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SpaceX alums are branching out and shaping the startup economy

In SpaceX’s more than two decades, the company has grown from a fledgling startup into the world’s leading launch provider. Today, SpaceX boasts a reported staff of about 10,000 people. The space company is also hiring for hundreds of open positions, from Starship engineers and supply chain managers to space suit designers, according to its open positions listing.

As SpaceX enters its third decade — and solidifies its reputation as one of the leading private space companies — a generation of people who cut their teeth at the startup during its earlier years are now looking to secure their own share of the space sector. A website that tracks SpaceX alums estimates there are now dozens of companies founded or co-founded by former SpaceX employees. It also calculates that they’ve collectively raised $3.6 billion, with much of that fundraising taking place in just the last few years.

Relativity Space, the 3D-printing rocket manufacturing startup co-founded by former SpaceX engineer Jordan Noone that is perhaps the most prominent SpaceX alum-founded company, raised a staggering $650 million in 2021. And Firefly Aerospace, a launch vehicle startup co-founded by former SpaceX site test director Thomas Markusic, is reportedly in the midst of a $300 million fundraising round. In recent months, companies founded by SpaceX alums focused on everything from Low-Earth Orbit navigation to payload delivery services have closed fundraising rounds, too.

These founders are maybe even forming their own ex-SpaceX “diaspora,” suggests Carissa Christensen, the founder and CEO of BryceTech, an analytics and engineering firm that tracks the space and satellite industry.

“SpaceX, and particularly Elon Musk, has articulated a future vision of space that I think was very compelling and energizing to many people and that further fed that cycle of attention and coverage and awareness,” Christensen tells Via Satellite. “What makes you want to invest is somebody with the right track record, and maybe SpaceX sends a message that’s the right track record.”

The influx of SpaceX alum founders comes as interest in space continues to grow. NASA has made developing a commercial space industry a national priority and has been inviting private companies to play a role in work on the International Space Station, in Low-Earth Orbit, and even on the Moon as part of the Artemis program.

Christensen adds that sometime around 2015, venture capital support for space-related startups finally started picking up, unleashing funding for all sorts of companies. The sector is reportedly worth nearly half a trillion dollars, and the space industry has grown more than 70 percent since 2010.

Amid the broader growth of the commercial space industry, some say that SpaceX has had an outsized influence. Many former SpaceX employees have taken the credentials and skills they gained at the company to zero in on emerging niches in the space economy, like in-space manufacturing and asteroid mining. Some company alums have taken their engineering experience to new domains and used the tech know-how they gained at SpaceX for other types of technical challenges, like developing new forms of GPS and even submarines.

SpaceX, founders tell Via Satellite, ultimately gave them a high-risk tolerance and the critical experience of working at a space industry startup. At the same time, they say the company is still helping them, primarily by accelerating the broader commercial launch industry, clearing the way and — creating the need — for new types of space businesses that, before SpaceX’s time, wouldn’t have existed.

SpaceX, a Startup Culture

Timing is everything. When Laura Crabtree, an engineer, first started working at SpaceX in 2009, it was still early days for the company. She had just come from a job at Northrop Grumman, where she’d been assisting with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. At the time, SpaceX was relatively small and represented a stark contrast to her former employer, a more-established aerospace manufacturer. Joining was still considered risky and uncertain.

Still, Crabtree made the leap and ended up working on the Crew Dragon program that brought an American spacecraft carrying U.S. astronauts back to the International Space Station in 2020. Working at SpaceX, Crabtree explained, was really a startup experience. Just a handful of people might be assigned to handle scores of problems, and working at SpaceX felt like a “conglomeration” of smaller companies housed within a larger one.

“I think about my day-to-day challenges and nothing seems scary anymore, as it did before I worked at SpaceX,” Crabtree says. “[The SpaceX community goes] back to their first principles and engineering to solve problems and make sure that their engineering is sound, but they’re also not afraid to take risks.”

Crabtree ultimately worked at SpaceX for more than a decade — during which an entire space startup scene emerged. There were hundreds of space startups when she finally left two years ago, and Crabtree says she interviewed with many companies while looking for her next position. Those conversations ultimately inspired her own concept for a startup, and in 2021, she founded Epsilon3, a software service platform that’s meant to help streamline building, integration, and testing. She says she wasn’t worried about starting her own company, since she’d already had much of the startup experience, other than fundraising and hiring an initial team.

Crabtree still talks to a group of former SpaceX-ers who joined the company during the period she was there, and then went on to found their own startups. One colleague she used to share a cubicle with, she says, went on to create Varda, a company that focuses on in-space manufacturing. Another, Benson Tsai, went on to create Stellar Pizza, a startup developing robotic pizza trucks that now has about 30 former SpaceX employees on its staff, Tsai says.

