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China’s surging private space industry is out to challenge the US

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China’s space program might have been slowed by the pandemic in 2020, but it certainly didn’t stop. The year’s highlights included sending a rover to Mars, bringing moon rocks back to Earth, and testing out the next-generation crewed vehicle that should take taikonauts into orbit—and possibly to the moon—one day. 

But there were a few achievements the rest of the world might not have noticed. One was the November 7 launch of Ceres-1, a new type of rocket that, at just 62 feet in height, is capable of taking 770 pounds of payload into low Earth orbit. The launch sent the Tianqi 11 communications satellite into space.

At first glance, the Ceres-1 launch might seem unremarkable. Ceres-1, however, wasn’t built and launched by China’s national program. It was a commercial rocket—only the second from a Chinese company ever to go into space. And the launch happened less than three years after the company was founded. The achievement is a milestone for China’s fledgling—but rapidly growing—private space industry, an increasingly critical part of the country’s quest to dethrone the US as the world’s preeminent space power. 

The rivalry between the US and China, whose space program has surged over the last two decades, is what most people mean when they refer to the 21st-century’s space race. China is set to build a new space station later this year and will likely attempt to send its taikonauts to the moon before the decade ends. But these big-picture projects represent just one aspect of the country’s space ambitions. Increasingly, the focus is now on the commercial space industry as well. The nation’s growing private space business is less focused on bringing prestige and glory to the nation and more concerned with reducing the cost of spaceflight, increasing its international influence—and making money.

“The state is really great at large, ambitious projects like going to the moon or developing a large reconnaissance satellite,” says Lincoln Hines, a Cornell University researcher who focuses on Chinese foreign policy. “But it’s not responsive to meeting market needs”—one big way to encourage rapid technological growth and innovation. “I think the government thinks its commercial space sector can be complementary to the state,” he says.

What are the market needs that Hines is referring to? Satellites, and rockets that can launch them into orbit. The space industry is undergoing a renaissance thanks to two big trends spurred by the commercial industry: we can make satellites for less money by making them smaller and using off-the-shelf hardware; and we can also make rockets for less money, by using less costly materials or reusing boosters after they’ve already flown (which SpaceX pioneered with its Falcon 9). These trends mean it is now cheaper to send stuff into space, and the services and data that satellites can offer have come down in price accordingly. 

China has seen an opportunity. A 2017 report by Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimates that the space industry could be worth up to $2.7 trillion by 2030. Setting foot on the moon and establishing a lunar colony might be a statement of national power, but securing a share of such a highly lucrative business is perhaps even more important to the country’s future. 

“In the future, there will be tens of thousands of satellites waiting to launch, which is a major opportunity for Galactic Energy” says Wu Yue, a company spokesperson.

The problem is, China has to make up decades’ worth of ground lost to the West.

How did China get here—and why?

Until recently, China’s space activity has been overwhelmingly dominated by two state-owned enterprises: the China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation Limited (CASIC) and the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). A few private space firms have been allowed to operate in the country for a while: for example, there’s the China Great Wall Industry Corporation Limited (in reality a subsidiary of CASC), which has provided commercial launches since it was established in 1980. But for the most part, China’s commercial space industry has been nonexistent. Satellites were expensive to build and launch, and they were too heavy and large for anything but the biggest rockets to actually deliver to orbit. The costs involved were too much for anything but national budgets to handle.

That all changed this past decade as the costs of making satellites and launching rockets plunged. In 2014, a year after Xi Jinping took over as the new leader of China, the Chinese government decided to treat civil space development as a key area of innovation, as it had already begun doing with AI and solar power. It issued a policy directive called Document 60 that year to enable large private investment in companies interested in participating in the space industry. 

“Xi’s goal was that if China has to become a critical player in technology, including in civil space and aerospace, it was critical to develop a space ecosystem that includes the private sector,” says Namrata Goswami, a geopolitics expert based in Montgomery, Alabama, who’s been studying China’s space program for many years. “He was taking a cue from the American private sector to encourage innovation from a talent pool that extended beyond state-funded organizations.”

As a result, there are now 78 commercial space companies operating in China, according to a 2019 report by the Institute for Defense Analysis. More than half have been founded since 2014, and the vast majority focus on satellite manufacturing and launch services.

