Changemakers: Tim Kopra

Former astronaut whose space journeys have given him a unique perspective on venture funding


Few of us will ever see planet Earth from the International Space Station (ISS). Just 230 people have been up there so far during its two decades in orbit. One of those people is Tim Kopra EMBAG2013. The former NASA astronaut is now a venture capitalist – the only VC to have been to space.

Kopra, 55, flew to the ISS twice, in 2009 and 2015–2016, spending a total of eight months on board, 250 miles above Earth. “It’s definitely left me with an imprint of how interconnected we are,” he reflects calmly. “At night you see these brilliant spots of light in our cities. Roads look like gold tentacles that connect city to city. Off the coast of South East Asia, thousands of dots of light turn out to be fishing boats, each with a captain and a crew. So you really get a sense that the planet is alive – not just from the standpoint of nature, but from the standpoint of all the people who are active on the planet, too.”

It follows that Blue Bear Capital, the fund he co-founded in January 2017 with fellow LBS alumnus Ernst Sack, is focused on the global energy supply chain: humanity’s rapacious energy consumption is strikingly manifest from space – and Kopra has seen the big picture.

Blue Bear invests in companies that use cutting-edge technology, such as AI and data analytics, to help suppliers of both conventional energy (such as oil and natural gas) and renewable energy (wind, solar, hydro) to get smarter and more efficient. This is hugely significant work; although Blue Bear doesn’t have an overtly green agenda, the effects of improving energy efficiency are eco-friendly. “There is a natural connection between improving those efficiencies and having a positive environmental impact,” says Kopra. “It all ties into the perspective of a living planet.”

There is a natural connection between improving energy efficiencies and having a positive environmental impact. It all ties into the perspective of a living planet.’

“It’s been exciting to see both the increase in deal flow and interest among energy companies in adopting digital solutions to improve their businesses,” he adds. “Over the past couple of years, we’ve screened nearly 1,200 companies and have invested in what we see as the nine best businesses. We’re still looking for a few more investments to be part of this fund. We recently had our first exit after growing the company for less than two years.”

But isn’t going from outer space to the world of venture funds an unusual career trajectory, to say the least? In fact, being a venture capitalist draws on the same skills he developed in his previous career as an astronaut and, before that, a US Army test pilot: “That is, working with outstanding small teams and complex technology. One thing that really becomes ingrained into you as an astronaut is a visceral understanding of how technology is employed.”

Kopra’s decision to boldly go into finance came after he missed out on his second scheduled space flight to the ISS in February 2011 because he broke his hip in a cycling accident. The mission went ahead without him and he assumed he wouldn’t get another chance because of his injury. He’d been at NASA for 13 years, first as an engineer and then as an astronaut. That followed a distinguished career as a US Army aviator, test pilot and attack-helicopter company commander who had served in the Gulf War. He’d survived all that – then fell off a push bike. “I spent a couple of weeks feeling really sorry for myself after that,” he admits.

But, rather than wallow in disappointment, he decided to “pivot back to an area of interest I’ve had a long time and that was to go to business school”.

It would be a fresh start. He enrolled on the EMBA Global, a joint degree between LBS and Columbia Business School, and began in May 2011 “while I was still on crutches … and I just fell in love with business education and the opportunities it provided.

“One of the most important aspects, for me, was understanding the mindset and language of business,” he says. “Moving from the military to government to business, the culture is very different, people communicate differently, and to get an understanding of that was extremely important. We had 75 people in our class, and virtually everything I’ve done since, from a business perspective, has its roots in the friendships and relationships I built at London and Columbia business schools.”

Soon after graduating in 2013, he had to put those fledgling business relationships on hold after NASA called to offer him another flight. “It came out of the blue,” he says. “But I was hugely grateful. So I spent the next two-and-a-half years going back and forth to Russia, where I trained as a co-pilot of a Soyuz.”

In December 2015 he returned to the ISS on a manned Soyuz rocket. Also on board was the British astronaut Tim Peake. “Tim is the most hospitable and easy-to-work-with crew member,” Kopra says.

“One thing that really becomes ingrained into you as an astronaut is a visceral understanding of how technology is employed”

“He’s the quintessential person to spend six months in space with.”

Peake once remarked that space flight was less scary than asking a girl out. Does Kopra agree? “It depends on the girl,” he laughs.

“I’d agree that flying to space is not scary. Scared isn’t the right emotion, because you’re very prepared by the time you go into space. The times your life is most in peril – launch, space walks, the return to earth – perhaps you feel a little anxiety, but you’re much more focused on doing your job.”

Once, water from his spacesuit’s cooling system began to leak inside his helmet during a space walk.

“In zero gravity, water tends to stick to you like a blob, so a very small amount could essentially create an incident where you weren’t able to breathe,” he explains. He and Peake decided to cut the walk short. “The only harm was, I was unable to finish all I had on my plate that day,” he remembers. “It was disappointing, but we make decisions from a conservative position in situations like that.”

His unflappable attitude is the result of all the training: “Parts of my jobs have been pretty high risk and it’s necessary to train for these kinds of events. I was a helicopter pilot during [the Gulf War operations] Desert Shield and Desert Storm. I mean, you recognise those times when your life actually is in peril, that’s for certain.”

Halfway through his time on the ISS, after three of his five crewmates had returned to Earth to be replaced by another three, he assumed command. “I always consider the primary role of commanding as being one of safety, in case we had some sort of emergency on board”.

There were many potential emergencies – fire, a faulty heat exchanger releasing toxic ammonia into the atmosphere, a hull breach after being hit by space debris – but, in the end, none actually occurred and most of his time on the ISS was spent doing science experiments with colleagues – learning about the effects of a zero-gravity environment on human bone density, muscles, organs and eyesight; observing how fluids and crystals behave in zero-gravity; finding out how the 20 mice they had brought into space would adapt: “For the first couple of days they were as confused as we were, floating around and scrambling. After that, they were crawling around their cage as if it were normal.”

Does he miss space? “I miss some aspects,” he admits thoughtfully, “such as looking out of the window and seeing the sun rise or set every 45 minutes. Or looking down on our planet, because it’s absolutely beautiful.

“But there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You work extremely hard when you’re on board. If I could go there for a week and not have to work, just hang out and take photographs, I’d do that every year. It’s a pretty wild ride.”

Comments (0)