Do You Believe In Space Unicorns?
Jordan Noone, (B.S. ’14), knows a bit about “space unicorns.”
Having co-founded Relativity Space in 2015, Noone has already birthed and raised one unicorn, defined as a startup valued at over $1 billion. Relativity, now a SpaceX rival worth $4.2 billion, boasts the world’s first 3D printed rocket, the largest 3D metal printer and a bevy of space contracts, including to Mars, worth $1.65 billion.
For Noone, who stepped down as CTO of Relativity in 2020 (he’s still an executive advisor), he’s now looking to build an entire portfolio of space-related companies.
As general partner of L.A.-based Embedded Ventures, one of about a dozen venture capital firms looking to invest in space, he seeks to identify new startups in the realm of “national security space technology.”
His partner? A dancer turned tech investor who once dreamed of backing up Beyoncé in such iconic dance numbers as “Single Ladies” and “Run the World (Girls).”
These days, Jenna Bryant, the co-founder, general partner and CEO of Embedded, seeks to run the world in other, non-choreography-based ways. But her nontraditional path to the VC boardroom hasn’t always been celebrated.
“I’ve experienced a moral panic,” Bryant said, “or what feels like a threat to societal values, by being visibly multi-passionate. As I’ve matured in my career, I’ve become even more firm in my beliefs around being multi-passionate. Both art and science require a foundation that calls for creativity, curiosity and experimentation. My commitment to this, even if it challenges the status quo, contributes to my drive, discipline and courage to step outside the norm as a fund manager.”
Together, this unique pairing — Noone a founder turned venture capitalist “right from central casting,” and Bryant, a former tech recruiter who is “a master of the cold outreach” — is looking to invest in companies that may have been overlooked in the past.
Said Noone: “I get excited when we do a deal, and I sense that some of the market, perhaps very similar to Relativity, won’t ever understand why it makes sense as a company, right? It’s just beyond what they’re kind of scoped to understand.”
Noone added that he’s amazed by how many deals are made because someone attended an Ivy League school or had connections to a hedge fund manager. He and Bryant, one of only about 15% of women VC general partners, are looking to change this. There’s a reason why they refer to Embedded as the “VC remix.”
In February, Embedded launched its inaugural $100 million fund, and they’re now deploying capital. In 2021, they signed a first-of-its-kind cooperative agreement with the U.S. Space Force to spotlight dual-use space startups that could serve both commercial and defense customers.
Noone, who as a student at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, led the USC Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (RPL), is no stranger to working with the U.S. government.
He was the first student and youngest person in the world to receive a FAA launch license to send a rocket, hurtling at Mach 7, into outer space. In 2019, RPL received the distinction of being the first student group in the world to launch a rocket past the von Kármán line into space.
As part of Embedded Ventures they’ve backed a number of companies, looking to capitalize on cheaper, future space launches. Inversion Space, for example, plans to launch orbital “suitcases in space” with items like medical supplies that can be later retrieved within minutes from anywhere on Earth.
Noone and Bryant are also investing heavily in the next generation of talent.
Concerned by the disparity of women in aerospace — as of 2021, just 12.5% of all aerospace engineers in the United States were women — Bryant and Noone approached USC Viterbi to see how they might help address the gender imbalance. The result? The pair made a generous gift last year that led to the rebirth of Project Payload, a USC Viterbi summer program offering middle school girls a hands-on, problem-based learning experience in the fields of aerospace engineering and computer science. The program culminated with the launch of a high-altitude balloon at STARBASE in Los Alamitos, California.
Both were deeply inspired by Summer Medford, who attended the camp in 2019. Even though she was sick with systemic juvenile idiopathic arthritis, the 14-year-old Medford refused to miss the USC camp, coding and building rockets. Sadly, she passed away shortly after Project Payload ended, but not before remarking: “I can show people that I’m a leader, that your disease or your illness doesn’t discriminate against you, and that everybody, any size or age, can be a leader.”
“That’s when we realized this is so much more than a summer program,” said Bryant, who despite attending Auburn, now identifies as an honorary Trojan.
After all, space unicorns may be rare, but the Summer Medfords of the world, they’re just waiting to be found.