April 19, 2007 at 12:59 AM ET
It's been a grim week for Michael Laine, who founded the LiftPort Group four years ago in hopes of someday building a space elevator to send payloads on a vertical railroad to space. How grim is it? "It's grim to the point that I'm over at my mom's, scoping out the garage and trying to figure out if I can move in," the 39-year-old entrepreneur told me today.
Grim to the point that Laine lost his company's building in a foreclosure last week. But not grim to the point that he's shutting down LiftPort, although that's the way it looked to space-elevator bloggers. In fact, Laine told me that his 14-employee company - which will have to set up shop in new, more expensive digs - today decided to refocus its efforts on balloon-borne platforms in hopes of turning a profit by this fall.
Laine said his crisis came to a head late last week when he needed $450,000 from investors to cover the payments for the office building he's owned for years in Bremerton, Wash. He wound up $50,000 short when the foreclosure deadline passed. "The building went to auction Friday morning," he said.
Laine used the building not only for his business (rent-free) but for his living quarters as well. "I don't even have a place to put my cat," the Space Elevator Journal quoted him as telling attendees at the Conference of World Affairs in Boulder, Colo.
Over at the Space Elevator Reference, Marc Boucher eulogized LiftPort and pointed out that there were still other players in the space-elevator game, including Black Line Ascension and the Spaceward Foundation. But today, Laine told me the reports of LiftPort's demise were greatly exaggerated - and greatly irritating.
"There has been a conversation about whether we should close or not," he admitted. But in the end, he and the LiftPort team decided to move to offices in Port Orchard, Wash., and soldier on for at least a few months more.
"We have enough in the checkbook to last until Sept. 1, so I'm drawing a line in the sand that says if we're not making 25 grand a month by September, then we will close," he told me. "But we don't have to close as a result of me losing the building. That my personal money ran out does not mean that the project is over. What it means is that we have to find another sources of capital."
Laine's strategy has been to focus on developing the technologies that could someday be used to power climbing robots up a ribbon of super-strong carbon nanotubes, extending 62,000 miles (100,000 kilometers) above Earth's surface. If such a system could be devised, boosters of the idea say the price of transferring payloads to orbit would come down dramatically.
LiftPort was structured to commercialize a whole range of technologies - carbon nanotubes, advanced lasers and photocells, robotic climbers and balloon-borne platforms for power generation, aerial observation and wide-area communication. The company even arranged to take over factory space in Millville, N.J., for nanotube fabrication. Laine took all this on in hopes of finding a "cash cow" that would fuel progress toward the grand space-elevator goal.
So far, the nanotube operation has not turned into the hoped-for cash cow. In fact, Millville has filed a lawsuit seeking back payments from LiftPort.
Laine told me the New Jersey operation would have to be put on hold for now. "We are not going to try to commercialize nanotubes in the next four months," he said. "We will come back to it. It's just not going to happen until after we hit the September deadline."
As of today, Laine said LiftPort will "shift 100 percent into commercialization of balloons." He said the plan would be to test balloons that could loft observation or communication platforms up as high as 150 feet for three- to 10-day windows, and extend that capability to monthlong stints at an altitude of 1,000 feet - depending on the regulatory go-ahead from the Federal Aviation Administration.
If LiftPort can develop the balloon-borne platforms, perhaps with support from the U.S. Air Force and Navy, the technology could be used to provide instant communications for disaster response - or an observation post for search and rescue, crop monitoring or border security, he said.
"Then it comes down to selling the damn product," Laine said.
Laine is not proud of losing what he said was a multimillion-dollar building due to the missed payment - but he insisted that LiftPort would hang on even if he ends up living in his mom's garage. The LiftPort blog is still cooking, and Laine is still soliciting e-mail feedback on his ups and downs.
"It's a body blow to me as a human being," Laine said of his latest reversal. "But this isn't an accident. I've been in foreclosure seven times in five years. It's not clumsy, it's by design. I made a very conscious decision: Did I want to build an elevator in space, or did I want to own an office building? So I siphoned out the equity to build this thing. ... I successfully gambled six out of seven times, and I got really, really close the seventh time."