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Founding Story


Source: CNBC

Varda was founded in late 2020 by Will Bruey (CEO), Daniel Marshal, and Delian Asparouhov (President). As a child, Asparouhov had a keen interest in space. During high school, he interned at NASA JPL. However, after his first year at MIT, Asparouhov shifted his focus to studying computer science and interned at Square in the summer of 2012. At the beginning of his sophomore year, inspired by his experience at Square, Asparouhov decided to start his own company — he applied for and won the Thiel Fellowship, which led him to drop out and work on Nightingale, his healthcare startup for around three years. Despite receiving an initial $600k investment from Y Combinator’s 2014 Summer batch, the company flatlined at $15,000 MRR, prompting Asparouhov to quit.

Although Asparouhov wanted to launch another startup immediately afterward, he was persuaded to join Khosla Ventures as an investor, eventually becoming a Principal. One of his first investments at Khosla was in Akash Systems, where after collaborating with the founders, Asparouhov realized that the timeframes and costs associated with working in space could be significantly reduced due to SpaceX’s impact on space launch economics. Asparouhov later moved to become a Partner at Founders Fund, where he leveraged his experience as a previous founder and investor to incubate and co-found Varda.

Asparouhov recognized that the primary engineering challenge for Varda’s success was safely bringing the manufactured material back to Earth through re-entry. Through his close friend at MIT, who had become a senior executive at SpaceX, he connected with Bruey and began recruiting him as a co-founder.

Bruey graduated from Cornell, where he spent several years working on satellite systems at Cornell’s Space Systems Design Studio, before working at SpaceX for over five years. There, he was the lead hardware engineer on the Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule, one of two successful re-entry vehicles designed by private companies. Bruey also flew nine missions to the International Space Station (ISS) as a mission control spacecraft operator, making him experienced in both the design and operation of re-entry spacecraft. After his five-year stint at SpaceX, Bruey worked as the Director of Global Equities Technology at the Bank of America to gain more experience in finance before partnering with Asparouhov to cofound Varda.


Source: TechCrunch

In November 2020, Asparouhov and Bruey incorporated Varda, naming it after the Queen of Valar from Lord of the Rings, who created the stars out of morning dew. Less than a month later, they raised a $9 million seed round co-led by Founders Fund and Lux Capital, then a $42 million series A seven months later.

Product

Varda aims to revolutionize the manufacturing of materials by leveraging the unique microgravity environment that exists in space. But unlike other companies manufacturing in microgravity environments — like Redwire Space — and the available manufacturing processes onboard the ISS, where space-refined materials are to be used in space, Varda aims to manufacture materials in space and return them back to Earth at commercial scale.

Varda’s system consists of a three-piece vehicle: a spacecraft, a manufacturing module, and a heat shield-protected capsule for re-entry through the atmosphere and landing. While Varda designs and manufactures the module and re-entry capsule in-house, Varda relies on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets and Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft to deliver their manufacturing module and re-entry capsule into space. Once in orbit, Varda’s manufacturing module starts to heat, mix, cool, and perform other functions to yield novel materials. Once complete, Varda’s W-1 Series re-entry capsule returns to Earth, where the refined materials are recovered.

Varda’s W-Series return capsules were designed for terrestrial landing, making recovery operations simpler and cheaper compared to ocean recoveries. The W-Series was also built for ease of manufacturing, leading it to become “the first mass-produced reentry vehicle and orbital production facility in human history.


Source: Varda’s Twitter Post

Using these W-Series return capsules, Varda plans to initially fly four missions (designated as Winnebago 1, 2, 3, and 4) to test their minimum viable product and return 10kg of manufactured material per flight. After the four missions, Varda aims to design a larger return capsule to return 100kg of manufactured material by 2025.

Manufacturing in Space

Processing materials in space confers several benefits, the most obvious being the lack of gravitational forces, but also space’s natural near-vacuum state and higher levels of radiation reduce convection and sedimentation forces, which ultimately increases the probability of materials forming more perfect structures. These effects are then “locked” into the material, typically through material crystallization, before being brought back to Earth.

Previous experiments onboard the ISS have already demonstrated the improved outcomes of semiconductor, fiber optic, and pharmaceutical manufacturing in microgravity experiments. More recently, a study by Merck showed gravitational influences in the crystallization of their cancer treatment drug. Onboard the ISS, the Merck research team was able to produce unusually uniform, stable concentrated crystalline suspensions of their drug. Taking into account the $1.48 trillion market size of the global pharmaceutical industry and that $80 billion is spent to work with contract research organizations that conduct clinical trials, Varda has chosen to focus on pharmaceutical development.

