Delian Asparouhov talks space factories, robotics, real estate



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At Inman Connect Las Vegas, July 30-Aug. 1, 2024, the noise and misinformation will be banished, all your big questions will be answered, and new business opportunities will be revealed. Join us.

Have you heard of a “space factory?”

Despite sounding like the name of a lost Pink Floyd album, a space factory is exactly what it sounds like — a manufacturing facility in space. Or, more accurately, low-Earth orbit.

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The pharmaceutical industry can use them to more affordably manufacture drugs in an emerging field called microgravity-enabled life sciences, a technology sector that has greatly benefited from the race to commercialize private space flight.

A company called Varda is one such supplier of them, and its president and co-founder, Delian Asparouhov, will be on stage at Inman Connect Las Vegas.

The Founders Fund partner still very much operates from ground level though, spreading his interests and intellect over the years across a range of more within-reach industries, using venture capital as the proverbial launchpad to impact the worlds of cancer patient treatment, T-shirts and yes, real estate.

Asparouhov’s presence in venture capital is also entering orbit. He made the 2024 Midas Brink List, a coveted compendium of up-and-coming minds in the VC space, a recognition that will no doubt cast a brighter light on his notoriety after leaving MIT a couple of courses short of a degree (he told the Salt Lake Tribune he wouldn’t be learning anything new) and at 19, creating Nightingale, a healthcare services app.

Inman had a quick 20 minutes to chat with the consummate multi-tasker, who thinks as quickly as he innovates. Asparouhov talked about funding preferences, space factories, Las Vegas and, of course, real estate.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

Inman: You seem to be involved in a number of things, so how would you describe what you do, in a standard job sense?

Delian Asparouhov: I largely focus on seed and Series A investing, a ton of different sectors, but I try to avoid anything that’s pure software. I’ve done a variety of investments in property, real estate, everything from Giraffe360, a camera for tours and floor plan analysis, to Cover, which is building single-family homes in a more modular, low-cost fashion, to Up&Up, which is enabling renters to buy into the equity off the home they’re renting, it gives them the benefit of homeownership and the landlord to get a renter that’s aligned with their financial incentives.

I had the privilege of working under a former colleague of mine and partner in Khosla Ventures, Keith Rabois, who co-founded Opendoor. I got to experience that company’s early ride all the way through the IPO, which I think is one of the more interesting real estate technology companies in the last 10 or 15 years.

So, yeah, that’s half of my job, and I also incubated and built Varda Space Industries, which does space manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, but that may be less relevant to your audience.

Inman: A lot of entrepreneurs like to know how VCs make their funding decisions. What do you personally look for?

In our firm, we entirely focus on the founding team. We do not tend to be top-down or sector-focused or like some VCs who think there are tailwinds you can ride. We want to focus on world-class, highly ambitious competent founders, with very bold visions in large markets, visions that aren’t always appreciated by the greater sphere. We were for example one of the early investors in SpaceX, outside of Elon Musk’s own personal capital. In 2008, a private company wanting to build rockets was pretty radical, and we’re willing to take on visions that other people don’t believe in.

We also look for companies that are seen as coming after the incumbents. We’ve had a lot of success when there’s been an incumbent tech provider that showed promise but didn’t deliver on it, and that was our thesis on Giraffe360. Matterport showed there was a promise in the world of cameras and hardware and enabling a better consumer experience and better understanding of the world you’re both purchasing and building within, but we didn’t think they delivered on it.

We like to challenge the consensus thoughts.

Inman: Space is also clearly an interest for you as well; Help me understand space factories.

We take precursor materials into a satellite, and that satellite then goes up into lower Earth orbit, a microgravity environment, and it runs material processes that have very different results because they’re in microgravity, much different than they would have on Earth. We then deliver those fabricated materials to your customers.

Our primary focus is in pharmaceuticals where you can fundamentally change the structure of a pharmaceutical in a way that significantly changes its performance characteristics. This was best demonstrated by Merck in 2019 where they took one of their biggest cancer drugs and showed that in the microgravity environment of lower Earth orbit, they were able to make a structure of the drug that allowed them to deliver it — rather than an intravenous clinic where a patient would have to come in once a week for four to six hours — instead they could send you home with syringes that you can [inject] in the safety and comfort of your own home, without any disruption to your life or work schedule.

It’s a phenomenal improvement in patient experience; it’s obviously a huge commercial outcome for Merck, but ultimately they weren’t able to commercialize due to the fact that work happened in the international space station and is only fundamentally applicable for research.

But Varda now allows that type of pharmaceutical to be commercialized.

Inman: You work in big ideas, how can this relate to the audience you’ll see in Las Vegas?

Fundamentally, real estate is the largest area of consumer spend and it’s a field that I still think has not had the level of impact from technology that other sectors have had. I think that’s a disservice to the population of the United States and consumers.

Over the coming decade, I think we’ll see much more impact, not just from software that enables agents to communicate more efficiently, but true fundamental change where the actual work done day to day — the labor, the construction work, the experience consumers have in their home — will fundamentally change a field that hasn’t seen change since stick-building was invented 150 years ago.

There’s been lipstick on the pig in terms of technology applications in real estate, but through robotics and automation, these more physical technologies, rather than digital technologies, will finally meaningfully impact real estate, and we hope to be the backer in a lot of these companies.

Email Craig Rowe

Join us to see Delian Asparouhov live at Inman Connect Las Vegas, July 30-August 1 at the Aria Resort and Casino. Reserve your spot now to gain access to real estate’s premier event.





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