money moves

Houston aerospace startup secures $20M series A investment round

Houston-based Venus Aerospace has raised $20 million — and is one step closer to providing one-hour global travel. Photo courtesy of Venus Aerospace

A year after raising $3 million in seed funding, a Space City startup has closed its high-flying series A round to the tune of $20 million.

Venus Aerospace, which is working on a zero-carbon emission spaceplane that will enable one-hour global travel, closed its series A funding round led by Wyoming-based Prime Movers Lab. The firm has a few dozen breakthrough scientific companies in its portfolio, including another Houston-based, space-focused startup, Axiom Space. The round also saw participation from previous investors: Draper Associates, Boost, Saturn 5, Seraph Group, Cantos, The Helm & Tamarack Global.

Venus Aerospace was founded by Sarah "Sassie" and Andrew Duggleby, who serve as the company's CEO and CTO, respectively, in 2020 in California. The Texas A&M University alumni later moved the business into its current facilities in the Houston Spaceport.

"The U.S. is in the middle of a global race for hypersonic technology, and the breakthroughs being developed by Sassie, Andrew, and their team have numerous civilian and defense applications," says Prime Movers Lab General Partner Brandon Simmons in a news release. "Venus hit critical engine tests, vehicle design, and growth milestones that make me tremendously excited about the future of American hypersonic flight."

According to the release, the company will use the fresh funding on enhancing its three main technologies: a next-generation rocket engine, aircraft shape, and leading-edge cooling system, which allows for the Venus spaceplane to take off from existing spaceports.

"These recent advances in technology finally enable a spaceplane, a vehicle long imagined, but only now possible," says Andrew Duggleby in the release. "We will use this round of funding to get into flight testing and engine testing at Spaceport Houston. Bringing this technology forward into systems, drones and ultimately spaceplanes, it will take both new space veterans and bright new minds to solve. We've gone from impossible to hard, and this investment will allow us to knock down the next few steps."

The past year has represented significant growth for Venus, with developing contracts with the government and building out the company's team — and the company still has eight positions listed on its website. After building out and testing its technology, Venus also started a ground test campaign at Spaceport Houston.

"We are excited to continue our partnership with Prime Movers Lab and our other great investors. In the past year, with our initial funding, we have scaled from 3 people to 40. These are the world's best rocket scientists, engineers, and operators," says Sassie Duggleby in the release. "With this funding, we will continue to push forward toward our next technical milestones, hire great people, and scale our organization. We are excited to continue engineering the future of high-speed aviation."

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Building Houston

 
 

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

Kerri Smith knows accelerators. Through her over 18 years at Rice Alliance, she's been responsible for overseeing several and was on the founding leadership team of Houston's first energy tech startup accelerator, SURGE. After years of focusing you accelerating Rice University's student-focused program, Owl Spark, she's transitioned back into the energy tech space.

"I've worked with many types of founders. There's not one unique characteristic that everyone has," Smith says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal is to help move them along and help them move the needle. At the end of the day, we want them to have a good experience and to meet their goals and objectives."

The Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator launched last summer with its inaugural cohort of 12 cleantech startups, which represented energy sectors from solar and wind innovations to hydrogen, geothermal, and more. Smith says the startups represented a wide range of stages and were from all over — only two companies were from Houston originally. The out-of-town companies were able to make critical partnerships in town and set up a presence and a home here.

"We were able to build a family-like culture among our group, and that was something that was wildly appreciative," Smith, who serves as executive director of the program, says.

Applications for Class 2 of CEA are open until May 31. While the program will offer the same access to mentorship and opportunities, the program will change slightly. CEA will focus on seed and series A-stage companies and will be a hybrid program. Throughout the 10 weeks, which begins in the fall instead of the summer this year, founders will visit Houston three times at the beginning, middle, and the end of the accelerator. Each startup will receive a grant to cover the expenses of the equity-free program.

CEA is just one part of a greater ecosystem of innovation under the umbrella of Rice University, which includes the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, The Ion Houston, Owl Spark, and more. All these entities also play into the greater Houston area's innovation ecosystem.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

With CEA specifically, some of these collaborations include working with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"We're a cog in the wheel. We do really well with that. We play well with others – in ways that the founder has a good experience and can benefit," Smith says.

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on the podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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