Pharmaceuticals Development

Varda’s primary product line is in the synthesis of pharmaceutical products in microgravity environments, as many pharmaceutical products benefit from microgravity manufacturing:

  1. Cell cultures for predicting disease models develop in well-known patterns on Earth, but the novel environment in space alters the growth patterns of specific types of cells by removing the influence of gravity, leading to changes in cell shape, properties, and interaction. These changes can provide a deeper understanding of cellular behavior, enhancing disease modeling on Earth and potentially revealing novel therapeutic targets.
  2. Organoids, which are miniaturized and simplified versions of human tissues, are currently used as 3D models to evaluate disease. Scientists create organoids in labs through a lengthy, resource-intensive process that requires complex scaffolds to promote 3-D growth. However, a recent study by the ISS has shown that cells can form complex 3D organoids more similar to tissues in the human body, thereby “providing a better model for studying cell function, advancing regenerative medicine, and testing the effects of new drugs”.
  3. Direct drug research is another promising area. Consider oncology drugs, now the industry’s largest product group. Many compounds fail in development, leading to a poor risk-return ratio. Microgravity environments offer a novel method to produce oncology drugs. For existing drugs, processing in microgravity can result in significant yield and purity improvements driven by “altered transport-driven phenomena”. Novel drugs that can only otherwise be manufactured in microgravity can result in new treatments with improved shelf-life and bioavailability for patients.

Varda plans to initially pursue the synthesis and development of novel cancer therapies, diabetes, and chronic pain, where a microgravity environment “allows the drug chemicals to be uniquely manipulated.” Partnering with established pharmaceutical companies, Varda prepares and handles samples for space studies, manages the missions, and analyzes samples once they return to Earth. At the ground, Varda uses advanced methods to study how drugs form crystals and break down, ensuring high-quality drug development. These methods include:

  • X-ray Powder Diffraction, which identifies the structure of crystalline drugs.
  • Differential Scanning Calorimetry, which measures how drugs react to temperature changes.
  • Thermogravimetric Analysis, which monitors weight changes in the drugs as they are heated.

The resulting microgravity-manufactured drugs are expected to offer many advantages ranging from biostability and increased potency, to novel forms of drug synthesis. Varda plans to initially fly four missions (designated as Winnebago 1, 2, 3, and 4) to test their minimum viable product and return 10kg of manufactured material per flight. Winnebago-1 was launched on a Falcon 9 rocket in June of 2023 and landed in the Utah Desert using Rocket Lab’s Photon spacecraft at hypersonic speed on February 21st, 2024. On March 19th, 2024, a post-analysis by Varda revealed that the mission had successfully synthesized ritonavir, a drug commonly used to treat HIV, in a microgravity environment. This microgravity ritonavir exhibited excellent stability compared to terrestrially synthesized ritonavir.


Source: Ars Technica

Hypersonic Flight Testing

Varda’s secondary product line provides hypersonic flight testing services via their orbital capsule, which reaches hypersonic speeds upon re-entry. This creates a real-world testing environment for companies developing hypersonic re-entry vehicle subsystems, allowing them to gather valuable data at speeds over Mach 25 during each re-entry. This service addresses significant gaps in the current hypersonic testing landscape:

  1. Ground-based testing facilities, such as wind tunnels, fail to fully replicate the complex, coupled flight conditions experienced at high Mach speeds, leading to oversimplifications that can impact vehicle performance and reliability.
  2. Representative hypersonic test flights are infrequent and prohibitively expensive, costing upwards of $100 million per flight, which limits the ability to conduct regular testing and gather sufficient flight heritage data.

Because Varda plans to scale their space manufacturing service, they expect that by 2026, there will be a monthly re-entry cadence. As every return capsule experiences hypersonic flight conditions, Varda can allow other companies to integrate test payloads, such as components or material samples, into their re-entry capsules before launch. After landing, Varda can recover both their refined materials and these test payloads to be analyzed to evaluate payload performance under true-to-flight hypersonic conditions. This provides monthly and cost-effective access to true-to-flight conditions, which in turn, enables other aerospace companies to accelerate their development.


Source: Space News

As of now, the main customer for this test bed platform is the US government and the Department of Defense. In 2023, Varda secured a $60 million funding agreement (STRATFI) with the Air Force, NASA, and other private investors for hypersonic flight testing. The Air Force alone contributed $15 million and plans on using their re-entry capsules to test hypersonic flight on their components and materials. This follows an earlier $443,000 SBIR contract awarded by the Air Force in 2021 to study Varda’s re-entry capsules for more economical hypersonic flight testing compared to traditional methods.

While the current focus of hypersonic testing is primarily driven by national defense applications like offensive weapons and defensive countermeasures, in the future, private companies will also require hypersonic flight testing. For example, Hermeus and Reaction Engines are both aiming to create commercial hypersonic planes. As these companies progress in their development, they will need to regularly test their hypersonic technologies under real-world conditions – which Varda is able to provide.