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Investing in Space

Chamath Palihapitiya compares Virgin Galactic to Tesla, hoping for same investor and customer love

Key Points
  • Social Capital CEO Chamath Palihapitiya says he hopes his new Virgin Galactic space-tourism venture turns out as well as Tesla.
  • "If we are lucky to have the same trajectory and the same customer love, I think we would all look back and say we've done something absolutely fantastic in human technology," Palihapitiya says.
  • Palihapitiya and Richard Branson are teaming up to take Branson's Virgin Galactic public.
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Chamath Palihapitiya, founder and CEO of investment firm Social Capital, told CNBC on Tuesday that he hopes his new Virgin Galactic space-tourism venture turns out as well as Tesla.

"When Tesla went public it was a $2-odd-billion market cap. It's something that's now 10X-ed in 10 years," Palihapitiya said in a "Squawk Box " interview. "If we are lucky to have the same trajectory and the same customer love, I think we would all look back and say we've done something absolutely fantastic in human technology."

Palihapitiya has been a longtime bull on Tesla stock, calling CEO Elon Musk over the years "the Thomas Edison of our generation."

Since Tesla went public in 2010 at $17 per share, the stock soared more than 1,200% as of Monday's close to around $230 per share. That translates to a Tesla stock market value of nearly $41 billion, compared with the $2.2 billion market cap at the end of its first session of trading.

Tesla shares, down about 30% in 2019, saw their all-time high of just under $400 each two years ago.

Social Capital Hedosophia, a special-purpose acquisition company that launched in 2017, is merging with billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson's space tourism unit Virgin Galactic, with plans to go public later this year. The combined firm will have a $1.5 billion valuation. The acquisition company will take a 49% stake, expecting profitability by August 2021 and aiming to fly tourists to the edge of space for the first time within a year.

Palihapitiya will become chairman of the new Virgin Galactic. The existing management team, including CEO George Whitesides, will remain in place.

The market for space tourism is "enormous," Branson said. "Since we put two spaceships into space earlier this year, and made five new astronauts, the first astronauts to have been made on American soil since 2009, we've had 2,500 people ask to sign up."

Like Tesla, future Virgin Galactic customers who want to travel to space will have to put down deposits for a product that is not yet commercially available. Tickets for a spaceflight are priced at about $250,000 apiece.

"We have a customer backlog of more than 600 people, more than $80 million in collected deposits already," said Palihapitiya. "Only 570-odd people have ever been in space. And so just Virgin Galactic alone will double that number."

Palihapitiya, one of Silicon Valley's most outspoken investors and an early Facebook executive, last year closed down the venture capital arm of Social Capital to outside investors. He made that move about a year after setting Social Capital Hedosophia in motion.

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Key Points
  • Virgin Galactic is projected to become profitable on an annual basis by August 2021, new chairman Chamath Palihapitiya told CNBC on Tuesday.
  • "This thing looks like a software business under the hood even though it's flying people to space," Palihapitiya says.
  • Sending the company's first tourists to space is expected to come as Virgin Galactic gets ready to go public following a merger with Social Capital Hedosophia (SCH), a special-purpose acquisition company that Palihapitiya created.