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Propelling deep space flight with a new fuel source, Momentus prepares for liftoff

Mikhail Kokorich, the founder of Momentus, a new Y Combinator-backed propulsion technology developer for space flight, hadn’t always dreamed of going to the moon.

A physicist who graduated from Russia’s top-ranked Novosibirsk University, Kokorich was a serial entrepreneur in who grew up in Siberia and made his name and his first fortunes in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The heart of Momentus’ technology is a new propulsion system that uses water as a propellant instead of chemicals.

Image courtesy Momentus

Using water has several benefits, Kokorich says. One, it’s a fuel source that’s abundant in outer space, and it’s ultimately better and more efficient fuel for flight beyond low earth orbit. “If you move something with a chemical booster stage to the moon. Chemical propulsion is good when you need to have a very high thrust,” according to Kokorich. Once a ship gets beyond gravity’s pull, water simply works better, he says.

Some companies are trying to guide micro-satellites with technologies like Phase 4 which use ionized gases like Xenon, but according to Kokorich those are more expensive and slower. “When ionized propulsion is used for geostationary satellites to orbit, it takes months,” says Kokorich, using water can half the time.

“We can carry ten tons to geostationary orbit and it’s much faster,” says Kokorich.

The company has already signed an agreement with ECM Space, a European launch services provider, which will provide the initial trip for the company’s first test of its propulsion system on a micro-satellite — slated for early 2019.

That first product, “Zeal,” has specific impulses of 150 to 180 seconds and power up to 30 watts.

Kokorich started his first business, Dauria, in the mid-90s amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, selling explosives and engineering services to mining companies in Siberia. Kokorich sold that business and went into retail, eventually building a network of stores that sold home goods and housewares across Russia.

That raked in more millions for Kokorich, who then said he diversified into electronics by buying Russia’s BestBuy chain out bankruptcy. But space was never far from his mind, and, eventually he returned to it.

“In 2011 I hit my middle-aged crisis,” Korkorich says. “So I founded the first private Russian aerospace company.”

That company, Dauria Aerospace, was initially feted by the government, garnering the entrepreneur a place in Skolkovo, and its inaugural cohort of space companies. In an announcement of the successes the space program had achieved in 2014 Kokorich co-authored a piece with the Russian cosmonaut Sergey Zhukov, who remains the executive director of the networking and aerospace programs at the multi-billion-dollar boondoggle startup incubator.

Utilis detects water leaks underground using satellite imagery.

A few months later Kokorich would be in the U.S. working to back the first of what’s now a triumvirate of startups focused on space.

“With all the problems with Russia in the Western world, I moved to the U.S.,” says Kokorich. Dauria had quickly raised $30 million for its work, but as this Moscow Times article notes, stiff competition from U.S. firms and the sanctions leveled against Russia in the wake of its invasion and annexation of Crimea were taking their toll on the entrepreneur’s business. “It was a purely political immigration,” Korkorich says. “I don’t have purely business opportunities, because you have to work with the government [and] because the government would not like me.”

For all of his protestations, Kokorich has maintained several economic ties with partners in Russia. It’s through an investment firm called Oden Holdings Ltd. that Kokorich took an investment stake in the Canadian company Helios Wire, which was one of his first forays into space entrepreneurship outside of Russia. That company makes cryptographically secured applications for the transmission and reception of data from internet-enabled devices.

The second space company that the co-founder has built since moving to the U.S. is the satellite company Astra Digital, which processes data from satellites to make that information more accessible.

Now, with Momentus, Kokorich is turning to the problem of propulsion. “When transportation costs decrease, many business models emerge” Kokorich says. And Kokorich sees Momentus’ propulsion technology driving down the costs of traveling further into space — opening up opportunities for new businesses like asteroid mining and lunar transit.

The Momentus team is already thinking well beyond the initial launch. The company’s eyes are on a prize well beyond geostationary orbit.

Indeed, with water as a power source, the company says it will lay the groundwork for future cislunar and interplanetary rides. The company envisions a future where it will power water prospecting and delivery throughout the solar system, solar power stations, in-space manufacturing and space tourism.

Aspire Capital offers fast finance for SMEs in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia’s digital economy is tipped to grow more than six-fold to reach more than $200 billion per year, according to a report co-authored by Google, with e-commerce accounting for the dominant share. The emergence of e-commerce platforms like Alibaba’s Lazada and U.S.-listed Shopee have enabled online entrepreneurship across the region, but still financial support for online sellers, who are basically SMEs, is lagging.

That’s where Singapore-based Aspire Capital, a six-month-old organization focused on speedy SME lending, is hoping to make a difference.

