickly recognized and and in the 1960’s and 1970s we had the first wave of commercialization where big corporations partnered with governments, innovated and then stagnated.

Now we’re in a second great wave of space commercialization that has many parallels to what happened in the digital dotcom world in the 1990s. Like with the shift from mainframes to personal computers, the costs of building for space have dramatically dropped, and thus a great democratization has begun. Entrepreneurs are coming up with ideas that don’t seem quite so crazy anymore and venture capitalists are pouring money into the sector. The incumbent corporations in mature sectors of space are getting disrupted, and totally new products are getting developed, including some that will probably never get off the ground. Are we in a space bubble like the dotcom bubble? Or are we just getting started in a long boom?