This entrepreneur wants to change how we use space, with the help of 3D printing
MONTE CARLO, Monaco • Peter Beck has curly hair, a boyish smile and a casual manner. The New Zealander looks a decade younger than his 40 years, and he didn’t attend university. So you’d never guess he’d become one of the most talked-about entrepreneurs earlier this month at EY’s World Entrepreneur of the Year conference in Monaco — or that he’s about to transform the way humans use space.
But Beck’s not into moonshots or landing humans on Mars. Auckland-based Rocket Labs will leave the long hauls to Richard Branson and Elon Musk. Beck’s technology enables any organization to launch satellites or cargo into earth orbit, at down-to-earth prices. With the light but powerful rockets he’s designed, and using his own launchsite in New Zealand, Beck can launch a rocket for less than US$5 million. (If you have a smaller payload to deploy, you can opt to have it rideshare and pay less.)
Customers can’t wait. Although Rocket Labs has conducted just one official test launch of its 17-metre Electron rocket, and has two more to go before commencing commercial operations, its order book is already filled for two years.
Beck will start with one launch a month, but can scale on demand. The hard part of rocketry is the engine, and he’s come up with a battery-powered engine that can be 3D-printed, and in just a day. It sounds like science fiction, but Beck believes the company will be profitable almost from the start.
My career was all about trying to leverage myself to be
in a position to achieve my dream of building rockets
As New Zealand’s 2016 EY Entrepreneur of the Year, Rocket Labs may be the first startup to win such a prestigious award before its business model has yielded any revenue. But Beck’s story is unusual and inspiring, and his imminent success should encourage any Canadian entrepreneur who’s ever been told their project will never work.
In an interview with Financial Post, Beck said he grew up in Invercargill, at the south end of New Zealand’s South Island, where the stars shine like searchlights. It’s no wonder he says that “There is something about space that has always attracted me.”
Like many kids, he began experimenting with home-made rockets. He says he comes from a long line of engineers, and before that, blacksmiths. He experimented with engines and combustion chambers, created a rocket-powered bicycle that went 160 mph, and even built a rocket pack to propel him forward on a scooter. How fast was that? “Faster than I could control,” he says.
The education system didn’t know what to do with him. At 13, one teacher gave Beck a key to the metalworking lab so he build rocket engines on weekends. He later won lots of science fairs, but school officials urged his parents to discourage his obsession. “They said I was wasting my talents,” Beck says.
He had planned to go to university. First, though, he served a tool-and-die apprenticeship with an appliance manufacturer, where he honed his building skills. He ended up working there full-time, designing robotic production tools.
Beck never went back to school: “My career was all about trying to leverage myself to be in a position to achieve my dream of building rockets.” He designed systems for racing yachts, and worked on advanced materials for a New Zealand government lab. At the same time, “all these companies let me work on rocket engines with their stuff: software, vibration tables and diagnostic tools,” he says. “Everything started to take a giant leap.”
In 2005, he visited the United States to see NASA and commercial organizations such as Virgin Galactic, meeting the real rocket scientists he had corresponded with for years. But he came away disappointed. No one was focusing on small, one-time-use rockets, and their engines were no better than his. Moreover, there was no spirit of innovation: while satellites were getting smaller, the space industry was still building giant rockets — and trying to improve efficiencies by making them reusable. Yet, Beck notes, simply retrieving and refurbishing rockets can cost US$20 million.
On his (old-school) flight back to New Zealand, Beck decided to create his own rocket-launching business — and even designed the space-age logo his company still uses. He believed his system could revolutionize satellite launches. More organizations would be able to launch weather satellites, observation cameras and sensors, or even provide Internet access from space. Once space became affordable, he knew it would spawn new services and entirely new industries — just as cyberspace has done over the past two decades.
Raising money from a private investor who was also a space buff, and leveraging government grants, Rocket Labs launched its first missile into space in 2007. When local broadcasters expressed interest in covering the event, Beck insisted their parent companies show the launch too — wangling international coverage. “It was all about showing the world what this company could do,” he says.
Beck worked for years without a salary. To stay afloat, Rocket Labs performed contract R&D on propulsion and guidance systems for the U.S. Defense Department’s advanced research agency and other international organizations. “That’s how we built our credibility and reputation,” he says, “so I could try to raise capital.” When he decided Rocket Labs was ready, he went to Silicon Valley for three weeks to pitch the same venture capitalists who funded the buildout of cyberspace. He came away with a mere US$6 million. To date, the company has raised $150 million — suggesting a valuation of more than US$1 billion. “One of my proudest moments was creating the financial model that passed the due-diligence process” of the world’s toughest VCs and accounting firms, says Beck.
With last month’s test flight revealing only minor flaws — easily fixed with software tweaks — Beck feels he’s finally about to realize his dream. He’s lined up such clients as NASA, U.S. satellite-data company Spire and Moon Express (a privately owned moonshot from Silicon Valley). And he counts three competitive advantages over any potential copycats. His production technology builds high-performance rocket engines 20 microns at a time — “precision you couldn’t get any other way.” His location in the uncrowded skies of the South Pacific provides more launch opportunities than the crowded skies of Europe and America. And finally, he’s got all the infrastructure, from a favourable New Zealand regulatory system that was put in place just for him, to tracking stations on remote Pacific islands.
“My definition of success will be that space has become a domain no different than building infrastructure anywhere else,” says Beck. “The domain of the few will become a domain for the many.”
Rick Spence is a writer, consultant and speaker specializing in entrepreneurship. He was a guest of EY at the Monaco WEOY conference. EY did not review this column.