Japanese start-up ispace raises funds for first two lunar missions starting in 2019

Key Points
  • Japanese start-up ispace raised $90.2 million in its latest round of funding
  • The company will use the money to fund two exploration missions to the moon
  • Investors in the latest round include Suzuki Motor and Japan Airlines
An artist's rendering of iSpace's Mission 2 landing on the moon's surface.

Lunar exploration startup ispace announced Tuesday it raised $90.2 million in its latest round of funding, backed by a dozen investors.

The Japanese company will use the money to fund two exploration missions to the moon, with the first by the end of 2019 and the second by the end of 2020. The Innovation Network Corporation of Japan led the Series A round, which also included the Development Bank of Japan, Suzuki Motor and Japan Airlines.

"We needed to secure research and development and two missions with this money," CEO Takeshi Hakamada told CNBC. "We're going to bring scientific instruments to the moon, and then sell the right to use our data to space agencies and other institutions, as well as provide transportation services, for profit."

Founded seven years ago, ispace is now ready to step beyond its current involvement in the Google Lunar XPRIZE, Hakamada said. The company will continue supporting its 100-member HAKUTO team to pursue the March 2018 deadline for the prize, Hakamada said.

Google's Lunar XPRIZE competition will award $30 million to the first company that lands a commercial spacecraft on the moon, travels 500 meters across its surface and sends high-definition images and video back to Earth.

Team HAKUTO, which consists of 70 pro bono members and 10 Tohoku University students, is partnering with former competitor TeamIndus for the $30 million in prizes remaining. TeamIndus did not respond to requests for comment.

"Our investment is not for the Google Lunar XPRIZE," Hakamada said. "Our ultimate goal is resource utilization on the moon, primarily water resources."

The lander, which is yet to be named, is still a concept. Designs are under development, but Hakamada said ispace expects the lander to accommodate roughly 30 kilograms of payloads. That includes two exploration rovers, each with up to five kilograms of scientific instruments, sensors and more.

"Our lander is small but we would not fit on a provider that launches microsatellites, like Rocket Lab," Hakamada said.

Growing venture capital investment in space

The round ranks as the most known funding raised in a commercial space Series A, according to venture capital analysts at Pitchbook. Nearest competitor Planetary Resources raised a third of ispace's Series A, with $34.78 million, while Elon Musk's high-profile SpaceX raised $12.1 million in the same round.

Prominent space investor Dylan Taylor cautioned that the amount raised in a Series A round is not necessarily a comparable measure of a company's success, both for now or what is to come.

"It's more expensive to raise money the earlier a company is in the capital raising process," Taylor said. "Companies should only raise what they need and maybe only a little more, for buffer."

Taylor added that the new ispace funding should make it possible for the company to achieve its goals, saying he thinks "$45 million per launch is probably at market cost." His understanding was matched by Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux, who is a partner at Global Space Ventures, a venture capital firm.

She told CNBC the ispace announcement is "indicative of the growing investors' confidence in commercial space being able to unlock value well beyond the surface of the Earth."

"Ispace's plan … is now solidly in the purview of the next steps of human endeavors in space," de Cayeux said.

While the company is based in Japan, ispace opened a subsidiary office in Luxembourg in March, along with a small office at a research center in California. Luxembourg Deputy Prime Minister Etienne Schneider, who highlighted ispace's work in November, told CNBC his country is eager to see how ispace continues to grow Luxembourg's space industry.

"We welcome that ispace will create in the near future further space resources expertise in Luxembourg by actively embarking on projects," Schneider added.