We startup founders and investors like to talk about “moonshots”. It points out startups that have huge dreams, those that are solving hard problems, and those that will actually change the world if they succeed.
Usually, the term moonshot is used metaphorically, but today I’d like to introduce you to a literal moonshot. Takeshi Hakamada, founder and CEO of ispace, plans on landing commercial payloads on the moon in the next two years.
Ispace is in the process of developing lunar landers and lunar rovers, and they plan on using the increasingly inexpensive commercial launch companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin to send them to the moon.
Ispace has secured a partnership with Japan’s space agency, and they have attracted more than $90 million in investment.
It’s a great conversation and I think you’ll really enjoy it.
- Why Japan’s space program is being privatized
- How a lunar lander can be commercially viable by 2020
- An overview of ispace’s first ten lunar missions
- How much it costs to put one kilogram on the moon
- What’s worth mining on the moon
- What a lunar economy could look like
- Why lunar advertising is a possibility
Welcome to Disrupting Japan, straight talk from Japan’s most successful entrepreneurs. I’m Tim Romero and thanks for joining me.
“Boys, be ambitious. Be ambitious not for money or selfish aggrandizement, not for that evanescent thing which men call fame. Be ambitious for the attainment of all that a man ought to be.”
That was a parting advice given in 1867 by William S. Clark to the students of what would become Hokkaido University. While Clark is not widely known in his home country of the United States, both he and the phrase “Boys, be ambitious” are legendary here in Japan.
And yet so few Japanese boys or girls, for that matter, really are ambitious, at least in the way that Clark intended it. Of course, many of Japan’s most ambitious boys are girls are the very ones out there starting startups, and today, I’d like to introduce you to the most ambitious Japanese startup in existence.
They are a literal moonshot company and they’ve just raised over $90 million to pursue that dream. Takeshi Hakamada, founder and CEO of ispace plans on landing commercial payloads on the moon in the next two years.
Now, ispace is not making rockets like SpaceX or Blue Origin, they’re creating lunar landers and lunar rovers, and they are making plans for a commercially viable lunar economy. I’ll let Takeshi tell you all about it.
Oh, but before I do, you should know about the Google Lunar X Prize. This was a global $25 million competition sponsored by Google and open to any companies that could land a rover on the moon and send data back to Earth. Now, no one ended up winning the main prize but Takeshi’s Hakuto project was one of the five companies from around the world that won an intermediate milestone prize.
But you know, Takeshi tells that story much better than I can, so let’s get right to the interview.
Tim: So we’re sitting here with Takeshi Hakamada of ispace who is going to commercialize the moon with exploration mining and eventually tourism, so thanks for sitting down with me.
Takeshi: Thank you for having interview with me today.
Tim: I really appreciate this and I love big dreams, and I think that no company in Japan has bigger dreams than ispace.
Tim: Yeah. Well, I mean, you’ve recently raised $90 million for a literal moonshot. Can you explain what you’re planning on doing?
Takeshi: We are trying to provide a commercial transportation service to the moon in the next few years. Starting from that service, we want to get into the mining business in space and then the human beings living in space. Our company vision is expand the planet, expand the future. We want to create a world where human being can live in space.
Tim: So when you talk about mining on the moon, what is there to mine?
Takeshi: There is many of the opportunity for the mining business on the moon. There also in space, however, the first target is water, h2o is going to be split into Hydrogen and Oxygen, and then it become appropriate for spacecraft with rocket satellite, and then if we can create a gas station in space, we can transform the space transportation system.
Tim: Let’s dive deep into the lunar economics in a bit, but just so our listeners understand how ambitious your goals are, in the next two years, you plan on two mission: one to send a lunar orbiter and a second mission to actually soft land and deploy a lunar rover on the moon.
Tim: 2020 is two years away. Do you feel confident you’ll be able to do that?
Takeshi: Yes. First of all, we have already experienced. We have already developed a lunar rover already, and then we’ve already started the lunar lander development one year ago. We have already the background to accomplish our development. However, even the – we have one year already experience for the lunar lander development, three years is still a short time, especially in space industry.
Tim: Yeah, yeah.
Takeshi: Usually, the space program will take about five years to 10 years, so the three years is very, very aggressive, a short time. However, there’s a technology already that has many of the components available so the only thing we have to do is design the system properly and then assemble the component.
Tim: Okay, and after the second mission which is scheduled to be a lunar lander, then you guys get really aggressive and you’re planning seven or eight missions over the next year to basically construct an infrastructure, right?
