Ben Lamm and Hypergiant want to bring space back to the future
An ultra-charismatic CEO and a company that wants to do just about everything.
Ben Lamm is bursting with energy. The CEO of Austin-based Hypergiant Industries is in Houston for SpaceCom, a two-day event dedicated to the commercial space industry. As he speaks to Inverse, he’s gearing up to judge a national competition for the next year in space technologies. It’s the perfect setting for Lamm and his vision of the future.
“I think we’re at this unique time where there needs to be a company that’s focusing on emerging tech and A.I. at the intersection of defense, space and critical infrastructure,” Lamm says.
If that sounds like a lot to take in, you’re not alone. Hypergiant was launched in February 2018 with the goal of taking part in this bold future. Lamm, who prizes brand as an integral aspect of any business, told Success that he spent six months working on the image alone. The end result? In Lamm’s words, “secret government lab meets high fashion meets retro-futurism.”
Lamm’s efforts have started to build things. Hypergiant now employs over 200 people, and has launched such eye-catching products as an algae bioreactor that can sequester as much carbon dioxide as an acre of trees, an Iron Man-like helmet that can help search and rescue teams, and plans for an interplanetary internet service.
Hypergiant's rise comes at an exciting time: humanity is likely on the forefront of a new era for the space industry. Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are working to make rocket flights cheaper. The two titans of industry are spending millions of dollars to make space tourism, and eventually space living, a reality. Bezos, however, noted during a May 2019 event that his firm is building the infrastructure for future companies to thrive, similar to how Amazon built off previous infrastructure like the internet and postal service. Morgan Stanley predicted in July 2019 that the global space industry could generate more than $1 trillion revenue by 2040.
As a firm looking to work around this new infrastructure, Hypergiant could represent part of the next stage of development. The company’s advisory board includes retired four-star general Lance Lord, ex-Dell CFO Tom Meredith, astronaut Andy Allen and famed scientist Bill Nye.
“His day to day job is he’s the CEO of the Planetary Society, advocating for the search for life, planetary defense, universal support in collaboration around safe exploration of other planetary bodies,” Lamm says. “I got to know Bill through that, and he and the rest of the team there have just been fantastic.”
Lamm met Nye while he “did the weird thing” where he “joined a bunch of advisory boards.” Fresh from selling “a couple companies,” he found himself exploring his early passion for space.
Lamm’s story has echoes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, whose personal lives have captured almost as many headlines as their businesses. He says he has always been “forced” to be an entrepreneur due to his “insane curiosity.” While studying for his finance and accounting degree at Waco-based Baylor University, he found his passion for presentation. In group projects he would regularly put himself forward as the guy to sort out the design – “it’ll be sick, it’ll be amazing, and you guys just do all the work for me.”
This early focus on the potential for emerging technology seems to drive Lamm’s career. At Baylor he met professor Jim Moshinskie and lamented about the dull state of contemporary e-learning systems. This led to Lamm co-founding Austin-based Simply Interactive in May 2004, the same year he graduated, to try and fix that problem. The firm was acquired by Agile in 2010.
Then followed a slew of other firms. Chaotic Moon, founded in 2010, focused on the nascent mobile software scene before its acquisition by Accenture in 2015. Team Chaos, founded in 2013, focused on developing video games for mobile platforms. That firm was acquired by Zynga in 2016. Conversable, founded in 2016, combined A.I. with voice and messages for customer-facing solutions. Clients included McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. That firm was acquired by LivePerson in 2018.
Throughout his career, Lamm has prized branding and image. So it was perhaps no surprise, after exploring his passion for space and meeting Nye, that he took a similar approach with Hypergiant. The firm was to focus on building software for space and the defense market, building on the work of people like Musk and Bezos that have opened up the commercial space industry for a new era.
Space was first explored in earnest by world governments during the Cold War, and both Americans and Russians look back at each of their country's respective accomplishments during the era with a sense of pride. Space is a future-facing industry with a deep nostalgic side. That nostalgia can drive official policy—NASA's next manned program, Artemis, is named after the mythological sibling of its famed 1960s program, Apollo.
Lamm wanted to focus Hypergiant similarly, with “a sense of nostalgia,” he tells Inverse. That means a “’50s-like, Tomorrowland-ey vibe,” invoking the famed area of Disneyland built in 1955 as a corporate showcase for the latest technologies. Original Tomorrowland exhibits asked visitors to imagine going to space in a TWA Moonliner, and an interstate highway system in Autopia. Lamm wants something similar, a company that evokes “a sense of wonder and excitement, but also that sense of responsibility that that’s where we as a species should be.”
This comes through on the firm’s official website. Sepia-soaked images of astronauts, operations split up into comic book-styled issues, white papers with sci-fi looking covers. Two of the website’s six divisions are blacked out, with a “top secret” stamp that adds to the feeling you’re looking at a ’50s-era work of space-age fiction. A promotional video narrated by Bill Nye titled "A Better World," rather than talking about the company’s work, focuses on the future full of space travel, flying cars, a cure for cancer, and "a better universe."
Another example of this image is Hypergiant’s in-house astronaut ice cream, made by the company itself. Lamm ate the freeze-dried treat as a child, when he visited Houston’s Johnson Space Center with his uncle. With the astronaut ice cream, he aimed to cement that sense of nostalgia for anyone that ever visited space camp as a child.
The company has started to get to work on some of its most ambitious projects. Its algae bioreactor, which measures three feet each side and seven feet tall, sequesters around two tons of carbon dioxide. The machine modifies factors like light, carbon dioxide and temperature to boost output. The focus on climate change, to Lamm, is part of the broader vision of a golden age for technology.
“It’s kind of this unique time in history where humanity as a whole can stand up together, because one company isn’t going to solve climate change,” Lamm says. “This kind of network effect of humanity that can come together and really prove what it means to be human is pretty awesome.”
One of Hypergiant’s more elaborate long-term projects is an interplanetary internet system. The first phase would establish a connection between the Earth, the moon and Mars. It would act as a relay network, pinging signals through the best route using A.I.. The project would also store in the satellites a 30-million page archive of human knowledge provided by the Arch Mission Foundation. With SpaceX outlining plans for a city on Mars by 2050, it’s easy to see how the new network could come in handy for the first inhabitants.
In many ways, it sounds like an avalanche of ambition, compounded by a marketing campaign that purposefully draws to mind some of the boldest utopian visions of the future. Lamm, however, seems unfazed by the criticism.
“When we announced originally, and we got some negative feedback, I was like, if you think our ideas are too big, that’s fine,” Lamm says. “You don’t resonate with who we are and I’m cool with that. There’s great spoon companies out there! Go talk to people that want to make the best spoons in the world eat cereal, those people are probably awesome, go talk to them. But we have very big, bold ambitions, and I think that the more people that think like this, the better all of society gets.”
It’s a unique journey for a man that’s prized exploration and the search for more knowledge. But even as Hypergiant starts to roll out his plans for the coming years, Lamm hints that his interest has started to grow in a new technology.
“My latest passion, which has nothing to do with our business, is CRISPR,” Lamm says, referring to the emerging technique of gene editing.
Space, it seems, may not be the final frontier after all.