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The SpaceX Falcon 9 carries the Dragon capsule to orbit, launching from Cape Canaveral. (Credit: NASA)

New developments in the commercial space industry, including SpaceX’s successful docking with the International Space Station, are boosting interest among private investors looking to put their money into space exploration and related ventures.

The investor group Space Angels Network has seen its membership double over the past year, to about two dozen people, and the number of space startups seeking to connect with its members has been rising.

The group will be holding an event next week in Seattle featuring Tom Nugent, president of power-beaming company LaserMotive; and Chris Lewicki, president of Planetary Resources, the Bellevue-based asteroid mining startup funded by some of the biggest names in commercial space and technology.

So what is it like to invest in space? We spoke with Joe Landon, the Seattle-based managing director of Space Angels Network, a Harvard Business School alum and “recovering aerospace engineer” who has experience with companies including Boeing, Planetary Resources and Space Adventures.

Joe Landon

How would you characterize space as an investment?

Landon: It’s a little bit longer-term investment than most of the other sectors that are out there, but not as long as most people think. Our investors typically are looking for something like a five- to seven-year time horizon on their investment. The type of companies that are interesting to our members are companies that have a solid business plan with a near-term market, applying some sort of technology to a customer that is out there today or will be out there shortly. It’s not some kind of pie-in-the-sky, build-a-spaceship type of business plan. It’s satellite communications, aviation technologies, aerospace technologies, commercialization. Stuff like that.

What’s the most exciting area of space for you right now? 

I think the most important area right now is what SpaceX is doing. For a lot of reasons, SpaceX is a bellwether of the industry. For a lot of the types of business models and ventures that have been talked about for a long time, it takes repeatable and low-cost access to orbit. SpaceX is achieving that, and they’ve also just done a really outstanding job of building a great product and delivering on it. From a technical standpoint that’s why, but also for Space Angels Network in particular, the prominence of SpaceX and the PR that it has attracted are bringing a lot of new investors into the sector.

What are your thoughts on Planetary Resources?

I’m very familiar with the business model there, and the team. I’ve worked with many of those folks and have actually been involved with the company from time to time. What’s attractive is that it’s a huge vision, and a bold vision, and there are all these enabling technologies that they need to achieve the vision. They’re going to work on enabling technologies, but for existing markets and near-term customers. You make money along the way, so you can almost bootstrap your way up to the big vision.

So who are your members, what types of people are they?

All different kinds. I’d say about half have been involved in aerospace or aviation themselves directly. The other half always wanted to be. They’re executives at non-aerospace companies who always had the love of flying or wanted to be an astronaut as a kid, and now they’re in the stage of their career or life where they can contribute as an investor, not necessarily as someone working in the field. And then there are the first half, who are some of the leaders in the commercial space field, and also some more-seasoned executives who have come up through some of these aerospace companies, and founders of some of the big success stories in the industry. So we have a good mix of experience and new blood.

How are we going to look back on 2012 in the evolution of commercial space and investing? How would you characterize this era that we’re in now?

There’s still many different ways it could go, and there’s some speculation that SpaceX’s successful docking with the Space Station is going to be a turning point in the industry. I think that very well could be the case, where we look back and 2012 really is a turning point in the industry and things start to accelerate from here, where ideas for companies that have been around for years and years all of a sudden start to get traction. We’re seeing that a little bit now in Space Angels Network where we have doubled the number of members that we have over the last year, and the rate of companies applying to meet investors has increased also. So we are seeing some acceleration.

More info on next week’s Space Angels event in Seattle is available here.

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