How SpaceTech startups could shape the future of healthcare
By Early Metrics Team - 30 March 2022
We are currently witnessing a sort of renaissance of the space economy. The highly publicised advances made by companies the likes of Space X, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are concrete examples of this. Meanwhile, partnerships between public and private sector players are multiplying, partly due to many governments’ desire to get involved in the new space race whilst limiting risks. For instance, the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in December 2021, saw the collaboration of NASA, ESA and Arianespace. But large companies and governmental institutions aren’t the only players in the field: SpaceTech startups are key contributors to current progress in the aerospace sector.
So clearly the growth of the space economy is creating plenty of opportunities. But these opportunities are not limited to our exploration of space. In fact, they can have a far-reaching impact on the technical advancement of various sectors and activities on Earth. This article will delve deeper into the literally life-saving implications of SpaceTech development for the medical sector.
SpaceTech, a booming sector
If SpaceTech is a hot topic right now, it’s mainly because of the structuring of investment vehicles and the growing maturity of investors. The panel of financing options is increasingly large, offering startups a choice of financial partners. They can turn to public players: global government investments should reach close to $260 billion in 2029, an increase of 54% compared to the 2010-2019 period. Alternatively, they could choose to work with private investors such as VC funds and business angels. Global investment figures confirm this growing investment appetite in SpaceTech. Indeed, they more than doubled between 2000 and 2019, going from $36.3 billion to $73.7 billion. Moreover, since 2018, 35 French startups have raised nearly €260M in total private investment and there has been over $28 billion invested in 3,000 companies in the United States.
These investments allow startups in the sector to develop innovations with various potential use cases: analysis of satellite data, new components for launchers and satellites, reduction of space pollution and, perhaps surprisingly, healthcare.
Medical advances supported by SpaceTech
It is important to emphasise that synergies between aerospace and health are not new. Indeed, all the space agencies (NASA, ESA, etc.) that send astronauts into space must ensure their medical safety away from planet Earth and have therefore developed various innovations. For instance, NASA developed an improved stethoscope that could prevent the need for expensive heart and lung tests in regions of the world that cannot afford such equipment. Ex-NASA researcher Maarten Sierhuis also brought his space health knowledge to Earth by co-founding the healthtech startup Ejenta, which uses spacefaring-inspired wearables to monitor patients.
These synergies keep improving and there are more and more new use cases. For example, some startups are exploring the potential of space to develop the factories of the future. These factories have the potential to produce semiconductors, alloys but also pharmaceutical products. But why go to space to produce what we already make on Earth? Simply because space has much more favourable properties for advanced manufacturing processes. Indeed, there are 3 properties that allow more precise and less expensive production processes:
- Microgravity prevents buoyancy and allows a more uniform alloy mixing
- The pressure is 10 trillion times lower than Earth, therefore preventing contamination of processes
- Space’s temperature is near-zero, enabling easier attainment and maintenance of extreme temperatures (for refrigeration, etc.)
There are already two startups focusing on this aspect: Varda Space and Space Forge. Varda Space is building what it claims to be “the world’s first commercial zero-gravity industrial park at scale” to produce pharmaceuticals, among other things. Meanwhile, Space Forge is also racing to launch a pioneering autonomous manufacturing facility that could produce medicines in orbit. They have both raised significant amounts of money despite being in their early stages of growth ($11M for Space Forge and $51M for Varda Space).
In a more distant future, we can imagine that space factories could also tackle the issue of organ donation shortage on Earth. Indeed, techniques for bioprinting organs are currently being researched by multiple institutions. Organ bioprinting could be cheaper and more efficient if it was conducted in space, thanks to the absence of gravity and contamination.
Key obstacles to the development of innovation by SpaceTech startups
To date, startups rely heavily on fundraising. Indeed, without external capital contribution, it is very difficult to finance the needed R&D and prevent bankruptcy, given that the time to market is long. To counter this, in September 2021, six European enterprises created the Young European Enterprises Syndicate for Space (YEESS). The syndicate aims to support small SpaceTech companies in gaining visibility to then have more chances to compete with larger players and access more institutional programs.
In addition to this commercial aspect, startups must overcome critical technical challenges. SpaceTech startups need to tackle complex R&D issues to bring viable solutions to the market. Because of this technical complexity, they often face difficulties in finding and attracting talent or advisors with rare, yet essential expertise. This combination of issues on the funding and technical side usually postpones commercialisation and puts startups at risk, if they can’t raise money quickly enough.
Lastly, in order to make SpaceTech applicable in the pharma industry, the issue of pricing needs to be addressed. Indeed, current production costs are very high and a pharmaceutical product made in space remains prohibitive for most medical companies and consumers. Therefore, there’s a need to develop economies of scale and optimise production processes for such SpaceTech products to fully enter the medical industry.
As we have seen above, there are promising future synergies between space and pharmaceuticals technologies, as we have already started to see it with NASA. Many exciting SpaceTech startups are emerging but they will take several years to materialise their ideas and even longer to bring their finished products to global markets. Still, growing investment appetite for this market segment is a first step forward as it could help these startups overcome technical challenges and, thus, see their projects take off.