Number of Billionaires Investing in Space Projects Grows

Forbes has published its annual list of the planet’s billionaires. A small but growing number of them are either directly supporting major space projects or doing so through the companies that they run.

FORBES RANKNAMEAGE
2015 NET WORTH (BILLIONS)
SOURCE(S) OF WEALTH
SPACE INVESTMENT(S)
 15Jeff Bezos51 $34.8Amazon.comBlue Origin
16Mark Zuckerberg30
 $33.4FacebookGlobal satellite network
19Larry Page41$29.7 GoogleSpaceX, Planetary Resources, Planetary Ventures, Google Lunar X Prize, Skybox
20Sergey Brin 41 $29.2GoogleSpaceX, Planetary Ventures, Google Lunar X Prize, Skybox
43Charles Ergen62$19.8DISH NetworkDISH Network
51Paul Allen62 $17.5 Microsoft, investmentsStratolaunch Systems, SETI, Mojave Aerospace Ventures (SpaceShipOne)
100Elon Musk43$12PayPal, Tesla Motors, SpaceX, SolarCitySpaceX
137Eric Schmidt59$9.1GoogleSpaceX, Google Lunar X Prize, Planetary Ventures, Skybox
330Richard Branson
64$4.8Virgin GroupVirgin Galactic, Planetary Resources, OneWeb
1006Kavitark Ram Shriram58$1.9Google, venture capitalPlanetary Resources
1105H. Ross Perot, Jr.56$1.8 Computer services, real estatePlanetary Resources
1324Charles Simonyi 67$1.4MicrosoftPlanetary Resources
1415Peter Sperling55$1.3University of PhoenixEcliptic Enterprises

I’ve added Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook to the list this year. His company is reportedly working on a global broadband network that would involve satellites, although details of the plan have not been made public.

I’ve left off Cirque du Soleil’s Guy Laliberte, who came in at number 1006 with a net worth of $1.9 billion. Although he once took a trip to the International Space Station, he is not known to be funding any major space projects at the moment.

Update: I’ve added Charles Ergen and Peter Sperling to the list. Big shout out to Rex Ridenoure over at Ecliptic Enterprises.

How Richard Branson Has Been Funding Virgin Galactic

Sir Richard Branson speaks to a group of future astronauts at the FAITH Hangar of Virgin Galactic in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013 in Mojave, CA. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Sir Richard Branson speaks to a group of future astronauts at the FAITH Hangar of Virgin Galactic in Mojave, CA September 25, 2013 in Mojave, CA. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

For anyone wondering how the Virgin Group has been funding Virgin Galactic over the past decade, the Financial Times had an excellent overview back in early November just after SpaceShipTwo crashed.

It seems that Virgin Galactic had sucked in up to $600 million in investment by that point, with nearly two-thirds of it from Abu Dhabi. The Virgin Group also has been funding the rest using profits from other parts of Sir Richard Branson’s empire.

For Galactic’s business model, Virgin followed a well-worn route. The group’s favoured start-up model relies on private investment for financing, with generally a co-investor sharing equity, and therefore the financial risk, often with a large amount of debt to the parent company loaded on to the balance sheet, a model it has followed at most of its businesses since the group’s brief but painful experience as a London-listed company in the 1980s.
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Musk to Go Head-to-Head With OneWeb to Provide Global Internet Services

Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)
Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk held an invite-only event last night in Seattle to unveil his plan to deliver global Internet services via satellite. The event was closed to media, but he did describe the program in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek.

The plan involves launching a constellation of hundreds of satellites that would orbit 750 miles above the Earth. The spacecraft would provide direct, high-speed communications to any location on the planet and reach billions of people currently unable to access the Internet.

“Our focus is on creating a global communications system that would be larger than anything that has been talked about to date,” Musk told Bloomberg Businessweek ahead of the announcement.

The plan is similar to a $2 billion initiative announced earlier this week by Greg Wyler. The company, OneWeb, is beingt backed by the Virgin Group and Qualcomm.