For example, Galactic Energy, founded in February 2018, is building its Ceres rocket to offer rapid launch service for single payloads, while its Pallas rocket is being built to deploy entire constellations. Rival company i-Space, formed in 2016, became the first commercial Chinese company to make it to space with its Hyperbola-1 in July 2019. It wants to pursue reusable first-stage boosters that can land vertically, like those from SpaceX. So does LinkSpace (founded in 2014), although it also hopes to use rockets to deliver packages from one terrestrial location to another.

Spacety, founded in 2016, wants to turn around customer orders to build and launch its small satellites in just six months. In December it launched a miniaturized version of a satellite that uses 2D radar images to build 3D reconstructions of terrestrial landscapes. Weeks later, it released the first images taken by the satellite, Hisea-1, featuring three-meter resolution. Spacety wants to launch a constellation of these satellites to offer high-quality imaging at low cost. 

To a large extent, China is following the same blueprint drawn up by the US: using government contracts and subsidies to give these companies a foot up. US firms like SpaceX benefited greatly from NASA contracts that paid out millions to build and test rockets and space vehicles for delivering cargo to the International Space Station. With that experience under its belt, SpaceX was able to attract more customers with greater confidence. 

Venture capital is another tried-and-true route. The IDA report estimates that VC funding for Chinese space companies was up to $516 million in 2018—far shy of the $2.2 billion American companies raised, but nothing to scoff at for an industry that really only began seven years ago. At least 42 companies had no known government funding. 

And much of the government support these companies do receive doesn’t have a federal origin, but a provincial one. “[These companies] are drawing high-tech development to these local communities,” says Hines. “And in return, they’re given more autonomy by the local government.” While most have headquarters in Beijing, many keep facilities in Shenzhen, Chongqing, and other areas that might draw talent from local universities. 

There’s also one advantage specific to China: manufacturing. “What is the best country to trust for manufacturing needs?” asks James Zheng, the CEO of Spacety’s Luxembourg headquarters. “It’s China. It’s the manufacturing center of the world.” Zheng believes the country is in a better position than any other to take advantage of the space industry’s new need for mass production of satellites and rockets alike. 

Making friends

The most critical strategic reason to encourage a private space sector is to create opportunities for international collaboration—particularly to attract customers wary of being seen to mix with the Chinese government. (US agencies and government contractors, for example, are barred from working with any groups the regime funds.) Document 60 and others issued by China’s National Development and Reform Commission were aimed not just at promoting technological innovation, but also at drawing in foreign investment and maximizing a customer base beyond Chinese borders.

“China realizes there are certain things they cannot get on their own,” says Frans von der Dunk, a space policy expert at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Chinese companies like LandSpace and MinoSpace have worked to accrue funding through foreign investment, escaping dependence on state subsidies. And by avoiding state funding, a company can also avoid an array of restrictions on what it can and can’t do (such as constraints on talking with the media). Foreign investment also makes it easier to compete on a global scale: you’re taking on clients around the world, launching from other countries, and bringing talent from outside China. 

Although China is taking inspiration from the US in building out its private industry, the nature of the Chinese state also means these new companies face obstacles that their rivals in the West don’t have to worry about. While Chinese companies may look private on paper, they must still submit to government guidance and control, and accept some level of interference. It may be difficult for them to make a case to potential overseas customers that they are independent. The distinction between companies that are truly private and those that are more or less state actors is still quite fuzzy, especially if the government is a frequent customer. “That could still lead to a lack of trust from other partners,” says Goswami. It doesn’t help that the government itself is often very cagey about what its national program is even up to.

And Hines adds that it’s not always clear exactly how separate these companies are from, say, the People’s Liberation Army, given the historical ties between the space and defense sectors. “Some of these things will pose significant hurdles for the commercial space sector as it tries to expand,” he says.

Other challenges

None of these new companies are yet profitable, and it will be quite some time before they are. “There isn’t any sign of indication that this industry will flop,” says Hines. “But many experts do think a lot of these companies will go out of business.” Apart from the challenge of attracting customers outside China, many companies are still trying to figure out who exactly their customers ought to be. 

American companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin had billionaire founders ready to burn cash to take on large risks, push past big failures, and finally get off the ground. And while a Chinese billionaire entered the industry last year“there is no Chinese Elon Musk to push these riskier ventures forward,” says Hines. It’s also unclear whether Chinese companies, even those supported by wealthy backers, will have that appetite for risk.