The company certainly has opportunity. With a cumulative population of over 600 million consumers and a rising middle class, Southeast Asia is increasingly an attractive market for businesses of all kind, and online companies in particular. Chinese giants Alibaba and Tencent have long devoted significant resources to the region where, like India, they see significant growth potential. E-commerce is the clear winner, in terms of size, with the e-Conomy SEA report — a joint research project between Google and Singapore sovereign fund Temasek — forecasting e-commerce revenue will hit $88 billion by 2025 from $10.9 billion in 2017.

Data from the e-Conomy SEA report

The crux of its problem is that online sellers who use Lazada, Shopee or other platforms that are forgoing profit in order to grow, are ironically less able to scale their business since there are few ‘e-commerce friendly’ financing options.

That problem became apparent to Aspire founder and CEO Andrea Baronchelli during a four-year stint with Lazada Singapore where, as CMO, he identified a financing disconnect for Lazada merchants.

“I saw the problem while trying to rally small businesses trying to grow in the digital economy,” Baronchelli told TechCrunch in an interview.

“The problem is really about providing working capital to small business owners. We started with online sellers, but we have expanded a bit as we see demand. There are 65 million small businesses in Southeast Asia, that’s ten times more than the U.S. so we see so much potential,” he added.

Aspire founder and CEO Andrea Baronchelli pictured while at Lazada

Today, Aspire Capital covers Singapore where it has expanded beyond e-commerce merchants to cover other things of SMEs who seek loans, primarily for working capital as Baronchelli explains. So far, he added, it has served loans to over 100 businesses. Typically, its spread goes from as low as SG$5,000 to up to SG$100,000, that’s around $3,600-$73,500 in U.S. terms.

The company was founded in early 2018 and already it has done plenty. It was part of the Y Combinator Winter 2018 cohort and it has closed a $9 million seed round to kick its business off with the working capital that it needs itself.

That round included a range of investors such as Europe-based Hummingbird, New York’s Mark II Capital, ex-Sequoia partner Yinglan Tan’s Insignia Ventures Partners and Y Combinator.

The principle behind the business is to make business financing quick and simple, Baronchelli said.

So rather than stacks of paperwork, SME owners fill out online forms and get a response the same day. Large parts of the application and review process are automated using a proprietary risk assessment engine, but Baronchelli said that ultimately a human makes the final call on whether to accept the application or not.

“We want to really be fast,” Baronchelli explained. “SMEs need quick decisions, they cannot wait three months for a bank. They need super quick, fast and no paperwork.”

The application process for companies seeking loans from Aspire Capital

He paints an example of online merchants who typically buy inventory from China which is sold customers within three to six months. If the business has a track record, it can take a loan to increase its stock and grow its revenues and profit, he explained.

Singapore may be a key market in Southeast Asia, but with a population of just over five million expansion is top of mind for Aspire. Baronchelli said he is doing due diligence on the first market expansion which he expects will happen before the end of this year. He expects that the business will raise further capital, perhaps towards the tail end of this year, which would be used to expand more aggressively across Southeast Asia in 2019.

He is also occupied building out the team. Right now, Aspire has ten people but he is keen to bring in ten to fifteen more staff, particularly on the tech side of the business.

Y Combinator is going after Chinese startups with its first official event in China

High-profile U.S. startup accelerator Y Combinator is making a push to bring more China-based startups into its program after it announced its first official event in the country.

YC has made a push to include startups from outside of North America in recent years. That has seen it bring in companies from the likes of India, Southeast Asia and Africa, but China remains underrepresented. According to YC’s own data, fewer than 10 Chinese companies have passed through its corridors. YC counts over 1,400 graduates.

“Startup School Beijing” is scheduled for May 19 in the Chinese capital at Tsinghua University. The event will be free to attend — though attendees might apply for a ticket — with the goal of showing the benefits of participation in its U.S. program.

To help make its case, the organization has pulled in star graduates like Airbnb and Stripe while its president Sam Altman himself is scheduled to appear.

The event will include sessions with graduates, YC partners and “live on-stage office hours.” That’ll see three companies picked from the audience to get advice and tips from the attending partners, as happens in the program. Sessions will be in both English and Chinese with live translations available.

YC partner Eric Migicovsky, who founded Pebble, is leading the event, which will include the following speakers:

In addition to helping U.S. hardware founders, Migicovsky was brought on specifically to make inroads into China and he is optimistic that there is strong demand.

“We’re hosting Startup School in Beijing to meet local entrepreneurs and start a dialogue about how YC can help,” he told TechCrunch. “The event and the founders we meet will help to inform our strategy going forward. Naturally, we hope to find Chinese startups to apply to our core Y Combinator program in Silicon Valley.”

YC officially announced the event today but the organization’s brand is so strong that word already got out in local media once it began sending out invitations, as our Chinese partner Technode reported.

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