SCOOP: Largest Cryobank in the U.S. to Offer Ancestry Testing
Sharon Kochlany and Vanessa Colimorio's four-year-old twin girls had a classic school assignment recently: make a family tree. They drew themselves and their one-year-old brother branching off from their moms, with aunts, uncles, and grandparents forking off to the sides.
The recently-gained sovereignty of queer families stands to be lost if a consumer DNA test brings a stranger's identity out of the woodwork.
What you don't see in the invisible space between Kochlany and Colimorio, however, is the sperm donor they used to conceive all three children.
To look at a family tree like this is to see in its purest form that kinship can supersede biology—the boundaries of where this family starts and stops are clear to everyone in it, in spite of a third party's genetic involvement. This kind of self-definition has always been synonymous with LGBTQ families, especially those that rely on donor gametes (sperm or eggs) to exist.
But the world around them has changed quite suddenly: The recent consumer DNA testing boom has made it more complicated than ever for families built through reproductive technology—openly, not secretively—to maintain the strong sense of autonomy and privacy that can be crucial for their emotional security. Prospective parents and cryobanks are now mulling how best to bring a new generation of donor-conceived people into this world in a way that leaves open the choice to know more about their ancestry without obliterating an equally important choice: the right not to know about biological relatives.
For queer parents who have long fought for social acceptance, having a biological relationship to their children has been revolutionary, and using an unknown donor as a means to this end especially so. Getting help from a friend often comes with the expectation that the friend will also have social involvement in the family, which some people are comfortable with, but being able to access sperm from an unknown donor—which queer parents have only been able to openly do since the early 1980s—grants them the reproductive autonomy to create families seemingly on their own. That recently-gained sovereignty stands to be lost if a consumer DNA test brings a stranger's identity out of the woodwork.
At the same time, it's natural for donor-conceived people to want to know more about where they come from ethnically, even if they don't want to know the identity of their donor. As a donor-conceived person myself, I know my donor's self-reported ethnicity, but have often wondered how accurate it is.
Opening the Pandora's box of a consumer DNA test as a way to find out has always felt profoundly unappealing to me, however. Many people have accidentally learned they're donor-conceived by unwittingly using these tools, but I already know that about myself going in, and subsequently know I'll be connected to a large web of people whose existence I'm not interested in learning about. In addition to possibly identifying my anonymous donor, his family could also show up, along with any donor-siblings—other people with whom I share a donor. My single lesbian mom is enough for me, and the trade off to learn more about my ethnic ancestry has never seemed worth it.
In 1992, when I was born, no one was planning for how consumer DNA tests might upend or illuminate one's sense of self. But the donor community has always had to stay nimble with balancing privacy concerns and psychological well-being, so it should come as no surprise that figuring out how to do so in 2020 includes finding a way to offer ancestry insight while circumventing consumer DNA tests.
A New Paradigm
This is the rationale behind unprecedented industry news that LeapsMag can exclusively break: Within the next few weeks, California Cryobank, the largest cryobank in the country, will begin offering genetically-verified ancestry information on the free public part of every donor's anonymous profile in its database, something no other cryobanks yet offer (an exact launch date was not available at the time of publication). Currently, California Cryobank's donor profiles include a short self-reported list that might merely say, "Ancestry: German, Lebanese, Scottish."
The new information will be a report in pie chart form that details exactly what percentages of a donor's DNA come from up to 26 ethnicities—it's analogous to, but on a smaller scale than, the format offered by consumer DNA testing companies, and uses the same base technology that looks for single nucleotide polymorphisms in DNA that are associated with specific ethnicities. But crucially, because the donor takes the DNA test through California Cryobank, not a consumer-facing service, the information is not connected in a network to anyone else's DNA test. It's also taken before any offspring exist so there's no chance of revealing a donor-conceived person's identity this way.
