Space the Final Frontier

Perhaps We Could Just Kickstart the New Race to Space?

The only problem is all the nutters.
Mr. Musk, please take my money. (Photo via flickr.com/jurvetson)

Mr. Musk, please take my money for your rockets. (Photo via flickr.com/jurvetson)

Yesterday, before venturing forth to the casting call for Bravo’s Start-ups: Silicon Valley spinoff, we made a rather wonkier stop, at this month’s meeting of the MIT Enterprise Forum. The topic of the panel? Space, the final frontier, and aerospace investing in particular.

As we arrived, a brief SpaceX video with a Top Gun-style soundtrack was wrapping up. Adam Harris, the company’s VP for Government Affairs, let slip a little, “Yay!” as it came to a close. 

Much of the panel that followed focused on the knotty details of the business. For example: If you make rockets, you can’t export them, because they’re classified the same as ICBMs. Panelists included NASA Associate General Counsel for IP Courtney B. Graham and Aireon CEO Don Thoma, whose company sells satellite phone technology for use as an air traffic surveillance product.

But when somebody brought up crowdfunding in the Q&A, things got almost rowdy. (Almost!)

One man in the audience posed the question of whether, now that the SEC is finalizing rules for equity-based crowdfunding, that might work to fund the more starry-eyed of aerospace projects. He offered the example of the Kickstarted Pebble. The creators wanted $100,000; they got more than $10 million. “You don’t get any stock or anything,” he said, sounding a bit incredulous. And people love space way more than they love dorky watches.

“For some of these startups that sell a dream, like SpaceX, I do think that’s a perfect funding resource,” he said.

Then, nodding in the direction of Mr. Thoma, he added: “When you’re talking about Iridium, and all we remember is that it was a great idea but a very expensive telephone, it doesn’t have the same sex appeal.”

Aireon is a subsidiary of Iridium, selling a wonky product without much obvious sex appeal. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Thomas disagreed with the man’s assessment.

“I’ve spent my whole career in space or telecom associated with space,” he said. “I always wondered if other industries have as many nuts as the space industry has.”

Mr. Thomas is perpetually running into dreamers with ideas of, shall we say, varied quality. “I think there’s dangers in crowdfunding, because they’re going to fund these dreams that don’t really have a real business,” said Mr. Thoma. There are viable companies for whom it might be valuable, but there’ll be a whole lot of dreck to sort through.

The crowdfunding proponent immediately leapt back into the fray, before Mr. Thoma could get any further. “I don’t think we need guardians of people’s decision to invest in something,” insisted the Kickstarter fan, adding that “The Wright Brothers may have looked like a bunch of nuts to their neighbors.”

The notion of a cable to the moon might be “a great idea for somebody to put money into. I don’t know. And I don’t think that you know,” he said.

“Let’s democratize investment,” said the man, who we were beginning to suspect as an Indiegogo ringer, before concluding with a flourish: “Why do we want to protect people from making stupid investments when we don’t even know which ones are stupid and which ones are terrific!”

To boldly go, indeed.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com