Takeshi: Yeah, our ultimate goal is to construct the mining plant on the moon but the first few years, our focus is to transport a small craft. Our transportation capability is just a 30-kilogram payload, so compared to the governmental missions, they transport more than 100 kilograms or more than that at one time. Our service is just to bring 30 kilograms. We are going to leave a small sized payload in many times.
Tim: And you think over that time, missions three to nine, those payloads will mostly be autonomous robots to build this infrastructure?
Takeshi: We think that past few years, also the payload will be a scientific payload, like sensors or the exploration goggles, things like that, and then also, we can provide opportunity for the space agencies to the most right technology to building something on the moon.
Tim: Well, listen, before we talk about that in detail, let’s step back a bit and talk about you. This has been kind of a dream of yours for a long time because even before ispace and the Lunar X prize, you started a company called White Label Space back in 2010, was it?
Tim: Can you tell us a bit about White Label Space, what was that about?
Takeshi: White Label Space
Tim: That’s always the way it is though, isn’t it?
Takeshi: Yes. So the Lunar X Prize announced the milestone prizes in 2014 and then we are awarded as one with the milestone prize winner. We proved our technology to that milestone prizes, so that kind of the event is very, very important, the people recognize which team has bigger reliable technologies.
Tim: Well, no, I can understand. It really, it validates the project in the eyes of all of the people and companies who maybe don’t understand it well enough to judge for themselves.
Takeshi: It’s very, very hard for the usual persons to judge technology, so the Google Lunar X Prize, that kind of third-party evaluation is a good announcement.
Tim: So Google, last year, the extended the X Prize for another year and this year, they finally ended it. Was that disappointing? Do you think they should have extended it and kept the spotlight on this project, and kept the momentum going?
Takeshi: Yeah, our expectation was always we want to complete mission with the Lunar X Competition. We requested the X Prize to extend again. However, this time, X Prize confirmed to end.
Tim: Well, it sounds like it’s done its purpose. It’s giving you a lot of publicity and validation, and you have a huge number of sponsors and investment now, so I guess it’s not as important as it used to be.
Takeshi: Yes, even though Lunar X Prize itself will end in March, however, Lunar X Prize already provide many advantages to the teams.
Tim: You’ve got a staff of about 45 or 50? And a small team that’s working in Luxembourg.
Tim: Are those the same people that you worked with at White Label Space.
Tim: So how did you end up with a team in Luxembourg?
Takeshi: After we took over the team from White Label Space, we started to create our own business. Our business target become a mining business in space. We knew that Luxembourg government is interested in space mining business so we started to contact to them. Finally, we had agreement with government and then we set up the office in Luxembourg and then started to hire people over there.
Tim: Makes sense. Okay, let’s talk about the economics of mining and lunar economics in general. So far, only the US, the Soviet Union, and very recently, China have been able to soft land anything on the moon, and these have all been extremely expensive, large public efforts. So do you think this is something that private companies can do and why?
Takeshi: So far, the government invested a lot of money for lunar landing. However, except China case, it’s over 50 years ago. During this period, most of the ethnics has been advanced. We have many of the technology which is not available 50 years ago, especially the landing should be automatic for that.
Tim: Well, it certainly makes sense that costs have come down across the board for this. Before we were talking about a 30-kilogram payload, so how much do you think it will cost to land a 30-kilogram payload on the moon?
Takeshi: It’s going to be several million dollars per kilogram. This is cheaper than government mission, I guess, their mission would cost five times more or ten times more.
Tim: I can see how a private sector would be able to do it less expensively and we’re seeing that in the US as well with SpaceX and Blue Origin, but will the economics work? I mean, you talk about mining, for example, but what is on the moon that is not already on the earth that we can get out much cheaper down here?
Takeshi: At this moment, still, the transportation cost is expensive, so it’s still unrealistic to bring something back from the moon to the earth. On the other hand, because of the expensive transportation cost, we cannot allow everything bring from the earth to the moon. So we identify the resources available on the moon is important to reduce the cost of the space development.
Tim: So the goal of the mining is really to mine for materials to build the infrastructure on the moon itself?
Takeshi: One part is material to build the infrastructure in the moon. The other one is prepare a gas station. On the earth, the oil is important resources. In space area, the water H2 and O2 is really important, also for energy.