Musk and Wyler have known each other for years. Musk, in fact, used to crash at Wyler’s guest house in Atherton, Calif. While there are major similarities between the two ventures, Musk says he’ll have an edge through SpaceX’s smarts and manufacturing techniques. “Greg and I have a fundamental disagreement about the architecture,” Musk says. “We want a satellite that is an order of magnitude more sophisticated than what Greg wants. I think there should be two competing systems.”

Musk used last night’s event to formally announce the opening of an engineering center in the Seattle area. The new center will initially recruite about 60 employees, with plans to expand to as many as 1,000 within three to four years. Employees will work on SpaceX’s satellite network, Falcon rockets and Dragon spacecraft, Musk said.

OneWeb to Provide Internet Services Worldwide

Greg Wyler
Greg Wyler

STUART, Fla., Jan. 15, 2015 (OneWeb PR) — WorldVu Satellites Limited, operating as OneWeb, Ltd, today announced plans to build, launch and operate a low-earth-orbit satellite constellation to help bring high-speed Internet and telephony to billions of people around the world. Qualcomm Incorporated and The Virgin Group have been announced as initial investors, with Qualcomm Executive Chairman Dr. Paul Jacobs and Virgin Group Founder Sir Richard Branson to join OneWeb founder Greg Wyler on the company’s board of directors. Financial terms of the deal have not been disclosed. OneWeb plans to bring in additional investors to fund construction, launch and operation of its system.

According to the International Telecommunications Union, as of the end of 2014, more than half the world’s population lacks Internet access. OneWeb, founded in 2012 under the name WorldVu, hopes to bring high-speed Internet and telephony to people living in underserved areas. The OneWeb satellite system introduces the first-ever telecom-class micro satellites. This projected fleet of 648 micro satellites is intended to provide low-latency, high-speed Internet access directly to small user terminals deployed around the world.

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Broadband Satellite Constellation Obtains Financing From Virgin Group, Qualcomm

Greg Wyler
Greg Wyler

OneWeb Ltd., formerly known known as WorldVu Satellites Ltd., has received financing from Virgin Group and to launch a constellation of 650 satellites to provide global broadband coverage, according to media reports. Space News reports on the company led by Greg Wyler:

The OneWeb network is currently designed as some 650 125-kilogram satellites operating at 1,200 kilometers in altitude, each capable of delivering at least 8 gigabits per second of throughput to provide Internet access to homes and mobile platforms.

Based in Britain’s Channel Islands, OneWeb has begun work on user terminals whose antennas — combining mechanical steering and a phased-array antenna — would measure 36 centimeters by 16 centimeters. They would provide Internet access at 50 megabits per second.

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An Open Letter to Virgin Galactic’s Astronaut Relations Manager

SpaceShipTwo lights its engine as WhiteKnightTwo flies overhead. (Credit: Ken Brown)
SpaceShipTwo lights its engine as WhiteKnightTwo flies overhead. (Credit: Ken Brown)

Gemma Vigor
Astronaut Relations Manager
Virgin Galactic
London, England

May 26, 2014

Dear Gemma:

We have never met, but I know you are familiar with my work on Parabolic Arc and my coverage of Virgin Galactic as it moves toward its inaugural spaceflight. I understand my posts are read with great interest — if little enthusiasm — by the folks here in Mojave and at the home office in London where you work.

Lately, I’ve had the opportunity to be acquainted with some of your writing. Specifically, an exchange you had with one of Virgin Galactic’s future astronauts following my Feb. 18 appearance on The Space Show with David Livingston. It seems that one of your future astronauts listened to the show, and had some questions that he posted on Virgin Galactic’s invitation-only Facebook group called Spacebook.

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Video: Branson Predicts New York to Tokyo in Under an Hour

Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson was on CNBC’s Squawk Box the other day talking up his plans to follow up Virgin Galactic’s suborbital space tourism flights with hypersonic point-to-point transcontinental commercial passenger service.

Well, This Ought to Be Interesting….

branson_behind_the_maskTom Bower, who wrote a critical biography of Richard Branson nearly 15 years ago, is back with a new book looking at the British mogul’s most recent activities, including his nearly decade-long quest to launch himself and other wealthy individuals into space.

