Naveen Jain, the founder of information services companies Infospace and Intelius, recently founded Moon Express, Inc, a privately funded lunar transportation and data services company. I met Jain at the official launch of the company on July 21, 2011, an event that included a tour of the facilities and a look at the prototype moon lander.
In this new venture of moon exploration, how much is science, how much is commerce, and how much is fun?
There comes a time in one’s life when one is not inclined to do anything that is not fun. But having said that, you only get involved in things that make good business sense, whether it is Intelius or Moon Express. Unless, of course, you are involved in philanthropic work, which I happen to think is great fun. For example I am on the board of the X Prize Foundation where we are funding the Digital Doctor Prize that aims to bring health care to billions of people around the world. That is an extremely exciting project, but that is not commerce. Similarly we are looking at how we can use neuroscience to completely reinvent education because the more I learn about how the brain works and how we teach our kids, I see that the two are completely different. But that venture is not commerce. I’m hoping many people will come up with good business ideas through the prize that I am funding.
But when you look at things like Intelius and Moon Express they are fun and they are great businesses.
I believe that the biggest industries that will be created in the next 10 years are going to be in the fields of space exploration and genetics. And I believe that the developments in the fields of genetics and synthetic biology will allow us to solve many problems in health care that have been unresolved so far. Once you sequence the human genome and proteome, many drugs can be tested for their efficacy through statistical regression and not just through clinical trials. My interest is in seeing what I can do to commercialize these ideas and at the same time, use these technologies for philanthropic work.
Coming to the space industry, there are two parts to this. There are going to be the people who build the highways. To use an internet analogy, these would be the people laying down the fiber. In this case laying down the fiber would mean building rockets. These are companies like Orbital Science, Elon Musk’s Space X and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origins, and a whole bunch of other people like the Chinese government and the Indian government. There’s going to be lots of competition in this space.
The second part of this is the last mile solution. Again to use the internet analogy, these would be the people who take that fiber and bring it into people’s homes and bring direct access to the consumer. History tells us that people who build the last mile solutions end up creating great businesses. Moon Express is building the moon lander but not the rocket itself. We plan on using existing rockets developed through other organizations.
The biggest part of exploration of any space objects, whether the asteroids or the moon is the last 10 feet. How do you land safely? So far people have done it by essentially crashing into the moon. The spaceship bounces around and then lands. We are taking a very different approach. What we are determining is if we can have a safe landing with a micro-propulsion system; the lander would have its own autonomous radar to see under it and it would hover around to find the safest place to land.
The second problem is that rovers in the past have tended to get stuck. Either their wheels have got stuck in the soil or they have encountered a rock and they don’t know how to move around that rock. Our lander, a hovercraft, would not have these problems. It would hop around.
How is this different from the Apollo spacecraft technology?
They were mostly rovers. They were mostly crash landed. They would parachute down and bounce around.
Even the ones with the astronauts?
That was a human flight. I am talking about non-human flights. In the future even if we decide to colonize the moon at some point we would have to send robots to make the environment suitable to humans. This would mean creating something like lava tubes to create spaces of moderate temperatures. Additionally we could use solar energy to break down the water in the moon into hydrogen and oxygen; hydrogen can create an energy source to create a fuel depot and the oxygen can be pumped into the lava tubes to make it habitable for humans.
I was reading a New York Times article about the Moon Express and one of the readers commented, “I want what Mr. Jain is smoking!” because what you were proposing sounded so much in the realm of science fiction.
It is very interesting you say that because every advancement in technology goes through that phase. The first time people talk about it feels like science fiction and when it is done people say, “Why did it take so long?” Before the television was invented I am sure there were people going, “What are you smoking? You mean to tell me I can see people far away in a little box?” I am glad people think of it as science fiction, because that is the first step towards realization of the idea.
You’ve said in previous interviews that you felt like an Internet pioneer when you created Infospace. Do you feel the same way about Moon Express?
You could say that pioneers are people who go out and start executing things that other people think are science fiction. People who explored the West were called pioneers. I feel we are early enough in the stage of space exploration that all of us are pioneers, not just me but everyone who is thinking and working on it.
What advantages does your company have over your competitors?
The biggest advantage we have is our team; a team that is made up of either very experienced people or people that are passionate about the idea. Dr. Alan Stern, our chief scientist, was an associate administrator in NASA. Bob Richards has been in this space all his life. We are currently the only company that is contract with NASA to be able to use all of NASA’s technology, license it, and utilize it. That gives us a tremendous leverage to use what NASA has learned over the last 30 years about the moon, upgrading it, and essentially taking over from where they left off. In some sense, when people ask whether the United States has given up on the leadership of space, I think President Obama has the right idea—we have already been to the moon, so why not let private companies commercialize that technology and create good businesses out of it and let the government focus on the next challenge, which is to take people to Mars and the asteroids. Eventually that technology will also be available for commercialization.