Tim: That makes sense, how it could work, and I love your vision of having steel production and communications, and transportation, and breaking down the water into oxygen and hydrogen, so I guess you would just use like, solar panels to generate the energy to do that. You can see how it’s possible. You can see how we can do it but why would we do it? Do the economics actually work out?
Takeshi: Well, it’s a point. I’m not so much interested in technology itself. My interest is how to create economy in space. I don’t think people is traveling to the space and living in space without incentive. People don’t want to go to the space and lose money.
Tim: Right, right, and governments can afford to lose money on this, but as a private company, you can’t.
Takeshi: Right. My major focus is how to create economy in space. How to circulate money in space, including the economy on the earth.
Tim: Okay, and you think the core of the economy is going to be the water that you can break down into the Oxygen and Hydrogen?
Takeshi: Yes, as a prospective. The life on the earth has been supported by the satellite technology. Without satellite technology or that is not sophisticated, the next question is, how to sustain such a space infrastructure around the earth?
Tim: So you think it might be cheaper to maintain satellite infrastructure from the moon than it would be for the earth itself?
Takeshi: Yes. The transportation cost from the earth to the space is very, very expensive. One calculation say that the transportation cost from the earth is 100 times more than from the moon.
Tim: Wow, interesting. In an interview you gave last year, you mentioned that the money you’ve raised will be enough to cover the first two missions and that after that, you’re hoping to be self-funding, that these economies will kick in and the lunar landings will be commercially viable. Are you still on track for that goal?
Takeshi: Of course.
Tim: Yeah? Because if it costs $30 million to land 30 kilos on the moon, it takes a lot of value. Who do you think is going to pay for, let’s say, mission three when you’re paying $1 million dollars per kilo to put something on the moon. Will that still be like, governments and private sector or do you think that’s going to be more commercial?
Takeshi: I don’t think commercial companies start buying our service from the beginning. I think the first customer will be government. Many of the space agencies start planning the lunar missions in future, we expect a large amount of the demand to transport something from the earth to the moon, and then government cannot keep investing just regular transportation system. Government should invest more on the application on the moon, not to the transportation. The role of the commercial company is to take the transportation system more cost-effective.
Tim: So when, I mean, we’re all kind of guessing and speculating here but in your vision, when do you think that transition will happen so not only the transportation but the payloads themselves are from commercial companies and not governments? When do you think that tipping point will happen?
Takeshi: Well, I think tipping point will be when we identify available resources on the moon.
Tim: Okay. Actually, also last year, one of the commercialization ideas that you mentioned was creating a lunar billboard using robots to project advertising. Is that something you’re still considering?
Takeshi: Let me explain the concept of our advertisement business. It’s not the concept of the billboard where build on the moon. We cannot see the billboard itself on the earth, so I don’t think such kind of the concept can generate many of the demand. So our concept is to use our base mission to promote client company’s branding.
Tim: So the advertising model would be similar to what you’ve done with Hakuto where it’s sponsorship of the project and having the logo on the vehicles.
Takeshi: Yeah, in general, same as the Hakuto model. So we don’t have any plan to put a billboard on the moon.
Tim: I’m kind of glad to hear that.
Takeshi: And then it’s not only the time we land on the moon, but also during the technology development or any of the activity on the earth.
Tim: That makes sense. Getting back to your schedule and your overall goals for the program, actually, I love that it’s so ambitious. This, I think, is something that a lot of people have like, dreamed about, but the schedule seems really ambitious, so the technology, so I guess like Falcon Heavy is a big enough launch vehicle but you’re also relying not only on the rover technologies that you’ve developed but also like, landers, a lot of artificial intelligence – there’s really hard problems, so are these all things you’re developing internally or are you working with public and commercial groups around the world to build different parts of this?
Takeshi: So basically, in order to speed up our development process, we don’t develop the component itself. We are going to purchase almost all of the components from the other suppliers with the other companies. Our responsibility is to design the system and then also assemble, and then test.
Tim: But for example, like the lander, before, you were working with the Indus project, but now, you’ve decided to build your own lander as well, right?
Tim: And you’re confident this is going to happen in the next two years?
Takeshi: Yes. So far, we have some chances. We can make a decision to develop our lander. However, we strategically don’t choose such option because for example, when we started actually, we decided to develop our lunar lander, it’s going to take $50 million, it’s hard to raise such a fun at the moment, so we will fail. Right now, it’s the right timing for us so we decided to develop our own lander. One major decision we made, the reason is, in order to do our business in future, we need to have a right to control the transportation. Otherwise, we cannot provide better service to customers.
