Monday, July 29, 2013

From NewSpace 2013: Interview with a Giver

Venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson presenting at NewSpace 2013. Photo c/o Allison Rae Hannigan.

          by Allison Rae Hannigan

Reading about Steve Jurvetson is not the same as meeting him in person, as I found out last week at the NewSpace 2013 Conference organized by the Space Frontier Foundation, which was held in Silicon Valley, California from July 25th - 27th.

Steve is a founder and Managing Director at Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ), a Silicon Valley based venture capital firm which has backed more than 400 companies in "disruptive categories" including Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Synthetic Genomics and Tesla Motors since forming in 1985.

And many of these eclectic investments are because of Steve, who is also into amateur rocketry, collects Apollo artifacts and donates money to space-related organizations such as the B612 Foundation (a group preparing to map near-Earth asteroids) and the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (an effort to create a digital archive of data drawn from the analog tapes of Apollo missions). As an investor, the man is quite literally a giver.
NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver at NewSpace 2013. NASA photo by Bill Ingalls.

In person, Steve is a fast-paced man, who gives of his time and thinking freely. My first glimpse of him was on Thursday, the day before he was scheduled to speak, and he was practically sprinting through the foyer outside the conference rooms.

We met briefly Friday morning, outside a Q&A with Lori Garver, Deputy Administrator of NASA, and he gave me a minute of his time to connect before he gave Lori a gracious greeting and exchange of pleasantries. And then he was off, probably to give more time to others.

He told me he set our interview for after his talk on purpose, so that a lot of the preliminaries could be dispensed with in advance. Indeed, his talk, pictured here, covered his early influences (Dungeons & Dragons, and Richard “Lord British” Garrriott) as well as his hobby of launching really big amateur rockets. He made reference to his recently-reported love of collecting artifacts from the Apollo space program.

His presentation was swift, content and detail rich, full of stunning imagery, inspiring quotes, and even some video of SpaceX’s Grasshopper rocket testing. Key points he offered were that a systems design approach is where the true value lies in an enterprise, and that reusable rockets are the way to bring down costs and allow stimulation of space markets. Well, we all know that already, don’t we?
Allison Rae Hannigan with  Geoff Notkin, one of the Meteorite Men at NewSpace 2013.

Between lunch and our scheduled meeting was an entire session of the conference, and when I popped out ten minutes prior to our meeting time, he had barely progressed a hundred feet from the banquet room. I was chatting with Geoff Notkin, of the TV show, Meteorite Men when Steve and an entourage of supplicants converged in front of the table displaying many meteors and similar artifacts. A lengthy and intricate discussion of meteorites ensued, which was a delight to observe, as neither man knew about the other’s relative celebrity, yet they found common ground in a shared passion.

After two more impromptu pitches, one for which Steve asked my permission to delay our meeting, and the other I offered out of compassion for the young entrepreneur who had been doggedly waiting his turn to pitch to the rock star VC, I finally sat down with Steve and could ask him questions of my own.

And I promptly forgot all that my editor had prepared me to ask. Steve had started a cross-room banter with a young couple about the Inspiration Mars competition, and then started talking about how he wanted to go to the moon, which then segued into a discussion about how his wife doesn’t even like to fly in small planes, and so on. He talks fast, gives lots of information, and I became overwhelmed trying to keep up with him, taking lots of notes, cursing my prejudice in high school against short hand class, and losing my train of thought completely.
Inspiration Mars, a US based 501(c)3 nonprofit organization founded by Dennis Tito intending to launch a manned mission to flyby Mars in January 2018

So, I relied on my favorite subject, microgravity and the potential for factories in space. He had not mentioned anything in his talk about Low Earth Orbit (LEO) infrastructure, and I was curious to know whether he saw any future in it. And the spigot opened. More copious note-taking ensued.

He started thinking out loud, following a clear and logical process to get to his point.

First, he reviewed what he knows about the subject, as he seems to be mostly informed by the frequent “pitches” he hears. He told me that he’s seen pitches for broadband, polar, constellations of satellites, earth observation, on orbit servicing, and so on. He said he’s held back on ideas he’s seen for on-orbit fuel depots, because of the chicken/egg dilemma. Why build gas stations before cars?
Steve Jurvetson up close.

Then he started focusing on inherent issues with a hypothetical scenario, worrying first about roadblocks. He made a comparison with software being dependent on ship dates and other problems that hold up delivery along the value chain. In this case, he worried that the end date of the International Space Station (ISS) is currently projected for 2020, and that could be a problem for a research-based microgravity business.

He started giving ideas off the top of his head about what would make business sense. He said he didn’t have much expertise in BioTech. His input assumptions in this scenario were “to not bet on the market” and “what you bring back is small.

He went down a logic path that darted from one concept to another, first considering how 3D structures behave without gravity, and the need to find something that can’t be made on earth. He mulled over factors such as how much time in space is available, and whether space-based testing of prototypes is the best way to go, so that we can do things better on earth as a result. He considered materials science, where his experience lies, and the possibility of growing zeolite crystals.

When his mind went to seeds that could be brought back and grown on earth, his eyes lit up with a new idea: genetic synthesis. Given a lower error rate in space, a seed/strand of DNA could be brought back to earth. Voila, output idea.

Allison Rae Hannigan.
So, in the course of several minutes, I could see the wheels spinning in his head, hear him thinking out loud about something he’s not thought about much, and give a thoughtful, knowledgeable response. Most people just say, “There’s no market, and it’s not worth it.

Steve Jurvetson is a giver. He gives his time, his opinion, thoughts, and he gives his passion. At the end of his talk at lunch, he shared about technology to help us live a longer and fuller life. That embodies what Steve gives the most of – himself, for a long time to come.

Allison Rae Hannigan, is an impassioned space industry specialist focused on development opportunities, marketing, communications and business related to microgravity research. She is also a free-lance consultant who has helped set up and manage email marketing campaigns, newsletters, and customer relationship management applications. 

She can be reached at


  1. Good article, Allison. I felt I was right there with you as you talked with Steve and got to know him.

  2. Thank you for writing this. Can you do an article on the space elevator and LiftPort? I believe that you meet Michael Laine while at the NewSpace 2013 conference.


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