Zheng says one thing Spacety has offered is exceptional transparency with clients for whom it is developing satellites—something that’s still uncommon for Chinese firms. “Many of them have no kind of spaceflight experience,” he says. “They want to see and learn what goes on, but the large companies won’t allow for that. We’re different.”

Lastly, China needs to figure out a legal framework that can guide the commercial industry in more explicit terms, and specify what’s allowed and what is not. It is the only major space power without a specialized space law. (The American version is Title 51 of the United States Code.) While the hope is that free enterprise can generate innovation, national governments are still liable for whatever space activities a country’s private companies conduct. There’s a need to license and approve these missions, ensuring that governments know what they’ve signed up for. 

Despite all this, China’s space industry is rolling forward. These new startups haven’t just adopted American business practices—they’ve also begun to embrace American startup culture as a way to foster business relationships and grow. During my video call with Spacety’s Zheng, the company’s Beijing CEO, Yang Feng, briefly dropped in to say hello, on his way back from a party where he’d been schmoozing and enjoying drinks with many peers and partners in the industry. “It’s part of the way we do business now,” Zheng said. “Innovation is not just new technology itself—it’s also a new way of doing things.” 

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Personal skin problems leads founder to launch skincare startup Nøie, raises $12M Series A

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Inspired by his own problems with skin ailments, tech founder Daniel Jensen decided there had to be a better way. So, using an in-house tech platform, his Copenhagen-based startup Nøie developed its own database of skin profiles, to better care for sensitive skin.

Nøie has now raised $12m in a Series A funding round led by Talis Capital, with participation from Inventure, as well as existing investors including Thomas Ryge Mikkelsen, former CMO of Pandora, and Kristian Schrøder Hart-Hansen, former CEO of LEO Pharma’s Innovation Lab.

Nøie’s customized skincare products target sensitive skin conditions including acne, psoriasis and eczema. Using its own R&D, Nøie says it screens thousands of skincare products on the market, selects what it thinks are the best, and uses an algorithm to assign customers to their ‘skin family’. Customers then get recommendations for customized products to suit their skin.

Skin+Me is probably the best-known perceived competitor, but this is a prescription provider. Noie is non-prescription.

Jensen said: “We firmly believe that the biggest competition is the broader skincare industry and the consumer behavior that comes with it. I truly believe that in 2030 we’ll be surprised that we ever went into a store and picked up a one-size-fits-all product to combat our skincare issues, based on what has the nicest packaging or the best marketing. In a sense, any new company that emerges in this space are peers to us: we’re all working together to intrinsically change how people choose skincare products. We’re all demonstrating to people that they can now receive highly-personalized products based on their own skin’s specific needs.”

Of his own problems to find the right skincare provider, he said: “It’s just extremely difficult to find something that works. When you look at technology, online, and all our apps and everything, we got so smart in so many areas, but not when it comes to consumer skin products. I believe that in five or 10 years down the line, you’ll be laughing that we really used to just go in and pick up products just off the shelf, without knowing what we’re supposed to be using. I think everything we will be using in the bathroom will be customized.”

Beatrice Aliprandi, principal at Talis Capital, said: “For too long have both the dermatology sector and the skincare industry relied on the outdated ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to addressing chronic skin conditions. By instead taking a data-driven and community feedback approach, Nøie is building the next generation of skincare by providing complete personalization for its customers at a massive scale, pioneering the next revolution in skincare.”

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Comms expert and VC Caryn Marooney will detail how to get attention at TC Early Stage

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We’re thrilled to announce Caryn Marooney is speaking at our upcoming TechCrunch Early Stage virtual event in July. She spoke with us last year and we had to have her back.

Just look at her resume. She was the co-founder and CEO of The Outcast Agency, one of Silicon Valley’s best-regarded public relations firms. She left her company to serve as VP of Global Communication at Facebook, which she did for eight years, overseeing communication for Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus. In 2019 she joined Coatue Management as a general partner, where she went on to invest in Startburst, Supabase, Defined Networks and others.

Needless to say, Marooney is one of the Valley’s experts on getting people’s attention — a skill that’s critical when running a startup, nonprofit or school bake sale.

