Nasa seeks private investor backing for mission to Mars

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The Independent Online

Nasa has set up its own venture capital fund to invest in businesses with technology that could help it on its mission to Mars.

The agency is putting $75m (£40m) into Red Planet Capital, a new fund to look for innovative solutions to problems such as how to improve the efficiency of solar power for a space flight and how to preserve medicines for use in space.

Graham Burnette, one of the Red Planet's three fund managers, said: "A manned mission to Mars presents problems that go far beyond what has been done before, even by going to the moon and back. For example, in the Apollo missions, the imperative with a sick crew member was to stabilise him and get him home, but that is not an option when a Mars mission could take a year or two years."

Two years ago, President George Bush told Nasa to plan a return to the moon by 2020 and to aim for a manned flight to Mars.

Nasa's mission directors have so far identified eight problem areas, including communications, advanced materials and energy, and charged Red Planet with finding technologies for a new generation of spacesuits for recycling water, and for artificially intelligent robots.

Mr Burnette said: "It is a different approach to venture capital, looking across what is being developed in the commercial markets for things that could solve specific problems for the space program."

The aim is to find companies whose technologies could also represent significant breakthroughs on Earth, as well as in the heavens. For example, in man-machine systems, Red Capital says "a market exists for the development of lightweight, autonomous, innovative capabilities in all aspects of life, particularly in support of the elderly and handicapped, but also in many industrial and hazardous situations. Potential examples include exoskeletons for strength enhancement, autonomous capability for safety and greater range, multispectral vision enhancement, miniature sensors and retinal sensors."

The three fund managers - Mr Burnette, Peter Banks and Jacques Vallee - have been working together since 1988. Before founding Red Capital, they had been responsible for the flotation of 17 companies on Nasdaq. Nasa said its investment of $75m over five years will be accompanied by "strategic direction and technical input" to the fund, which began canvassing for business plans over the summer. Investee companies can expect funding of $3m-$5m, "with initial startup funding as low as $250,000, and indirect access to some of Nasa's expertise."

Red Capital will operate on a not-for-profit basis, with headquarters in Washington and Mountain View, California. Its managers say several initial investments are already under consideration, and a first deal could be signed in months.