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World View raises money to take people to the edge of space in high-altitude balloons

  • World View closes latest venture capital funding round with $26.5 million.
  • This funding nearly doubles the company's valuation to at least $84 million, a source familiar with World View's financial information told CNBC.
  • World View uses high-altitude balloons to make long flights above specific spots on the Earth.

A different approach to space tourism just got a Silicon Valley boost.

CNBC has learned that World View Enterprises, which sends equipment to the edge of space using high-altitude balloons, closed its latest round of venture capital funding with $26.5 million at a valuation of at least $84 million -- more than double its last valuation.

The funding, led by prominent tech investor Accel, will bring it closer to its long term goal: using balloons to get people close to space.

"This is a really key milestone for us, as our focus on the moment is on the Stratollite," World View co-founder and CEO Jane Poynter told CNBC, referring to the high-altitude balloon it uses to make long flights above specific spots on the Earth. "It's a brand new vehicle that we're bringing to market that no one else has."

World View conducted its inaugural Stratollite launch from Spaceport Tucson on Sunday, October 1st, 2017
World View | Steven Meckler
World View conducted its inaugural Stratollite launch from Spaceport Tucson on Sunday, October 1st, 2017

World View intends to use what it learns from Stratollite to launch people in another balloon-lifted craft called Voyager. "We will be flying people in the future but I'd like us to have 100 or more Stratollite flights under our belt first," Poynter said.

Stratollite can fly commercial payloads the size of a small bus to 150,000 feet of altitude, making it possible to quickly and steadily provide services such as weather forecasting, military surveillance or disaster recovery.

World View believes its technology stands apart from "cubesats," the tiny satellites that are the fastest-growing part of the $250 billion satellite industry, because Stratollite can stay in one place for a long time -- making it capable of "persistence monitoring."

"You need an entire constellation of cubesats with the same instruments on it to get [persistent coverage]," Poynter said. "We could put it over the eye of a hurricane, giving a continuous video monitor of that location on Earth."

Stratollite completed nine commercial flights last year, Poynter said. With "more customers than we can service right now" on the company's manifest, Poynter said Straollite will be flying even more often in 2018. This year World View aims to complete flights that last "one or two months," Poynter said – far beyond the company's record of a five-day flight, set last year.

Its successor, Voyager, is intended to fly up to eight people for over five hours to the edge of space in a capsule complete with massive windows to enjoy the view. While Poynter declined to offer a time frame for Voyager's first flight, the company is offering tickets for $75,000 each, after a $7,500 deposit.

World View's December launchpad explosion

The investment comes after a mid-December a tear in a World View balloon, which caused an explosion felt throughout much of Tucson, Arizona.

Poynter insisted that the "explosion did not delay" World View's operations "by even one iota." While investors asked about it, it didn't hurt the fund-raising effort.

"It was a demonstration flight but not for Stratollite," Poynter said. "It was a different customer I can't speak about, as I'm under a [non disclosure agreement]."

The company reported only a couple of injuries – "two employees were treated for ringing in their ears" – for the launchpad incident that nearby residents described as earth-shaking. The explosion came after a test as World View was "in the process of releasing gas from the balloon," the company said. The test used hydrogen, which reacts violently when exposed to air.

"But we don't use hydrogen with our Stratollites," Poynter said. "This was different from our core business. And we now know exactly how it occurred, why, and how to stop it from ever happening again."

This is the first space-related investment from lead Accel, which held early investments in technology companies such as Facebook, Dropbox, Slack, Spotify and Venmo. Accel partner Sameer Gandhi will join World View's board of directors, the company announced, a move Poynter called a "really exciting demonstration of space technology being embraced by Silicon Valley."

"We share World View's belief that innovation in the stratosphere has the potential to unlock many new applications with unprecedented benefit," Ghandi said in a statement.

The fundraising effort also included notable contributions from Canaan Partners and Norwest Venture Partners, both of which invested in previous rounds with World View.

World View also announced former satellite imaging executive Tom Ingersoll was appointed as executive chairman.