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Steve Jurvetson
Venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson talks about investing in SpaceX during “A New Space Age,” a conference presented by The Economist at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Few space geeks are geekier than Silicon Valley venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson: His office at Draper Fisher Jurvetson in Menlo Park, Calif., is festooned with far-out artifacts including salvaged parts from Apollo spacecraft and a pizza-sized slice of moon rock.

But for Jurvetson, space isn’t just a hobby – it’s a big part of his livelihood. He’s on the board of SpaceX, and helped throw a lifeline to billionaire founder Elon Musk when he was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2008.

Today, privately held SpaceX is thought to be worth more than $21 billion, and as managing director of DFJ, Jurvetson can take some of the credit for Musk’s success.

During a fireside chat at today’s “New Space Age” conference, presented by The Economist at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, the 50-year-old investor shared lessons learned from his involvement with SpaceX, Planet and other ventures. Here are some of the sound bites, edited for length and clarity:

How SpaceX got its start

“SpaceX was formed with a singular mission: to put a greenhouse on Mars. That was it: $100 million of funding, greenhouse on Mars, send back photos, maybe video of plants growing. And then our job is done, because we will have inspired the entire world.

“The space agencies would be sort of guilted – if this not-particularly-richest person on Earth at the time could put a greenhouse on Mars, why the hell don’t we have a Mars program?

“That was it. It was like, ‘SpaceX’s job is done.’ It wasn’t even clear it was going to be a company. It may have been a nonprofit. It was up in the air in the early days. Thank God the Russians yanked Elon around on rockets, so he decided to build his own.”

How the space industry is like the tech industry

“You could draw a high-level similarity between the broadband infrastructure build-out that occurred in the early days of the internet, and SpaceX and related small-satellite launchers.

“It’s access. In both cases, literally, it’s broadband access and space access. And what follows is an entrepreneurial boom that builds on top of that.

“And similarly, if you think about how the internet has developed today, you have infrastructure layers, you have cloud services, and now you have all kinds of app developers who rely on a cloud platform and the infrastructure. So the analogy here would be access, then all kinds of other resources in space that you build upon, and now entrepreneurs can sell this entirely on the data and analytics layer.”

How space achievements inspire techies

“Every entrepreneur who comes through our door, every software entrepreneur who has nothing to do with the space industry, is inspired and captivated by this era of history – the space race leading up to the lunar landings. It reminds us of so many things: the feats of engineering, the accomplishments of the human spirit when we put our minds to a particular task. …

“There were just rafts of students who went into engineering during the space race. From just after Sputnik through, frankly, the shuttle, you had this spike of people taking Ph.D.s in engineering of all sorts. Then the shuttle era withered away, but we’re seeing it now again with SpaceX.”

Opportunities in the space industry

“I would say that imaging, Earth observation, remote sensing are the biggest opportunities over the next five years. I think over the next 20 years, it’s telecoms. Or data comms. ‘Telecom’ is an anachronism, just like ’email’ as a standalone service is an anachronism. No one pays for email, right? The internet comes, and email is an application that comes along with the internet. Voice, video, everything will run over IP in the future. If you think out 500 years, there’s no way you’re going to have a dedicated telecom service.”

The state of venture capital

“I always love to ask the question of any entrepreneur, ‘Why now? Why could this business not have been started 10 years ago?’ If the answer is, ‘Oh, it could have been done 10 years ago,’ we won’t invest….

“I wish the ‘venture’ would come back into venture capital, as opposed to just capital. The entire notion of investing in a garage startup was to bet on a couple of people with a big idea that hadn’t been done before – and ideally, had never been tried before. And that’s what I try to do. I value investing in things that are unlike anything I’ve seen before. That simple rule actually guides everything I’ve invested in.…

“You compare becoming a multiplanetary species to slightly better ad targeting: Which really inspires the next generation? Which will you be proud about when you come home and talk to your kids?”

GeekWire was one of the media sponsors of The Economist’s “New Space Age” conference. For videos from the conference, check out the Facebook page for The Economist Events.

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