Why startups are investing millions to make drugs and semiconductors in space
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Even though it sounds like science fiction, in-space manufacturing is already taking place, albeit on a very small scale. The market is still in its infancy, but analysts and startups predict it will grow rapidly.

According to McKinsey partner Ilan Rozenkopf, the market size for pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, beauty and health products and potentially food will be above $10 billion by 2030, depending on how rapidly the market matures.

In space, companies can come up with new manufacturing methods or materials that are not possible on Earth due to higher levels of radiation, microgravity, and near vacuum.

There is nothing new about this practice. Researchers have used the International Space Station to grow human tissue, make purer semiconductors and develop new and better drugs. During the 2024 fiscal year, President Joe Biden allocated $5 million to NASA for cancer-related research on the International Space Station.

It has always been competitive to access the ISS, and interest continues to grow. The use of compact space factories is now being considered by several space startups as a means of satisfying the demand for in-space manufacturing. In Southern California, there is a company called Varda Space Industries. Through Varda’s mission, pharmaceutical companies can improve their drugs or come up with new drug therapies by utilizing the unique properties of space, and then return the materials to Earth.

Varda’s business proposition relies on a phenomenon called protein crystallization.

It occurs when super-saturated protein solutions are evaporated to form a solid in order to study the structure of proteins. Identifying drug targets and optimizing drug design can be improved by understanding the crystal structure of proteins. It is important to consider drugs that have fewer side effects, are more effective, or are less likely to need refrigeration.

The quality of protein crystals grown in space has been demonstrated in years of research. We are not going to make the entire drug in space. We only plan to make the part of a drug that is responsible for its therapeutic effects.

Considering the amount of crystalline required to make these very generic mass consumption targets, Varda Space Industries will not be able to produce penicillin or ibuprofen, Delian Asparouhov, co-founder and president of Varda Space Industries said. The manufacturing size of our current facility does not allow us to manufacture a large number of drugs that are worth billions of dollars per year.”

According to Asparahov, of the hundreds and millions of doses of the Pfizer Covid vaccine administered in the U.S. in 2021 and 2022, the actual amount of consumable primary pharmaceutical ingredient contained in the actual crystallized mRNA was less than two milk gallon jugs.

At Space Forge in Cardiff, Wales, engineers are designing the next-generation semiconductor factory in space. To manufacture more efficient, higher performing chips, Space Forge aims to manufacture semiconductor substrates that do not use silicon.

Andrew Parlock, managing director of Space Forge’s U.S. operations, said the next generation of materials will allow for unprecedented efficiency. In terms of semiconductor performance, we’re talking about a 10-100x improvement.