Rocket builder ABL raises $170 million from T. Rowe, Fidelity to become the latest space unicorn

Rocket builder ABL raises $170 million from T. Rowe, Fidelity to become the latest space unicorn

An RS1 rocket booster undergoes acceptance testing.

ABL Space

Rocket builder ABL Space closed a $170 million round of funding, the company announced on Thursday, making it the latest private space venture to reach the unicorn valuation mark.

ABL raised the funds from T. Rowe Price and Fidelity Management, as well as a third unnamed investment firm and existing investors, at a valuation of $1.3 billion.

“We have always prided ourselves on capital efficiency,” ABL CEO Harry O’Hanley told CNBC, noting that the company has spent “well under” $50 million to date.

“If you compare us to other companies spending hundreds of millions of dollars developing launch vehicles, you should see how fundamentally differentiated our underlying approach must be to achieve that,” O’Hanley added.

The company had previously raised $49 million in venture capital to date, with investors including Venrock, New Science Ventures, Lynett Capital and Lockheed Martin Ventures. ABL had also announced nearly $45 million in contracts from the Air Force Research Laboratory and AFWERX, with the company on Thursday saying it now has contracts from ten “distinct customers,” from a mix of commercial and government customers.

“We think the global space economy has significant long-term growth potential,” Jason Adams, portfolio manager of T. Rowe Price’s Global Industrials Fund, said in a statement. “We think ABL has a management team, technology set and product strategy that should enable long-term competitive advantages.”

The first stage of the company’s RS1 rocket after completing welding.

ABL Space

ABL’s RS1 rocket stands at 88 feet tall, and is designed to launch as much as 1,350 kilograms (or nearly 1½ tons) of payload to low Earth orbit – at a price of $12 million per launch. That puts RS1 in the middle of the commercial launch market, between Rocket Lab’s smaller Electron for $7 million and SpaceX’s heavy Falcon 9 for $62 million.

It also pits ABL against several other companies developing “medium-lift” rockets. Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit recently reaching orbit, while ABL is alongside Relativity Space and Firefly Aerospace in aiming for the companies’ first launches later this year.

In addition to the economical approach of ABL’s rocket development process, the company also touts the efficiency of its GS0 deployable ground system. It’s essentially the barebones of a launch facility — the erector, fueling, electrical, control center and more — all packed into a few standard-sized shipping containers.

One of the shipping containers that holds the GS0 deployable launch system infrastructure.

ABL Space

O’Hanley told CNBC in January that ABL’s rocket program was already “fully funded” through its first mission, and on Thursday said the added $170 million in capital “will give us the opportunity to set up for scaling up launch cadence to meet all the demand we are seeing in 2022 and beyond.”

“It will also let us carefully start exploring more opportunities both in space tech and other domains,” O’Hanley said.

ABL’s new valuation also makes it the latest space venture to pass the unicorn mark of a valuation above $1 billion. The company is now among the most valuable in the growing space industry, which is led by SpaceX with a $74 billion valuation and followed by a variety of companies that have announced SPAC deals in the past six months.

Dan Piemont, ABL’s president and CFO, shared his view on the company’s new status.

“We don’t see our valuation as an achievement so much as a serious responsibility to deliver value,” Piemont told CNBC. “We’ve never optimized for valuation and we’ve kept most of our achievements private. We know we still have a lot to prove. We’re out to build an enduring company with the best people, customers, and investors in the world.”

“Hopefully this round shows that there’s something special happening under the hood here at ABL. If you want to learn more about what that is, get in touch,” Piemont added.

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