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Investing in Space: Industry enters new era

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On site at the 2023 edition of the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris, France.

Michael Sheetz | CNBC

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Overview: Au revoir, bon temps

I’m wrapping up my time at the World Satellite Business Week conference, after a whirlwind of panels, meetings and more. Paris, lovely as ever, played host to insights from old and new sources, and I could spend the rest of the year writing solely about everything I learned here.

My big takeaway: The “bon temps,” good times, are over – in so far as speedy capital and the competitive landscape are concerned – but we’re not necessarily in bad times for the space sector. Competition is fierce and investors are demanding more for their money, so strategies are about executing and delivering.

A trio of themes emerged from conversations: SpaceX is top dog, the recent satellite malfunctions are putting immense pressure on the insurance market, and it’s more difficult for space companies to raise funds than it has been in years.

1. Bogeyman

SpaceX feels a bit like Voldemort here: Whether it’s the launch or satellite communications markets, SpaceX’s dominance was a hot topic. They’re the bogeyman, evoking more jealous respect than pure fear, however.

SpaceX’s Starlink has disrupted the multi-billion dollar satellite communications landscape, which has really been the playing field of only a few major incumbents for decades. 

And its Falcon rockets are the only game for most launch customers who have hundreds of satellites looking for rides. Aside from those small enough to fly on Rocket Lab’s Electron, it feels like satellite leaders are tapping their watches, eager to see next-generation large rockets begin flying and provide new supply and competition to Falcon. But satellites can’t wait around and SpaceX has made it clear in both words and actions that they’ll fly even competitors of Starlink.

2. Uninsurable

 Viasat’s pair of satellite malfunctions was the next conversation piece. While the company hasn’t made any claims yet, the insurance market ramifications are looming. Here’s a few excerpts from the CFO panel that I moderated on Tuesday, which sum up the situation:

 “There’s only so much capacity in the space market … just like any non-standard type of insurance product, they need to earn a certain amount of money over time … the whole market’s roughly a $750 million [a year] premium market, they’ve now got about a billion dollars of possible losses … can they actually make it up in the future, and is there enough high value assets to insure? Because I think the one issue that creates dysfunction in this insurance market is … do you have enough volume to make up for this loss? And the answer is no, right now. … They’re trying to figure out what 2024 is going to hold.”  – Redwire CFO Jonathan Baliff

 “Also, a lot depends on the size of the placement that you’re looking for … given the size of our current satellites, they’re in the neighborhood of about $10 to $12 million, the interest rates are going up and the insurance premium will likely go up at least in the near term … if you’re trying to place 10 to 12 to 15, you probably have a better situation than if you’re trying to place like half a billion or something like that.” – BlackSky CFO Henry Dubois

 “In the launch insurance market .. our costs have come down, as we now have 40 Electron launches, so it’s a matter of getting that heritage behind you.” – Rocket Lab CFO Adam Spice 

3. Greenbacks

Finally, EXIM made a big splash on the opening day by saying it is processing over $5 billion in space-related financing – and threw the door wide open for more companies in need of funding. The U.S. export credit agency’s Vice Chair Judith Pryor even shouted out members of her team in the crowd, exemplifying EXIM’s eagerness to put money to work in the industry. Last month, two of the biggest deals in the sector, an acquisition and a fundraising, were done by non-American firms and Pryor emphasized EXIM’s goal to finance U.S. projects as a U.S. backer.

This hectic summer of space news has made me realize that there’s never been a more exciting time to be a space reporter than this year. We’re in the thick of it – progress, obstacles, dealmaking and the like – and I don’t expect that to slow down any time soon. If you have anonymous tips, reach out to me via encrypted means, such as CNBC’s Signal number or my Proton email. Au revoir from another great WSBW!

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2023-09-14 17:05:01

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