TOKYO — For Japan's tiny startup scene, space is the bold new frontier. On Wednesday, ispace Inc., a Japanese company that wants to send hundreds of robots to map, mine and make deliveries to the moon, said it has reserved space on SpaceX rockets due for launch in mid-2020 and mid-2021. Its goal is to build a business around the missions needed to create a 1,000-person industrial city on the moon by 2040.
A handful of Japanese companies are jockeying for position in the global rush for business opportunities on the moon, fueled by falling launch costs and growing government spending. The U.S. is studying building a lunar station in the mid-2020s; China plans to send rovers to the far side of the moon this year.
Extraterrestrial ambitions also are propelling outsize valuations for Japan's space-related startups. Last year, ispace's initial funding round raised more than $90 million — a big sum in a country where venture-capital investments last business year came to just $1.3 billion, less than 2% of the U.S. total.
Japan is second to the U.S. in the number of companies investing in startup space businesses, according to technology analytics firm Bryce Space and Technology. Ispace is funded by the government- backed Innovation Network Corp. of Japan and Development Bank of Japan, as well as car maker Suzuki Motor Co. and precision equipment makers Toppan Printing Co. and Konica Minolta Inc.
For Japanese corporations, the investments are long-term bets on moon-related demand in areas including construction, manufacturing, energy and communications. The private sector can lower costs by using existing hardware, reducing development needs. Japanese space ventures have access to a range of automotive and precision- equipment companies at home, said Hidetaka Aoki, partner at Tokyo-based venture- capital firm Global Brain Corp.
Mr. Aoki co-founded SMatching, which helps space ventures meet businesses sitting on large cash reserves, among them blue-chip companies such as Itochu Corp. — an investor in satellite-data analytics company Orbital Insight Inc. — Japan Airlines, construction company Shimizu Corp. and advertising company Dentsu Inc.
Ispace's two missions will comprise a mid-2020 lunar-or-biter launch and a mid-2021 moon landing. On that second trip, its robot lander will carry two rovers, 22-pound robots on wheels. The company is now taking orders for other payloads — the lander can haul 66 pounds — and seeking sponsorships to help cover operational costs.
After the second mission, the company plans to quickly start deploying robots every month, said Takeshi Hakamada, ispace founder and chief executive.
Ispace faces competition from Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic Technology Inc., which plans its maiden launch in late 2020. Customers already are reserving space aboard Astrobotic's Peregrine lander, at $540,000 a pound. Ispace said it is considering a slightly higher price.
Support from the Japanese government for the ispace project reflects the possibility of finding rare earths or water — for turning into fuel — on the moon. Resource-poor Japan has earmarked ¥355 billion ($3.14 billion) for its space program in the year starting April 2019.
“When resources are found on the moon or on Mars, we want to have a seat at the table,” said Susumu Sasaki, director of the JAXA Space Exploration Center at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the country's space agency.
BY MAYUMI NEGISHI