Start-up The Exploration Company plans spaceship

Dusseldorf Hélène Huby wants to go to the moon and back. More precisely, she wants to build a spaceship that can do this. “In the first mission we will fly around the earth for three to six months. The second mission goes to the moon and then back, ”says the Frenchwoman. When she made the decision in April, she founded a start-up, recruited around ten employees, opened two offices in Gilching near Munich and Bordeaux – and has just raised 6.5 million euros. But of course that is still far too little.

The Exploration Company is probably one of the most ambitious start-up projects in Europe. And it is an answer to the global competition for space. “The US and China are in a race, it’s crazy,” says Huby. It is about the commercialization of the low earth orbit, about private space stations – and about the moon as the starting point for the Mars landing. The founder wants Europe to actively participate: “This is not science fiction, it is a super important step for mankind.”

The fact that Huby founded out of this conviction says a lot about the change in the space industry. Because Huby has left Europe’s largest space company for this. She was innovation manager at the Airbus subsidiary Defense and Space, which specializes in military and civil space travel, among other things. She was even responsible for Orion’s European service module, which powers the most modern spacecraft from the European space agency Esa and the US space agency NASA. Just a few years ago it would have been one of the best positions to make Europe’s space travel internationally significant.

But more and more people see greater opportunities in the private sector. The private sector called “New Space” is growing rapidly. Companies want to build 5G networks from satellites, provide data for autonomous driving, and detect forest fires. And suddenly there is a lot of private capital available – also in Europe – to finance the complex and risky missions. Two of Huby’s venture capitalists are from Germany.

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The development can be read from the figures: According to an analysis by Brycetech and Morgan Stanley Space Research, 100 million dollars were invested in private space companies worldwide in 2000; in 2020 it was already 7.6 billion dollars. Behind this are hopes for a huge new market: Brycetech is forecasting sales of 2.7 trillion dollars for the space industry in 2040.

Huby wants to send a capsule around the earth in 2024 and to the moon in 2028

Huby claims to have weighed the arguments for nine months. In the end, one thing is clear to them: Airbus and the old industry are too slow, too inflexible and are being hindered by the different interests of the countries in Europe. The founder also believes that private money creates important incentives. In the case of publicly funded projects, the money would come from somewhere if necessary. “With private investors, it’s better to deliver on time and keep costs under control,” says Huby.

Helene Huby

Space exploration as an affordable service.

(Photo: private)

It was above all private industry that made access to space cheaper. The Munich rocket start-up Isar Aerospace, for example, is planning to bring one kilogram of payload into space for 10,000 dollars – instead of the current price of 30,000 to 40,000 dollars per kilogram. Huby also wants to open up completely new opportunities as a service provider for companies: space research as an affordable service.

Research and development in weightlessness is particularly interesting for the pharmaceutical industry and in material development: “Stem cells grow faster and better in space,” says Hélène Huby, giving an example. Because you age faster in space, anti-aging products are easier to test. And Adidas has even sent a shoe into space just to advertise the lightweight sports shoe.

According to a study by Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, the market for transports to the moon alone will amount to around 187 tons in 2040 and generate sales of 79 billion dollars. Correspondingly, other companies are already entering the market that The Exploration Company is targeting. Varda Space Industries, for example, wants to build factories in orbit and receives support and capital from SpaceX and Peter Thiels Founders Fund, among others. In the summer, the company raised $ 50 million (44 million euros). When it comes to moon missions, Huby says it competes with SpaceX, the US start-up Astrobotic and Ispace from Japan.

It is all the more important for The Exploration Company to have an ambitious schedule: In 2024, Huby wants to show that it can send a capsule around the world, and in 2026 the first mission of several months with a return to earth is to take place. The first flight to the moon is planned for 2028.

Investor Oehl: “If anyone can do it, then Hélène and team”

“If anyone can make it, then Hélène and the team,” says Thomas Oehl. His Munich-based company Vsquared Ventures specializes in research-driven technologies (Deeptech) and is one of three investors who are participating in a current financing round with a total of 5.3 million euros.

The studied mathematician only acquired her space knowledge at Airbus. But now she knows her way around: She has set up her own venture capital fund with a focus on aerospace. The portfolio companies include Clearspace from Switzerland, which clears space debris, Astrome from India, which wants to give every Indian broadband access via antenna, and D-Orbit from Italy, which focuses on the “last mile” of satellite launches.

Huby also started the Karman project. Every year, 15 leading space experts from around the world meet at the event to discuss important industrial topics. Everything remains secret: the initiative is intended to create trust in a highly competitive and socially important market.

Oehl believes that Huby can not only develop the right technology and attract the best talent – the majority of her team also comes from the Airbus environment. You also know the political game. She is “incredibly strong” in dealing with industry stakeholders.

The Exploration Company’s largest investor is Promus Ventures. The company has just announced a € 120 million space fund managed from Luxembourg, one third of which will be financed by the European Investment Fund. The Berlin early-stage investor Cherry Ventures is also involved. For the company, best known for its e-commerce expertise, it is the first space-related start-up. This also shows how popular space has become as a new innovation platform: now everyone wants to reach for the stars.

More: Rockets, satellites, special technology: German start-ups are conquering space

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