Hello and welcome back to Max Q!
In this issue:
- Intuitive Machines enters the public market
- Silicon Valley goes to war
- News from Transcelestial, Umbra and more
Lunar technology company Intuitive Machines received far less cash from its merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) than it forecasted, but despite this rocky start the stock price saw major highs last week.
Although Intuitive Machines said the SPAC trust could furnish the company with as much as $301 million in dry powder, shareholders opted to redeem a staggering $279.8 million prior to the transaction closing. The redemptions could reflect a relative weariness amongst investors of SPACs, which saw a huge upswing in popularity in the past few years but have more recently fallen out of favor as post-SPAC companies struggle to stay afloat in the public market.
But perhaps those shareholders are regretting getting their money back. The company’s stock closed at $10.03 on its first day of trading Tuesday, and surged to $39.73, up 211%, on Thursday.
For TC+, I wrote about the uptick in defense tech investments over the past few years.
Just a few years ago, many investors thought that cutting a check for a defense-first startup was a proposition that simply didn’t make sense. The tides have clearly shifted, and PitchBook data supports this warming to defense tech. From January to October last year, VC-backed firms injected $7 billion into aerospace and defense companies, a massive growth that stands in sharp contrast to the relative sluggishness in other sectors.
There are many reasons for this uptick in interest in defense tech, but driving all of them is a new, realist vision that’s spread among some technologists and venture capitalists. It sees global antagonisms threatening the stability of Pax Americana; it sees the United States rotting from the inside out due to bloat and lethargy. As a result, the Silicon Valley mentality has returned to its defense roots, embracing the role that venture-funded startups can play in maintaining America’s military dominance and technological supremacy around the world.
“If you believe in democracy, democracy demands a sword,” a16z general partner David Ulevitch said in a recent interview with TechCrunch. And Silicon Valley will be where it is forged.
More news from TC…
- Near Space Labs CEO Rema Matevosyan sat down with TechCrunch to explain what, exactly, was up with that alleged Chinese spy balloon. (TC)
- SpaceX faces a $175,000 fine to the Federal Aviation Administration for not reporting certain data to the agency prior to a Starlink launch last August. (TC)
- Transcelestial, a startup based in Singapore, scored $10 million to expand its wireless laser communications system across parts of Southeast Asia. (TC)
- Virgin Orbit’s Start Me Up mission was bungled by a faulty fuel filter and fuel pump in the second stage’s engines. (TC)
- Astranis was awarded a $4.5 million Phase III SBIR contract with the U.S. Space Force to integrate tactical waveform technology into its spacecraft, with a $6 million option for an orbital demonstration using a future Astranis satellite. (Astranis)
- Blue Origin quietly announced a program, Blue Alchemist, that’s been at work for at least two years developing tech to turn lunar regolith into solar cells and electricity transmission wires. (Blue Origin)
- India successfully launched the new SSLV rocket, six months after the first launch attempt ended in failure. (NASA Spaceflight)
- Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency scrubbed a launch of its new H3 rocket at T-0. (Reuters)
- Launcher’s first spacecraft, Orbiter SN-1, stopped operating after the craft was unable to generate power from its solar panels. (Launcher)
- Maxar and Umbra announced a new partnership this week, which will see Umbra’s synthetic aperture radar data combine with Maxar’s optical imagery in a combined offering for customers. (Maxar)
- SpaceRyde, a Canadian launch company that was developing a vehicle that used a balloon first stage, has filed for bankruptcy. (Payload)
- SpaceX has sold the two oil rigs it purchased back in 2020, which were to be converted into offshore launch platforms for Starship. (SpaceNews)
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Tesla more than tripled its Austin gigafactory workforce in 2022
Tesla’s 2,500-acre manufacturing hub in Austin, Texas tripled its workforce last year, according to the company’s annual compliance report filed with county officials. Bloomberg first reported on the news.
The report filed with Travis County’s Economic Development Program shows that Tesla increased its Austin workforce from just 3,523 contingent and permanent employees in 2021 to 12,277 by the end of 2022. Bloomberg reports that just over half of Tesla’s workers reside in the county, with the average full-time employee earning a salary of at least $47,147. Outside of Tesla’s factory, the average salary of an Austin worker is $68,060, according to data from ZipRecruiter.
TechCrunch was unable to acquire a copy of the report, so it’s not clear if those workers are all full-time. If they are, Tesla has hired a far cry more full-time employees than it is contracted to do. According to the agreement between Tesla and Travis County, the company is obligated to create 5,001 new full-time jobs over the next four years.
The contract also states that Tesla must invest about $1.1 billion in the county over the next five years. Tesla’s compliance report shows that the automaker last year invested $5.81 billion in Gigafactory Texas, which officially launched a year ago at a “Cyber Rodeo” event. In January, Tesla notified regulators that it plans to invest another $770 million into an expansion of the factory to include a battery cell testing site and cathode and drive unit manufacturing site. With that investment will come more jobs.
Tesla’s choice to move its headquarters to Texas and build a gigafactory there has helped the state lead the nation in job growth. The automaker builds its Model Y crossover there and plans to build its Cybertruck in Texas, as well. Giga Texas will also be a model for sustainable manufacturing, CEO Elon Musk has said. Last year, Tesla completed the first phase of what will become “the largest rooftop solar installation in the world,” according to the report, per Bloomberg. Tesla has begun on the second phase of installation, but already there are reports of being able to see the rooftop from space. The goal is to generate 27 megawatts of power.