Tim: Okay, in the short term, what can you see as your biggest challenge in completing your second mission, the actual soft landing on the moon, what is keeping you up at night and that you’re most worried about of all the things you have to get right to make it happen?
Takeshi: Before, fundraising, the most critical thing was fundraising but we have done already, so we already eliminated the most difficult part, and then the next thing is I think the schedule. Technology is available so what we have to do is to keep the schedule.
Tim: Okay, that’s interesting. So it’s not big technology challenges; it’s mostly just execution and keeping the schedule.
Tim: Let me ask you the same question long term. When we’re looking at mission ten and beyond where it’s ready that human beings can live on the moon. What do you think is the biggest challenge for making that happen?
Takeshi: Economical incentive. I don’t think the hurdle is technology. If people want to do something, they’re going to develop technology. However, if they don’t want to do that, nothing happens.
Tim: So the biggest long term challenges is creating that economy?
Tim: Before we wrap up, I want to ask you what I call my Magic Wand question and that is, if I gave you a magic wand and I told you that you could change one thing about Japan, anything at all – the education system, the legal system, the way people think about risk, anything at all to make it better for startups in Japan, what would you change?
Tim: The language, why is that?
Takeshi: Well, because the language difficulty, we are losing many of the opportunity, so even for me, because my English is still not perfect, it’s hard to communicate with many of the people. If I’m more capable speaking in English, I can open many of the other doors.
Tim: So you would use your magic wand to change Japan to an English language nation.
Takeshi: Yeah, and then it’s same for the other persons too because of the Japanese language barrier, many of the English speakers cannot come to Japan and then work with Japanese.
Tim: That’s interesting because there are two sides to that, so many startup founders today and many very big companies in the 60s used the Japanese language as kind of a way of protecting their business and growing their business at first. So you’d have to give that up?
Takeshi: Yeah, but it’s one advantage. From our point of view, space business is global. If we focus only on Japan, the Japanese market is just 1% of the space market. We cannot survive.
Tim: You know, I think that’s true probably for all industries, even if it gives the companies a little bit of a head start initially, in the long run, you have to compete with global companies and the sooner you start doing that, the better.
Takeshi: Yes, I agree so.
Tim: Okay, listen, Takeshi, thanks so much for sitting down with me. I really appreciate it.
Takeshi: Thank you very much.
Tim: And we’re back.
Hey, I told you these boys are ambitious, didn’t I? I think it’s great that Takeshi and ispace raised $90 million to pursue their vision but I have to admit that I was a little disappointed to learn that this outpouring of financial and promotional support came only after their achievement was validated by Google.
Japanese investors and Japanese society, in general, tend to overlook so much true innovation that exists in Japan and they tend to overvalue what is being done overseas. I think this attitude is one of the things that’s really holding back innovation in Japan at all levels. Not just in startups but in large companies and in the arts as well.
So is ispace’s plan to land a rover on the moon in the next two years practical? No, of course, it’s not, and missions of that scale are never practical. Is it possible? Well, I don’t know. For now, all I can do is put it in the ‘I want to believe’ category and to wish them all the best of luck.
However, when we look at ispace as a startup, following the same rules for economics for startups that we all have to live by, ispace has one glaring challenge and it’s one that I see founders make all the time, both students who are part of programs like Startup Weekend and my corporate consulting clients who have prestigious degrees and decades of experience.
The problem is, they don’t really know their customer or understand what problem they’re solving. They’ve not yet been able to define the value that they are creating. Even if ispace managed to solve these formidable engineering challenges, there’s not a large group of potential customers, private or government willing to pay a few million dollars per kilogram to place a payload on the moon.
To be fair, Takeshi and ispace are aware of this problem, and as Takeshi said, his biggest long-term concern is figuring out how this lunar economy will actually work. Well, they only have a few years to figure it out. Their current funds are enough to pay for the first two mission which should put a rover on the moon, and for now, that’s the effort everyone is watching.
If you want to talk about the moon or space travel, and really, who doesn’t? Takeshi and I would love to hear from you, so come by disruptingjapan.com/show113, and tell us what you think. When you come to the site, you’ll see all the resources and notes that Takeshi and I talked about and much, much more in the resources section of the post.
But most of all, thanks for listening, and thank you for letting people interested in Japanese startups know about the show.
I’m Tim Romero and thanks for listening to Disrupting Japan.