Once upon a time, space enthusiasts had a fixation on Bill Gates. If the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft would just devote some of his massive wealth to space businesses, people argued back in the 1990s at the height of Microsoft’s dominance of the computer industry, startup companies would have all the funding they would need to develop reusable launch vehicles and other systems that would revolutionize access to and utilization of space.
In the last decade, a number of billionaires have done just that, backing space startups: Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, and Elon Musk and SpaceX. While these ventures have enjoyed some success, don’t count on Gates to follow in their footsteps. In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, journalist Brad Stone asks Gates if commercial spaceflight was “interesting” to him or worthwhile to humanity. Gates’s response:
Everybody’s got their own priorities. In terms of improving the state of humanity, I don’t see the direct connection. I guess it’s fun, because you shoot rockets up in the air. But it’s not an area that I’ll be putting money into.
That sounds like a no. Not mentioned, though, is that Gates once did invest in the space business—and it didn’t turn out well for him. In the 1990s he was one of the early investors in Teledesic, a company planning to operate a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites providing broadband data services. In an era when companies like Iridium and Globalstar were planning (and eventually did deploy) fleets of dozens of satellites, Teledesic’s plan stood out: it originally planned to launch on the order of 900 satellites to provide global coverage. Over time the number of satellites fell, to 288 and then 120, but it still stood out as a venture more audacious than anything being seriously considered at the time. (See this presentation from (likely) the late 1990s for an overview of their plans at the time.)
Teledesic, though, was a victim of the telecom bust at the turn of the century that hit satellite ventures particularly hard, thanks in part to the rapid proliferation of terrestrial alternatives. The company scaled back its plans further, proposing a 30-satellite system, but even that was too much. In June 2003, Teledesic surrendered the FCC license for its satellite system, ending its bid to deploy a system without launching anything more than a single test satellite. Gates invested an unspecified amount—thought to be in the tens of millions of dollars—into the failed Teledesic.
Despite that experience, though, Gates is not totally divorced from the space industry. He is an investor in Kymeta, a company developing advanced satellite communications antenna technology. Gates was an initial investor in the company, which recently raised a $50-million Series C round. Kymeta, though, appears focused for now on the groundbased aspects of antenna technology and not space-based systems.