Musk has also promised to turn the site into an “ecological paradise,” complete with a boardwalk and a hiking/biking trail that will open to the public. There haven’t been many updates on that front, and locals have been concerned that the site is actually more of an environmental nightmare that has led to noise and water pollution. The site, located at the intersection of State Highway 130 and Harold Green Road, east of Austin, is along the Colorado River and could create a climate catastrophe if the river overflows.
The site of Tesla’s gigafactory has also historically been the home of low-income households and has a large population of Spanish-speaking residents. It’s not clear if the jobs at the factory reflect the demographic population of the community in which it resides.
Launch startup Stoke Space rolls out software tool for complex hardware development
Stoke Space, a company that’s developing a fully reusable rocket, has unveiled a new tool to let hardware companies track the design, testing and integration of parts. The new tool, Fusion, is targeting an unsexy but essential aspect of the hardware workflow.
It’s a solution born out of “ubiquitous pain in the industry,” Stoke CEO Andy Lapsa said in a recent interview. The current parts tracking status quo is marked by cumbersome, balkanized solutions built on piles of paperwork and spreadsheets. Many of the existing tools are not optimized “for boots on the ground,” but for finance or procurement teams, or even the C-suite, Lapsa explained.
In contrast, Fusion is designed to optimize simple inventory transactions and parts organization, and it will continue to track parts through their lifespan: as they are built into larger assemblies and go through testing. In an extreme example, such as hardware failures, Fusion will help teams connect anomalous data to the exact serial numbers of the parts involved.
“If you think about aerospace in general, there’s a need and a desire to be able to understand the part pedigree of every single part number and serial number that’s in an assembly,” Lapsa said. “So not only do you understand the configuration, you understand the history of all of those parts dating back to forever.”
While Lapsa clarified that Fusion is the result of an organic in-house need for better parts management – designing a fully reusable rocket is complicated, after all – turning it into a sell-able product was a decision that the Stoke team made early on. It’s a notable example of a rocket startup generating pathways for revenue while their vehicle is still under development.
Fusion offers particular relevance to startups. Many existing tools are designed for production runs – not the fast-moving research and development environment that many hardware startups find themselves, Lapsa added. In these environments, speed and accuracy are paramount.
Brent Bradbury, Stoke’s head of software, echoed these comments.
“The parts are changing, the people are changing, the processes are changing,” he said. “This lets us capture all that as it happens without a whole lot of extra work.”
Amid a boom in AI accelerators, a UC Berkeley-focused outfit, House Fund, swings open its doors
Companies at the forefront of AI would naturally like to stay at the forefront, so it’s no surprise they want to stay close to smaller startups that are putting some of their newest advancements to work.
Last month, for example, Neo, a startup accelerator founded by Silicon Valley investor Ali Partovi, announced that OpenAI and Microsoft have offered to provide free software and advice to companies in a new track focused on artificial intelligence.
Now, another Bay Area outfit — House Fund, which invests in startups with ties to UC Berkeley — says it is launching an AI accelerator and that, similarly, OpenAI, Microsoft, Databricks, and Google’s Gradient Ventures are offering participating startups free and early access to tech from their companies, along with mentorship from top AI founders and executives at these companies.
We talked with House Fund founder Jeremy Fiance over the weekend to get a bit more color about the program, which will replace a broader-based accelerator program House Fund has run and whose alums include an additive manufacturing software company, Dyndrite, and the managed app development platform Chowbotics, whose most recent round in January brought the company’s total funding to more than $60 million.
For founders interested in learning more, the new AI accelerator program runs for two months, kicking off in early July and ending in early September. Six or so companies will be accepted, with the early application deadline coming up next week on April 13th. (The final application deadline is on June 1.) As for the time commitment involved across those two months, every startup could have a different experience, says Fiance. “We’re there when you need us, and we’re good at staying out of the way.”
There will be the requisite kickoff retreat to spark the program and founders to get to know one another. Candidates who are accepted will also have access to some of UC Berkeley’s renowned AI professors, including Michael Jordan, Ion Stoica, and Trevor Darrell. And they can opt into dinners and events in collaboration with these various constituents.
As for some of the financial dynamics, every startup that goes through the program will receive a $1 million investment on a $10 million post-money SAFE note. Importantly, too, as with the House Fund’s venture dollars, its AI accelerator is seeking startups that have at least one Berkeley-affiliated founder on the co-founding team. That includes alumni, faculty, PhDs, postdocs, staff, students, dropouts, and other affiliates.
There is no demo day. Instead, says Fiance, founders will receive “directed, personal introductions” to the VCs who best fit with their startups.
Given the buzz over AI, the new program could supercharge House Fund, the venture organization, which is already growing fast. Fiance launched it in 2016 with just $6 million and it now manages $300 million in assets, including on behalf of Berkeley Endowment Management Company and the University of California.
At the same time, the competition out there is fierce and growing more so by the day.
Though OpenAI has offered to partner with House Fund, for example, the San Francisco-based company announced its own accelerator back in November. Called Converge, the cohort was to be made up of 10 or so founders who received $1 million each and admission to five weeks of office hours, workshops and other events that ended and that received their funding from the OpenAI Startup Fund.
Y Combinator, the biggest accelerator in the world, is also oozing with AI startups right now, all of them part of a winter class that will be talking directly with investors this week via demo days that are taking place tomorrow, April 5th, and on Thursday.
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