Being that Branson called Bower’s previous book a “foul” piece of work that offended him on every level, I can’t imagine this one is going to be any kinder. The earlier biography paints a very unflattering picture of the British billionaire, who Bower views as skilled in creating illusions that are at odds with reality.

The book will likely cause some real heartburn for the folks over at Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites and the Mojave Air and Space Port by taking a closer look at what’s been happening with the project. None of the parties is likely to come off very well.

The book will be released on Monday, Jan. 27. Advanced copies are already in the hands of reviewers. In the meantime, here is some promotional copy from the publisher to give you all an idea of what’s about to break.

Branson
Tom Bower

Have the triumphs of Richard Branson, one of the world’s most popular and most publicity-seeking businessmen, turned to dust over the last decade?

The image remains pristine: a charismatic high-school dropout turned billionaire, whose stratospheric rise and daring exploits have won him millions of enduring admirers and made him a model for aspiring entrepreneurs throughout the world.

But is this story still credible?

Over the last decade, has Branson matched the expectations perpetuated by Virgin’s relentless publicity machine? Or have we all been seduced by a brilliant showman?

In his most explosive book to date, Tom Bower, bestselling biographer of Simon Cowell, Bernie Ecclestone, Conrad Black and Robert Maxwell, dares to explore the reality of the Branson empire. In doing so, he unravels the gripping story of his recent activities – from the astonishing success of mobile phones to his troubled airlines and his long delayed plan to send multimillionaires into space – and asks whether he really remains Britain’s heroic buccaneer.

Video: Musk and Branson Talk Entrepreneurship

In this Google Hangout, SpaceX Founder Elon Musk and Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson talk about entrepreneurship, keep start-up companies alive, and more.

Strangely, for a couple of space entrepreneurs, there were few questions about space and nothing specific about Virgin Galactic. I mean, Branson’s flying to space on Christmas Day! Like in December! You’d think SOMEONE would have be interested in that. It couldn’t be that all the folks at the various Branson centers for entrepreneurship who asked questions hadn’t heard of Sir Richard’s dream of flying into space. Everyone has. Like 1,000 times.

Branson Joins Planetary Resources Core Group of Investors

branson_kissing_sstwo
This bit of news came in an email from Chris Lewicki during the closing hours of Planetary Resources’ Kickstarter campaign:

We are pleased to announce that Sir Richard Branson has joined Planetary Resources’ core group of investors.

“I’m excited to be part of the Planetary Resources’ team working on extracting precious minerals from near Earth asteroids.  The only way to truly explore our Solar System is to develop the technology and means to sustain our presence in space without depleting resources of Earth.” — Richard Branson, Chairman of the Virgin Group.

AND . . . he is so excited that the ARKYD will provide unprecedented public access to space, he has generously made his own campaign pledge of $100,000 to support interactive programming to strengthen STEM education, and to move us closer to our remaining three stretch goals.

The remaining stretch goals have been reduced by $100,000 thanks Sir Richard Branson’s substantial pledge to ARKYD – A Space Telescope For Everyone.

Planetary Resources’ main investors include Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, Google Co-founder and President Larry Page, Google Fouding Board Member K. Ram Shriram, H. Ross Perot, Jr., and Charles Simonyi. All except Simonyi are on Forbes 2013 list of billionaires.

Other investors include: Robert Hariri, MD, Executive Chairman, Celegene Therapeutics; Rena Shulsky David, president and CEO of Shire Realty; Raymie Stata, entrepreneur and former Chief Technology Officer of Yahoo! and Kimberly Sweidy; and John C. Whitehead, former Chair and CEO of Goldman Sachs and 9th U.S. Deputy Secretary of State.

Not Many Billionaires Focused on Commercial Space

branson_richardson_ss2
Richard Branson and then-Gov. Bill Richardson. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

Forbes has released its annual list of the world’s billionaires. There are a record 1,426 individuals with an aggregate net worth of $5.4 trillion in the world. The table below shows the tiny handful of this group — nine individuals — who are currently or have been previously involved in space projects.