She said it best last year: “People just fundamentally aren’t walking around caring about this new startup — actually, nobody does.” So how do you get people to care? That’s the trick and why we’re having her back to speak on this evergreen topic.

Watch her presentation from 2020 here. It’s fantastic.

One of the great things about TC Early Stage is that the show is designed around breakout sessions, with each speaker leading a chat around a specific startup core competency (like fundraising, designing a brand, mastering the art of PR and more). Moreover, there is plenty of time for audience Q&A in each session.

Pick up your ticket for the event, which goes down July 8 and 9, right here. And if you do it today, you’ll save a cool $100 off of your registration.


 

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Lightmatter’s photonic AI ambitions light up an $80M B round

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AI is fundamental to many products and services today, but its hunger for data and computing cycles is bottomless. Lightmatter plans to leapfrog Moore’s law with its ultra-fast photonic chips specialized for AI work, and with a new $80M round the company is poised to take its light-powered computing to market.

We first covered Lightmatter in 2018, when the founders were fresh out of MIT and had raised $11M to prove that their idea of photonic computing was as valuable as they claimed. They spent the next three years and change building and refining the tech — and running into all the hurdles that hardware startups and technical founders tend to find.

For a full breakdown of what the company’s tech does, read that feature — the essentials haven’t changed.

In a nutshell, Lightmatter’s chips perform certain complex calculations fundamental to machine learning in a flash — literally. Instead of using charge, logic gates, and transistors to record and manipulate data, the chips use photonic circuits that perform the calculations by manipulating the path of light. It’s been possible for years, but until recently getting it to work at scale, and for a practical, indeed a highly valuable purpose has not.

Prototype to product

It wasn’t entirely clear in 2018 when Lightmatter was getting off the ground whether this tech would be something they could sell to replace more traditional compute clusters like the thousands of custom units companies like Google and Amazon use to train their AIs.

“We knew in principle the tech should be great, but there were a lot of details we needed to figure out,” CEO and co-founder Nick Harris told TechCrunch in an interview. “Lots of hard theoretical computer science and chip design challenges we needed to overcome… and COVID was a beast.”

With suppliers out of commission and many in the industry pausing partnerships, delaying projects, and other things, the pandemic put Lightmatter months behind schedule, but they came out the other side stronger. Harris said that the challenges of building a chip company from the ground up were substantial, if not unexpected.

A rack of Lightmatter servers.

Image Credits: Lightmatter

“In general what we’re doing is pretty crazy,” he admitted. “We’re building computers from nothing. We design the chip, the chip package, the card the chip package sits on, the system the cards go in, and the software that runs on it…. we’ve had to build a company that straddles all this expertise.”

That company has grown from its handful of founders to more than 70 employees in Mountain View and Boston, and the growth will continue as it brings its new product to market.

Where a few years ago Lightmatter’s product was more of a well-informed twinkle in the eye, now it has taken a more solid form in the Envise, which they call a ‘general purpose photonic AI accelerator.” It’s a server unit designed to fit into normal datacenter racks but equipped with multiple photonic computing units, which can perform neural network inference processes at mind-boggling speeds. (It’s limited to certain types of calculations, namely linear algebra for now, and not complex logic, but this type of math happens to be a major component of machine learning processes.)

Harris was reticent to provide exact numbers on performance improvements, but more because those improvements are increasing than that they’re not impressive enough. The website suggests it’s 5x faster than an NVIDIA A100 unit on a large transformer model like BERT, while using about 15 percent of the energy. That makes the platform doubly attractive to deep-pocketed AI giants like Google and Amazon, which constantly require both more computing power and who pay through the nose for the energy required to use it. Either better performance or lower energy cost would be great — both together is irresistible.

It’s Lightmatter’s initial plan to test these units with its most likely customers by the end of 2021, refining it and bringing it up to production levels so it can be sold widely. But Harris emphasized this was essentially the Model T of their new approach.

“If we’re right, we just invented the next transistor,” he said, and for the purposes of large-scale computing, the claim is not without merit. You’re not going to have a miniature photonic computer in your hand any time soon, but in datacenters, where as much as 10 percent of the world’s power is predicted to go by 2030, “they really have unlimited appetite.”

The color of math

A Lightmatter chip with its logo on the side.

