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Investment in Japan space startups blasting off

Sony, Airbus, ANA pony up in search of orbital business know-how

Singapore-based space debris cleanup venture Astroscale -- whose founder is Japanese -- recently received backing from All Nippon Airways parent ANA Holdings.

TOKYO -- Japan's proliferating space startups are getting a boost from major corporations like Sony, All Nippon Airways parent ANA Holdings and Europe's Airbus group, which are taking stakes in the ventures in hopes of gaining knowledge for starting their own extraterrestrial businesses.

The increasing accessibility of space technology has birthed a wave of young Japanese or Japan-adjacent companies working in satellite communications, rocket launches and the like. Sony and Airbus recently invested in one such company, Tokyo-based Infostellar.

Infostellar, founded in January 2016, operates an antenna-sharing service that lets parties borrow use of the equipment -- necessary for communicating with satellites -- from owners such as satellite operating companies.

Orbital satellite launches are increasing, and the data such craft gather is growing more important, but communication antennas are running short. Infostellar is independently developing equipment for mounting antennas, and will use its new funds to expand sales of its products from Japan to Asia and Africa. It received a total of 800 million yen ($7.27 million) from Sony, Airbus and other backers.

Big backers

Airbus made the fund injection, its first investment in a Japanese startup, through its corporate venture capital firm Airbus Ventures. It will also send Airbus Ventures partner Lewis Pinault to serve as an external board member at Infostellar. Pinault has worked as a researcher in the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, and has expertise in the space business.

The European group continues to expand in space fields such as satellites, and already holds stakes in a number of satellite operating companies. Its goal with the Infostellar investment appears to be collaborations like using the startup's technology to secure communication links for those satellite operators.

Sony likewise backed Infostellar through its corporate venture capital arm, the Sony Innovation Fund. The fund invests mainly in technology startups and has around 10 billion yen under management. Sony has previously joined the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, in a project using digital camera products on the International Space Station. The electronics conglomerate seems to be wielding its wireless communications technology to support Infostellar's growth.

Space race

Investment in space startups is heating up across the board. ANA has lately backed Astroscale, a Singapore-based space debris cleanup venture with a Japanese founder, and Nagoya's PD AeroSpace, which is working on commercial space travel. With an eye toward eventually getting into manned spaceflight, the carrier aims to gain know-how for safe flight and transport technology. Astroscale also announced Tuesday that it would embark on joint research with JAXA.

Japanese travel agency H.I.S. has also invested in PD Aerospace, and may in time offer travel services from the startup to individuals.

Investing small sums in space startups lets major companies get a feel for trends in space-related fields, as well as seek synergies with their own businesses and lay groundwork for eventually starting new ones. Another aim is to build an environment in which they can use technologies that would be difficult to develop in house.

Growing frontier

Big businesses monopolized Japan's space industry through the 1990s, and many shallower-pocketed ventures were forced to withdraw. The U.S. has seen a number of powerful entrepreneurs start well-funded, technologically advanced ventures since the 2000s, such as Tesla founder Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies -- better known as SpaceX -- and Blue Origin, an aerospace company set up by founder Jeff Bezos. Now Japan is seeing its own rush of small space startups.

Such ventures include Infostellar and PD Aerospace, as well as rocket launch company Interstellar Technologies and microsatellite observation company Axelspace.

Japan aims to double its roughly 1.2-trillion-yen space market by the early 2030s, according to a plan laid out by a government committee on space policy. If the public and private sectors can together help companies overcome the funding difficulties of getting off the ground, the industry's scope looks likely to expand.


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