You know gravity stops most of us from dunking a basketball, but did you know that it also stops us from manufacturing certain things? Gravity causes some products to collapse from their own weight before completion, prevents liquids from forming perfectly round spheres, and can cause unwanted convection-induced mixing or sedimentation. Products like pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, fiber optics, carbon nanotubes, and even 3D-printed human organs could all be made much more effectively in low gravity -- for instance, in space!
Many products that are extremely important to life on Earth would benefit from production in space.
Pharmaceutical research, development, and production is a prime example. There are a myriad of therapeutic and bioengineering applications that could benefit from the microgravity of space: better immune response understanding for vaccine development; better protein crystallization for structure-based drug development; high quality protein assembly; better production of amorphous therapeutic compounds -- and the list goes on! In-space research and manufacturing may help treat diseases from cancer to Alzheimer’s. Some of the more promising research so far has focused on taking advantage of the absence of gravity-driven phenomena like convection and sedimentation to make larger and better ordered space-grown protein crystals to enable a structure-based approach to fighting disease. There’s a reason big pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly and Merck have already partnered with the International Space Station (ISS) to pursue better drug development.
Space is also an ideal environment to manufacture semiconductors and other thin film materials. In the 90s, the Wake Shield Project utilized a 4 meter large manufacturing platform to leverage the ultra vacuum of space to manufacture thin film semiconductors with 10,000 times better quality than those made on Earth. Space is a giant vacuum, meaning it can scale vacuum chambers to any size. An upcoming experiment aims to do just that by deploying a football sized chamber in orbit to create a large, highly uniform 60 micron reflective coating on a 2 inch silicon wafer for telescopes in space. The latest generation of silicon wafers sell for over $130,000 per kg, so making higher quality wafers in space may soon be cost effective. The ISS already has tests underway.
In-space fiber optic cable manufacturing could provide a massive breakthrough to the telecommunications industry. Currently, transoceanic communications are conducted through undersea silica fiber optic cables which require repeaters that cost $1 million every 30-60 miles. ZBLAN, with a theoretical attenuation two orders of magnitude lower than silica fiber optic cable, could reduce by 15x the number of required repeaters, which are the most expensive component of undersea cables. Using ZBLAN on the current transatlantic undersea cable connecting Denmark to New Jersey could save over $100 million on repeaters! Unfortunately, pesky gravity-induced convection causes excess crystallization in all Earth-made ZBLAN, making it less performant than silica. Manufacturing ZBLAN in space would be both extremely profitable and help connect the entire globe to the Internet.
What’s two hundred times as strong as steel, lighter than paper, and electrically conductive? Large, single-walled carbon nanotubes! Unfortunately, no one has made a single walled carbon nanotube longer than 22 inches. In-space manufacturing may finally provide the robust and scalable process to create large scale single-walled carbon nanotubes. Experimental research utilizing microgravity environments indicate that gravity-induced convection in manufacturing limits the effective length of producible carbon nanotubes. Short, single walled carbon nanotubes produced on Earth currently sell for up to $100,000 per kg, indicating commercial viability for long length carbon nanotubes made in space.
There’s a whole world of things that can be manufactured better in space. Scientists have already printed a human knee meniscus aboard the ISS. The effort is part of a broader initiative to print organs in space, which would avoid the expensive and toxic scaffolding required to print organs on Earth. Anything that requires making a perfect sphere is also much easier to make in space, as liquids with any surface tension will pull themselves into perfectly round shapes.
Experiments conducted by NASA and the crew of the ISS have shown that there are many exciting applications for in-space manufacturing that are extremely important for society. But there’s a problem. Getting the equipment needed to manufacture these things to a low gravity orbit has required astronomical cost -- you need to hitch an expensive ride on a rocket to get there. And once in space, the problems only compound. There are no people, you can only build with the materials you brought up, and it’s nearly impossible to fix anything so all systems need to be automated and extremely robust.
Thankfully, the costs of getting into space are dropping rapidly, largely due to innovations like vertically integrated production and rocket reuse pioneered by SpaceX. Cost reductions will only continue with the Cambrian explosion of other startups pursuing cheaper and better rocket solutions. For the first time in history, commercial space manufacturing is starting to be viable.
Despite the astronomical potential of manufacturing in space and the quickly falling costs of launch, no one has yet built a cost-effective in-space system to make products and also bring them back.
Enter Varda. They are creating a scalable and economically viable system to manufacture products in space that are extremely important on Earth. Varda’s first products are extremely exciting -- stay tuned for an announcement on that soon!
Varda will face three big challenges: 1) in-space manufacturing, 2) returning those things from space, and 3) raising the capital to make this all possible. The Varda founding team has the best people on the planet to do this. Co-founder Will Bruey, a ~6 year SpaceX veteran, is one of the select few who have built and flown commercial space vehicles. Bruey was a former lead hardware engineer for the Crew Dragon and Spacecraft Systems Officer of Mission Control for 8 ISS missions. Co-founder Delian Asparouhov is a repeat founder and one of the smartest investors in space, with experience at two leading VC firms (Khosla Ventures and Founders Fund).
In the near-term, Varda is laser-focused on manufacturing things off Earth that are highly valued on Earth. Over the long-term, Varda can build the infrastructure needed to enable humanity to industrialize space. How? First, make profitable unmanned in-space factories manufacturing product #1 (more to come soon). Next, manufacture other important things in-space that benefit from low G. Then, build the first platform infrastructure that can easily harvest the source materials for those and other products in-space via asteroids and the like.
Varda has a radically big vision. We can break the limits of scarcity imposed by Earth. We can stop relying on destructive extraction of Earth's finite resources for all manufacturing. We can build the space infrastructure necessary to propel humanity into becoming a multi-planet species. That’s a science fiction future we’re excited to help make a reality!
At Fifty Years, our sweet spot is supporting founders at the earliest stages building deep tech companies that can generate huge financial outcomes and create massive positive impact.
Deep tech: Bruey and other members of the Varda team have spent years developing the core expertise in launching into space and in-space manufacturing. There are some extremely difficult engineering problems to solve here and this is the team to do it.
$1B yearly revenue potential: Varda is unlocking an entire world of products that are valuable to us on Earth that we can’t make. This has the potential to disrupt massive industries in diverse fields such as pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, materials, and computing.
Massive positive societal impact: This has the potential to catalyze breakthroughs in a wide range of fields, from therapeutics development to quantum computing to telecommunications to organ production for regenerative medicine. In the crazy big long-term vision, by unlocking our ability to harvest materials in space, Varda can help break the limits of scarcity imposed by Earth and help bring an end to destructive extraction of Earth's finite resources. Concretely, Varda can help bring about cures for chronic diseases, a better understanding of biology, more connection between people on Earth, higher-throughput and lower energy methods of computation, and a more sustainable way of manufacturing.
Inspired by their vision for the future of space manufacturing, Fifty Years is excited to partner with Varda in their seed round co-led by our friends at Founders Fund and Lux Capital. At Fifty Years, helping great scientists and engineers become great entrepreneurs is our jam, and we’re looking forward to helping Bruey and Delian make their vision of bringing human industry into the stars a reality.