Space tugboats. Artificial intelligence personas you can talk to one on one. Crop-spraying airplanes that fly without a pilot onboard.
Those aren’t Jackson Hole inventions, but a venture capital fund started by a Jackson Hole resident is helping to bring them into the commercial realm with funding and coaching.
Prime Movers Lab, founded by valley resident Dakin Sloss, said it has raised approximately $100 million for its first early-stage fund and backed more than a dozen “breakthrough inventors.”
Its mission is to invest “in seed-stage companies, reinventing energy, transportation, infrastructure, manufacturing, human augmentation and computing.”
Sloss, a general partner in the firm, said its strategy is unusual: “There’s really not many early stage investors focused on breaking science or hard technology.”
Prime Movers Lab targets companies that have already shown the science works and are turning it into something the market will buy, he said. The Prime Movers network includes people with backgrounds in chemistry, biology, systems engineering, physics and other scientific and tech specialities, as well as business, marketing, coaching and design.
“We can bring a much greater technical depth to evaluating companies and understanding ones that are the appropriate level of risk versus reward,” Sloss said.
Beyond funding, Prime Movers offers strategic advice, leadership development, technical support and marketing services — all part of what Sloss described as a “hands-on coaching model” for startups.
“We help them go from proof of concept to first revenue,” he said.
Sloss, who studied math, physics and philosophy at Stanford University, has his own firsthand startup experience, including Tachyus, whose software, as described in a Forbes profile, informs energy companies how to “best engineer their wells — where to drill, how much to drill and using what method.”
In Jackson Hole he and his wife, fellow Prime Movers Lab founder Gabrielle Sloss, are trustees for Silicon Couloir, the local nonprofit that nurtures entrepreneurship in the region. Dakin Sloss was a judge at last year’s Pitch Day, a contest for entrepreneurs held every year in Jackson.
Among the companies Prime Movers has invested in are Noble.AI, which develops artificial intelligence products for R&D; GordianBio, a gene-therapy company, and Lifekind, which creates lifelike AI personas. Other companies include these:
Momentus is a space transportation company in California, that is developing a shuttle service for satellites.
The company describes it like this: Its shuttles — also referred to as space tugboats — are loaded with customers’ satellites and then travel into space on dedicated or ride-share rockets. Once in the initial orbit the shuttle takes each satellite to its individual orbit.
The process has been likened to having large aircraft carry passengers to major cities, where they connect to small planes bound for outlying destinations.
“Momentus makes connecting flights possible,” Sloss said. “You get the advantage of economies of scale. ... Momentus moves [your satellite] from lowest orbit to your ultimate destination.”
The shuttles are powered by water plasma engines, which Momentus said makes deploying satellites two to three times cheaper.
“They have figured out how to use water as rocket fuel,” Sloss said. “There’s a ton of satellites going up in space over the next decade” for telecommunications and other applications.
Momentus’ Vigoride shuttle will do two demo missions toward the end of this year, one on the Soyuz rocket and another with a SpaceX rideshare mission.
Pyka, headquartered in California, has built an autonomous electric airplane for agriculture uses.
Since the aircraft don’t need a pilot onboard a major safety factor is taken out of the equation, Sloss said.
Pyka touts the planes’ ability to fly close the ground but around obstacles. Sensors enable the planes to spray with precision and compensate for wind to reduce the amount of chemicals required for the job.
The company says its planes use less energy than an electric car.
“They’re transforming the way we spray crops,” Sloss said.
Another California company, Halo Industries Inc., creates, in its words, “novel laser-based hardware systems for materials fabrication that help manufacturers drastically reduce waste, improve quality, and enable next generation technologies.”
Sloss said, “Today when you produce silicon wafers for solar, for example, you lose up to 30% of the material when you cut it with a wire saw. Halo eliminates most of that loss by using lasers to cut wafers. It makes the process more efficient.”