Rocket Lab expanded its lead on the budding industry of small rocket companies, announcing a $140 million investment round led by Australia's sovereign wealth fund.
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck told CNBC this was "a really important" moment for his 12-year-old company.
"We're kind of graduating out of Silicon Valley and into the much larger pools of capital," Beck said. "These pools of capital aren't looking for startup companies with lots of risk. They're looking for stable and for assured growth and returns."
Australia's nearly $150 billion Future Fund invested along with Rocket Lab's earlier backers including Bessemer Venture Partners, Promus Ventures, Khosla Ventures, K1W1, Data Collective and Greenspring Associates. New Zealand's Accident Compensation Corporation also invested for the first time.
The company has now raised more than $288 million in total funding. It wouldn't disclose its new valuation, but said it is "soaring past its previous" appraisal of $1.2 billion.
Adam Spice, Rocket Lab's chief financial officer, said the investment would give it "dry powder" to expand its role in the space industry. "The investors ... believe the opportunity is finally real."
Rocket Lab builds small rockets, priced at about $5.7 million a launch. The company's Electron rocket is designed to launch spacecraft up to the size of a refrigerator, especially for the premium small satellite part of the rocket market. Launching affordably and frequently were the two priorities Rocket Lab had when designing Electron. "Almost everything in" Electron is "made in-house," Spice said.
Small rockets like Electron can save customers months of time getting to orbit but come at a higher cost compared to flying as a "rideshare" on a larger rocket like the SpaceX Falcon 9. But Rocket Lab is not trying to compete with those big rockets. Beck's company is targeting customers who wants to test new technologies very quickly, with an end goal of being able to launch on demand.
The company is fresh off its first commercial launch on Saturday, which put seven spacecraft in orbit. With operations in New Zealand and California, Rocket Lab is increasing production as it tries to launch one rocket a month by next year and then one every two weeks, Beck said.
Its factories "have been specifically designed to produce one rocket a week," Beck said
Electron reached orbit for the first time in January. Despite an issue with one of the rocket's systems delaying its second orbital launch for several months, Rocket Lab has a sizable lead on the rest of the industry. Competitors Virgin Orbit, Vector and Astra Space are deep into testing programs but have yet to reach orbit. Beck estimates there are over 100 companies in total trying to catch up.
Beck said this latest investment round shows that "Rocket Lab is maturing" and attracting Wall Street interest. While investment money is the "most accessible" among venture firms and sovereign wealth, Spice said he's "getting more calls" from the likes of J.P. Morgan.
"We've got the biggest of the big names on the financial side kind of kicking the tires on participating," Spice said.
Beck said it's too early to know when a Rocket Lab IPO would happen, as the company has "a few things we want to execute first."
"We want to get the launch cadence right up there," Beck said. "There's a little bit more I need to achieve."
Rocket Lab's year began with reaching orbit, and the company has not slowed down since. The company doubled its global workforce to 330 employees, with Spice joining as CFO earlier this year after nearly 20 years in the semiconductor industry. He has done about 60 acquisitions in his career, which Spice said is one of the key reasons Beck hired him.
The company opened an 80,700 square foot mass production facility in Auckland, New Zealand, in October.
Rocket Lab also announced in October it will build its first U.S. launchpad at NASA's Wallops Facility in Virginia. Unlike its launchpad on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula, which is a private facility, the Virginia launchpad is on NASA property.
"The U.S. launch site is really to serve government customers who require launch off U.S. soil," Beck said.
Spice said Rocket Lab plans to use about one-sixth of this $140 million investment round to add second and third launchpads at the company's New Zealand facility "relatively soon." Mahia has a "strategic value" that Spice does not think many people understand.
"It's the only privately-owned launch facility and that is a huge differentiator," Spice said.
Rocket Lab is going to need multiple facilities if it is going to reach its goal of launching on a weekly basis. The company has a backlog of launches for the next year and a half, with 16 planned for next year. Beck said the company is "tracking around a $3 billion pipeline" in future launches.
Another one-third of the $140 million will go to research and development. Beck said the company is beginning to work on three major R&D projects. And Rocket Lab is already preparing for its next orbital launch, set for December.
Beck estimated Rocket Lab will soon be profitable, saying when the company completes "these couple of launches by the end of this year we'll be cash flow neutral." But the company is well aware of how difficult spaceflight can be. That mentality remained front of mind for Spice when thinking about how this new funding should be utilized.
"We basically funded ourselves to survive a pretty lengthy shutdown on the pad if we have an anomaly, any unforeseen pricing pressure from well heeled competitors, and absolutely keep our foot on the gas from an investment perspective," Spice said.