Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck writes big cheque to back 21-year-old’s startup

When Peter Beck appeared at Auckland University to receive an adjunct professorship in 2019, a teenage Fia Jones crashed the reception.

The Kiwi-Samoan physics student had an idea for a new type of solar power array for small satellites, and she wanted to pitch it to the Rocket Lab founder.

“I even asked him to sign an NDA [non-disclosure agreement] first,” the now 21-year-old says.

The brash move paid off.

Beck and Jones kept in touch as Jones teamed up with fellow students Max Daniels and William Hunter to work on her concept.

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Although working on budget – in the form of a $15,000 convertible note – the trio were able to complete a basic prototype late last year.

At the start of this year, they put their studies on hold to create a startup, Astrix Astronautics, with Jones as sole director and 49 per cent shareholder, with Hunter and Daniels holding the balance of the company.

And today, Outset Ventures’ Deep Tech Fund revealed it had backed a $500,000 “pre-seed round,” with support from Icehouse Ventures, Sir Stephen Tindall’s K1W1. Collectively, the new investor have taken a 20 per cent stake.

The “who” is just as important as the amount of money, if not more so.

Outset Ventures (formerly LevelTwo), run by Imche Fourie, is the home of a new $10m Deep Tech fund, bankrolled in part by Beck, that is investing in research and development-heavy early-stage companies.

As well as being central to the pre-seed funding, Beck has joined Astrix’s advisory board. A one-person entity, but one that is well-appointed, with the rocket man offering Jones constant business and technical advice.

More, Beck has given Astrix office space inside Rocket Lab’s headquarters.

And, in July, he has given the startup a free “rideshare” to space on one of his company’s Electron rockets to test its prototype (each Rocket Lab launch typically includes satellites from multiple clients, for a collective cost north of US$5m).

The company’s coming space launch follows a successful test of its technology earlier this year within a vacuum chamber at Rocket Labs’ Auckland facilities, where Astrix has been based since its formation in February.

So what exactly is the idea that Jones (now 21) once ran by Beck, and has now developed into a prototype that will be tested 500km above the Earth?

Astrix’s technology consists of a collection of solar panels, stored within a lightweight power system that inflates once the small spacecraft is launched, providing up to 300W/kg of electricity for small satellites weighing up to 500kg – or “from shoebox size to fridge-size” as Jones puts it.

The young entrepreneur does not want to reveal too many details – and definitely won’t allow any photos – Jones says the company’s system provides more than double the amount of power currently available for such satellites.

That’s important, because a typical satellite is only operational some 5 to 10 per cent of its time – with the balance spent recharging.

The second key feature is – Astrix hopes – reliability, by dint of its “inflatable” system having far fewer moving parts than a traditional solution to unfurl solar panels.

The company’s lighter, flexible inflatable structures are used to deploy the solar panels,
replacing the traditional, more bulky, less reliable, mechanical structures that involve an increasing number of multiple moving parts as more panels are added.

While inflatable structures have been used in space for a number of decades, they have not yet been developed to power systems for smaller spacecraft. Astrix is aiming to fill this gap.

The July launch will be just the start of an extended development programme.

Jones estimates it won’t be until 2024 until her company’s product is ready for commercial launch. And she says it will take “a lot, lot more” than $500,000 to get there

Beck, who’s other investments include Auckland “smart cow” startup Halter, says, “The pace of the space industry is rapidly accelerating and we need more companies like Astrix setting out to help the thousands of businesses relying on satellites to advance their missions and crack some of the world’s pressing problems like climate change and food scarcity.

“It is exciting to see the next generation of entrepreneurs like Fia growing global space startups from New Zealand.”

As for Jones herself – is her family concerned that she left varsity to pursue her startup dream full-time – albeit in the footsteps of celebrated dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs?

“I’ve told them I’ve just put my studies on hold,” the young CEO says.

“Once Astrix is successful, in a few years, I’ll start calling myself a dropout.”

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