A lot of the resources on the moon come from the asteroids that crash on the moon. Unlike the Earth, the moon has no tectonic shifts and no atmosphere. So any asteroids on the moon are likely to be sitting right on the surface and can be mined.
How did this tie-up with NASA come about? Why was the Moon Express favored over others?
We were not favored. It is just that we have a great team and NASA felt that we would be able to leverage and enhance what NASA has developed into a successful commercial venture. Other companies are free to apply for a similar partnership but it is up to NASA to approve them or not.
You’ve said in the past that in the early days of a business it is not so important to be profitable. Do you feel the same way about this venture?
I have always said the reverse. I have always bootstrapped our businesses. We never took any venture money for Infospace or Intellius. I am a big believer in creating a business model that is self-sustainable so you don’t have to worry about other people’s money. I believe that in Moon Express we will build a profitable business. This is not a research project for us, it is a business.
You are going to spend a 100 million dollars on this lander.
Not true at all. Lander development will be around 20 million dollars or so. Then another 40-50 million is the current cost of the rockets. However, we think those costs are coming down significantly and we think they are likely to come down to the range of 15-20 million dollars soon. We we can also share the costs of the rocket with some other companies.
There are still so many variables to the success of this project.
I wouldn’t say that this is not rocket science (laughs) but this is rocket science that is well understood. This is not as much of a technical challenge as it is a business execution challenge. If you had the right amount of money, you could launch today. The hold-back is essentially creating the business model to make it work. It will take some time to create a successful business model. Our revenues could come from mining the moon for platinum and helium 3, delivering scientific payloads, and delivering digits, atoms, and DNA to the moon.
Additionally, we’ve created the “Moon is Me” tagline to capture the imagination of people and get them to share thier personal passion for the moon with us. When it comes to space exploration, people have never felt that they have been part of it. I think all of us have this romance with the moon. We believe that Moon Express can create a phenomenon where people want to be involved in romantic journey with us.
Think about it, wouldn’t it be nice if you could send a picture of your family, your DNA or your pet’s DNA or even your grandfather’s ashes to the moon? Since there is no atmosphere, it will sit there for billions of years in a time capsule. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could control a high-powered telescope or a robot on the moon through a web interface? What if you could write a message on the surface of the moon and take a picture and send it to someone—perhaps a “moon proposal” or a “moon love note!” We don’t know what people will do once you create that excitement and platform to capture the imagination of people. If you think about it, when the IPhone platform was announced a few years ago, I don’t think anyone anticipated that the three of the top five applications on that platform would be about shooting birds at pigs.
What you are saying that it is not a technological issue, and what is really preventing significant progress is commercial viability.
What I am trying to say is that the technology is well understood but still needs to be developed. There are no technological challenges that require breakthroughs in basic sciences. It will still take us 12-18 months to complete all the work. The autonomous software and the micro-propulsion systems still have to be built. If it is going to cost us 50 or 70 million dollars, we want to be able to create a business model that is sustainable for the long term. I guess it could be easy to build a lander as a hobby for someone who could spare that kind of money.
So who are the investors and what are they looking for?
These are people who are passionate about space exploration and essentially believe that Moon Express is a good business.
What is the initial level of funding?
We have not announced that so far. All I can say is that we are well on our way to execute on our business plan.
And competing for the Google Lunar X Prize is an important part of the plan? Or it is simply incidental to the commercial venture?
Everything helps when you are trying to get a business venture going. So it is not just the Google Lunar X Prize, it is also the NASA prize, a matching 30 million dollars. We do intend to win these prizes, but it will be wonderful to be the first private enterprise to explore the moon from an entrepreneurial perspective.
You left Infospace under a cloud of sorts. Was it tough to rebuild your credibility?
It was a simple misunderstanding where I had created a trust for my children and somebody made up a story saying we were taking money from our own children, which is absolutely ridiculous. You know, being Indian, that we never take anything from our children, we only give to them. The local media in Seattle wrote a nasty story because they couldn’t stand an immigrant doing well. Thankfully no one took that crazy story seriously.
I am having great fun at Intellius and Moon Express with board members like Admiral Bill Owens and Peter Diamandis. I am also on the board of the X Prize Foundation with people like Larry Page, Elon Musk and Ratan Tata. As you can see, it hasn’t affected me at all. What learning do you bring from your previous ventures to this project?
I bring an understanding of consumer behavior and building successful businesses that consumers can get excited about.
You are on the board of trustees of the X Prize Foundation and also competing for the Google Lunar X Prize. Isn’t there a conflict of interest?
No, there is no conflict of interest. I always excuse myself from any board meeting that involves the Lunar X Prize. Everyone is pleased that members of the board also want to compete!