Clean Start

Bill Gates' climate investment firm is backing this reusable rocket startup

Seattle startup looks to be 'cleaner' alternative for rockets
Seattle startup looks to be 'cleaner' alternative for rockets

Competition from private companies in the space race is heating up, whether it's to the moon or Mars or beyond. But with ever more focus on clean fuels and reducing carbon footprints, some are tackling how to make the space race clean. Big names like SpaceX are flying rockets that return to earth to be used again, but one Seattle-based startup wants to take that even further.

Stoke Space is developing a clean-fueled, rapidly reusable rocket that can deliver satellites into earth's orbit, while protecting the earth itself by creating fewer emissions. Its founder and CEO is a veteran of Jeff Bezos' space company, Blue Origin.

Stoke Space is still in the first stages of testing the rocket and is a long way off from taking satellites into space. It is still working through not just the technology, but regulatory and funding hurdles. But its plans are ambitious and built around the idea of launching more satellites to combat climate change.

"As we build this vital in-space economy and infrastructure, we have to be thinking ahead about how to do that sustainably and scalably," said Andy Lapsa, CEO of Stoke Space.

The rocket is designed to go up and then return to earth, with both the lower and upper stages – also known as the booster and second stage, respectively – fully and immediately reusable.

"You don't have to rebuild the rocket for every mission, so that gets you out of a production-limited paradigm and into an operations-limited paradigm, it's very important," added Lapsa.

As more and more satellites are being produced, Lapsa says there is a "bottleneck" in the industry right now.

"There is a lot of pent-up demand, especially as you project out into the middle and end of this decade that the launch industry is just not positioned to satisfy yet or to meet," he said.

"As we think about all the manner of things that you can do from space, for the benefit of earth, for the benefit of climate, you have to start from launch, and you have to start from ultra-low cost, sustainable, reusable launch," said Christian Garcia,  partner and managing director at Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

Garcia also differentiates Stoke from other competitors, noting that it is focused on climate problems on earth, not travel to the moon or Mars.

"We've long thought that space technologies have a role to play in decarbonizing. We started thinking many years ago around how do we deploy more satellites focused on climate problems? How do we do things like detecting methane leaks, which have a huge warming potential? How do we detect wildfires in real time? How do we protect our natural resources, like our forests and our oceans, which have an important kind of carbon sink role in our ecosystem?" he said.

In addition to Breakthrough Energy, investors include Spark capital, Toyota Ventures, Point72 Ventures, MaC Venture Capital and NFX Ventures. It's raised $100 million so far.