Image Credits: Lightmatter

There are two main ways by which Lightmatter plans to improve the capabilities of its photonic computers. The first, and most insane sounding, is processing in different colors.

It’s not so wild when you think about how these computers actually work. Transistors, which have been at the heart of computing for decades, use electricity to perform logic operations, opening and closing gates and so on. At a macro scale you can have different frequencies of electricity that can be manipulated like waveforms, but at this smaller scale it doesn’t work like that. You just have one form of currency, electrons, and gates are either open or closed.

In Lightmatter’s devices, however, light passes through waveguides that perform the calculations as it goes, simplifying (in some ways) and speeding up the process. And light, as we all learned in science class, comes in a variety of wavelengths — all of which can be used independently and simultaneously on the same hardware.

The same optical magic that lets a signal sent from a blue laser be processed at the speed of light works for a red or a green laser with minimal modification. And if the light waves don’t interfere with one another, they can travel through the same optical components at the same time without losing any coherence.

That means that if a Lightmatter chip can do, say, a million calculations a second using a red laser source, adding another color doubles that to two million, adding another makes three — with very little in the way of modification needed. The chief obstacle is getting lasers that are up to the task, Harris said. Being able to take roughly the same hardware and near-instantly double, triple, or 20x the performance makes for a nice roadmap.

It also leads to the second challenge the company is working on clearing away, namely interconnect. Any supercomputer is composed of many small individual computers, thousands and thousands of them, working in perfect synchrony. In order for them to do so, they need to communicate constantly to make sure each core knows what other cores are doing, and otherwise coordinate the immensely complex computing problems supercomputing is designed to take on. (Intel talks about this “concurrency” problem building an exa-scale supercomputer here.)

“One of the things we’ve learned along the way is, how do you get these chips to talk to each other when they get to the point where they’re so fast that they’re just sitting there waiting most of the time?” said Harris. The Lightmatter chips are doing work so quickly that they can’t rely on traditional computing cores to coordinate between them.

A photonic problem, it seems, requires a photonic solution: a wafer-scale interconnect board that uses waveguides instead of fiber optics to transfer data between the different cores. Fiber connections aren’t exactly slow, of course, but they aren’t infinitely fast, and the fibers themselves are actually fairly bulky at the scales chips are designed, limiting the number of channels you can have between cores.

“We built the optics, the waveguides, into the chip itself; we can fit 40 waveguides into the space of a single optical fiber,” said Harris. “That means you have way more lanes operating in parallel — it gets you to absurdly high interconnect speeds.” (Chip and server fiends can find that specs here.)

The optical interconnect board is called Passage, and will be part of a future generation of its Envise products — but as with the color calculation, it’s for a future generation. 5-10x performance at a fraction of the power will have to satisfy their potential customers for the present.

Putting that $80M to work

Those customers, initially the “hyper-scale” data handlers that already own datacenters and supercomputers that they’re maxing out, will be getting the first test chips later this year. That’s where the B round is primarily going, Harris said: “We’re funding our early access program.”

That means both building hardware to ship (very expensive per unit before economies of scale kick in, not to mention the present difficulties with suppliers) and building the go-to-market team. Servicing, support, and the immense amount of software that goes along with something like this — there’s a lot of hiring going on.

The round itself was led by Viking Global Investors, with participation from HP Enterprise, Lockheed Martin, SIP Global Partners, and previous investors GV, Matrix Partners and Spark Capital. It brings their total raised to about $113 million; There was the initial $11M A round, then GV hopping on with a $22M A-1, then this $80M.

Although there are other companies pursuing photonic computing and its potential applications in neural networks especially, Harris didn’t seem to feel that they were nipping at Lightmatter’s heels. Few if any seem close to shipping a product, and at any rate this is a market that is in the middle of its hockey stick moment. He pointed to an OpenAI study indicating that the demand for AI-related computing is increasing far faster than existing technology can provide it, except with ever larger datacenters.

The next decade will bring economic and political pressure to rein in that power consumption, just as we’ve seen with the cryptocurrency world, and Lightmatter is poised and ready to provide an efficient, powerful alternative to the usual GPU-based fare.

As Harris suggested hopefully earlier, what his company has made is potentially transformative in the industry and if so there’s no hurry — if there’s a gold rush, they’ve already staked their claim.

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