RankNameNet Worth (Billions)AgeNationalityCompany/
Business
Space Project(s)

19

Jeff Bezos$25.249AmericanAmazon.com CEO, FounderBlue Origin

20

Larry Page$23.039AmericanGoogle CEO, Co-founderGoogle Lunar X Prize, Planetary Resources
21Sergey Brin$22.839AmericanGoogle Co-founderGoogle Lunar X Prize
53Paul Allen$15.060AmericanMicrosoft Co-founderStratolaunch, SpaceShipOne
SETI array
138Eric Schmidt$8.257AmericanGoogle ChairmanGoogle Lunar X Prize, Planetary Resources
272Richard Branson$4.662BritishVirgin Group CEO, FounderVirgin Galactic
527Elon Musk$2.741AmericanPayPal, Tesla Motors, Solar CitySpaceX
831Guy Laliberte$1.853CanadianCirque du SoleilSpace tourist
1031H. Ross Perot, Jr.$1.454Americancomputer services, real estatePlanetary Resources

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Virgin Group’s Alex Tai to Set Up Shop in Mojave

The hangar where Alex Tai's company will house its jets was the site of a robotics competition last Saturday. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

A company led by the Virgin Group’s Director of Special Projects Alex Tai is the Mojave Air and Space Port’s newest tenant.

Last week, the East Kern Airport District Board of Directors authorized Mojave Air & Space Port CEO Stu Witt to finalize a lease for Tai’s company, Super Sonic Jet, Inc., of Nevada. Tai plans to house a small fleet of Eastern Bloc fighters in Building 70, a hangar adjacent to the airport’s Administration building.

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Skolkovo Fund, Roscosmos to Cooperate on Space Tech

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

Roscosmos and the Skolkovo Fund will work together on developing advanced space and telecommunications technologies as part of the space agency’s long-range development plan that extends out to 2030 and beyond, Russian media report.

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SpaceX’s Elon Musk Makes Debut on Forbes Billionaire’s List

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

Elon Musk has made his first appearance on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires. The 40-year-old entrepreneur has landed at 634 on the list with an estimated net worth of $2 billion.

Musk has developed the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon vehicle to send cargo and crew to the International Space Station. His company, SpaceX, has received money under NASA’s COTS  (for cargo) and CCDev (crew) programs. He is also reported to have invested up to $100 million of his own funds into SpaceX.

In addition to his involvement with SpaceX, Musk is a trustee of the X PRIZE Foundation, whose space competitions include the Ansari X Prize, the Google Lunar X Prize and the Northrup Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge.

The South African-born entrepreneur also runs two other companies, the electric car producer Tesla Motors and SolarCity, which provides solar energy systems.

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Richard Branson: Building an Empire on Other People’s Money

Richard Branson waves to the crowd after landing at the $209 million spaceport that New Mexican taxpayers are building for him in 2010. From left to right are then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and then-New Mexico Spaceport Authority Executive Director Rick Homans.

The Observer’s Richard Wachman asks an interesting question I’ve been wondering about a lot lately:

Virgin brands: What does Richard Branson really own?

The sprawling business empire that makes up Richard Branson’s Virgin investment group consists of about 400 operations, a tangled web of enterprises owned via a complicated series of offshore trusts and overseas holding companies.

Branson’s finances are difficult to penetrate because of their complexity and opaqueness, with few of his large companies wholly owned by Branson himself. His big-branded firms such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Money, Virgin Media and Virgin Trains have other major shareholders. In some cases, he simply licenses the brand to a company that has purchased a subsidiary from him, and these include Virgin Mobile USA, Virgin Mobile Australia, Virgin Radio and Virgin Music (now part of EMI). In return, as the licence holder of the Virgin brand, he receives annual or triennial fees that can amount to hundreds of millions over time.

By forging partnerships with cash-rich allies, Branson has established new businesses without depleting the group’s reserves and spending little to establish new ventures in sectors such as mobile telecoms. But initiatives come straight from Branson, who prides himself on his ability to spot a gap in the market. He is not a numbers or a details man and leaves the everyday running of his firms to a group of lieutenants.

Which brings us to Virgin Galactic. And the numbers there are really interesting.

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