Those relationships serve as a reminder that one of the benefits of working at SpaceX is the community of ex-employees that stay in touch with one another even after they’ve left.

There are other benefits, too. Beyond the technical and engineering expertise ex-employees gained, working at SpaceX — especially during the early years — comes with a level of legitimacy that people can cite when pitching their ideas and fundraising. Another convenience is that many founders still know people working at the company: Jose Acain, who worked at SpaceX before creating his asteroid mining company AstroForge, said he knew who to email first when trying to book space on an upcoming SpaceX launch.

But founders also say that SpaceX instilled in them a highly-ambitious ethos that they were able to bring to their next ventures. This ethos includes a high-risk tolerance, an openness to working at a swift pace, and building failure into one’s approach.

The same is true of people who joined SpaceX during later eras. Max Benassi, who worked at SpaceX between 2015 and 2021 before founding Apex Space, a spacecraft manufacturing startup, had a similar takeaway. The former senior engineer says he joined SpaceX just weeks after the company’s Falcon 9 rocket exploded during a cargo haul to the ISS — which was a major setback for the company at the time.

Working at SpaceX helped Benassi think about the bread and butter of his subsequent startup — which focuses on manufacturing spacecraft at scale — and introduced to him a wide variety of hardware and different types of vehicles. But his experience at SpaceX also exposed him to an environment that operated at an extremely fast pace and actively pushed the limits of development.

“The company had never landed a rocket before,” Benassi says. “People who were joining the company at the time probably have a little bit of a higher risk appetite than many others.”

A Launch Pad

After they’ve left SpaceX, former employees-turned-founders continue to benefit from the company’s massive launch service, which has allowed them to send satellites, technology prototypes, and other machinery into space. Launches haven’t just gotten less expensive, but services like SpaceX’s rideshare program have allowed startups to do the equivalent of buying a “ticket” on a launch — instead of needing to book an entire rocket. That’s helpful for smaller, and earlier-stage, companies.

For example, Xona Space Systems, which focuses on navigation satellites, used a SpaceX mission to launch one of its test satellites last May. Impulse Space, a space transportation startup founded by one of SpaceX’s first employees, Tom Mueller, announced in January that it had booked a slot on the upcoming SpaceX Transporter-9 launch for its first orbital mission, too.

AstroForge, the asteroid mining company, plans to use the upcoming Transporter-7 SpaceX launch to test a prototype of the company’s technology. Eventually, they hope to mine platinum group metals, which are rare on Earth, from nearby asteroids. “Largely in part to SpaceX, there’s a pretty mature satellite bus market we can really utilize and contract these bus manufacturing companies,” says Acain, the company’s CTO.

But SpaceX didn’t just make it easier for companies that want to launch their technology into space, but it also fostered demand for the growing number of software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies hoping to serve the space startup ecosystem. For example, Crabtree, from Epsilon3, says that in 2009 and 2010 — back when she was first joining SpaceX — there simply weren’t enough space-focused companies that would have needed help from her startup. “In 2009 [and] 2010, since there wasn’t a very large ecosystem of startups, there wasn’t enough of a market to support an enterprise SaaS business for specifically space,” she added.

“One of the reasons you see so many software companies is because you can start up a software company with very little money and very few people,” explains Christensen, from BryceTech. “You could start a software company on family and friends round. You don’t need a big investment deal necessarily to do that.”

Still, the impact of SpaceX stretches far beyond companies focused on space. In addition to focusing on launch vehicles, space software, and satellites, many SpaceX alums have gone on to found companies in other adjacent industries, including energy, transportation, and even areas like gene sequencing. Even they bring with them the lessons they learned at SpaceX, whether it’s expertise in aspects of robotics or broader strategies for building a new business.

Those takeaways can, apparently, even be applied to pizza. Tsai, the Stellar Pizza CEO and co-founder who once worked on battery tech at SpaceX, says his goal was to bring modern manufacturing techniques to food trucks, applying technology that already exists to an entirely new arena. If anyone doubts the concept, the company raised more than $16 million this past fall.

“We’re not inventing new science in the same way SpaceX didn’t invent new science. They just used modern techniques, and modern technology, to do rockets,” Tsai says. “We’re using the same modern motors and modern electronics to build smaller, more compact, more tightly integrated versions of the factories that make pizza at large scale.” VS

Rebecca Heilweil is a reporter covering emerging technology, including artificial intelligence, the future of transportation, and the commercial space industry

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