Later, when a donor-conceived person is born, grows up, and wants information about their ethnicity from the donor side, all they need is their donor's anonymous ID number to look it up. The donor-conceived person never takes a genetic test, and therefore also can't accidentally find donor siblings this way. People who want to be connected to donor siblings can use a sibling registry where other people who want to be found share donor ID numbers and look for matches (this is something that's been available for decades, and remains so).
"With genetic testing, you have no control over who reaches out to you, and at what point in your life."
California Cryobank will require all new donors to consent to this extra level of genetic testing, setting a new standard for what information prospective parents and donor-conceived people can expect to have. In the immediate, this information will be most useful for prospective parents looking for donors with specific backgrounds, possibly ones similar to their own.
It's a solution that was actually hiding in plain sight. Two years ago, California Cryobank's partner Sema4, the company handling the genetic carrier testing that's used to screen for heritable diseases, started analyzing ethnic data in its samples. That extra information was being collected because it can help calculate a more accurate assessment of genetic risks that run in certain populations—like Ashkenazi Jews and Tay Sachs disease—than relying on oral family histories. Shortly after a plan to start collecting these extra data, Jamie Shamonki, chief medical officer of California Cryobank, realized the companies would be sitting on a goldmine for a different reason.
"I didn't want to use one of these genetic testing companies like Ancestry to accomplish this," says Shamonki. "The whole thing we're trying to accomplish is also privacy."
Consumer-facing DNA testing companies are not HIPAA compliant (whereas Sema4, which isn't direct-to-consumer, is HIPAA compliant), which means there are no legal privacy protections covering people who add their DNA to these databases. Although some companies, like 23andMe, allow users to opt-out of being connected with genetic relatives, the language can be confusing to navigate, requires a high level of knowledge and self-advocacy on the user's part, and, as an opt-out system, is not set up to protect the user from unwanted information by default; many unwittingly walk right into such information as a result.
Additionally, because consumer-facing DNA testing companies operate outside the legal purview that applies to other health care entities, like hospitals, even a person who does opt-out of being linked to genetic relatives is not protected in perpetuity from being re-identified in the future by a change in company policy. The safest option for people with privacy concerns is to stay out of these databases altogether.
For California Cryobank, the new information about donor heritage won't retroactively be added to older profiles in the system, so donor-conceived people who already exist won't benefit from the ancestry tool, but it'll be the new standard going forward. The company has about 500 available donors right now, many of which have been in their registry for a while; about 100 of those donors, all new, will have this ancestry data on their profiles.
Shamonki says it has taken about two years to get to the point of publicly including ancestry information on a donor's profile because it takes about nine months of medical and psychological screening for a donor to go from walking through the door to being added to their registry. The company wanted to wait to launch until it could offer this information for a significant number of donors. As more new donors come online under the new protocol, the number with ancestry information on their profiles will go up.
For Parents: An Unexpected Complication
While this change will no doubt be welcome progress for LGBTQ families contemplating parenthood, it'll never be possible to put this entire new order back in the box. What are such families who already have donor-conceived children losing in today's world of widespread consumer genetic testing?
Kochlany and Colimorio's twins aren't themselves much older than the moment at-home DNA testing really started to take off. They were born in 2015, and two years later the industry saw its most significant spike. By now, more than 26 million people's DNA is in databases like 23andMe and Ancestry; as a result, it's estimated that within a year, 90 percent of Americans of European descent will be identifiable through these consumer databases, by way of genetic third cousins, even if they didn't want to be found and never took the test themselves. This was the principle behind solving the Golden State Killer cold case.
The waning of privacy through consumer DNA testing fundamentally clashes with the priorities of the cyrobank industry, which has long sought to protect the privacy of donor-conceived people, even as open identification became standard. Since the 1980s, donors have been able to allow their identity to be released to any offspring who is at least 18 and wants the information. Lesbian moms pushed for this option early on so their children—who would obviously know they couldn't possibly be the biological product of both parents—would never feel cut off from the chance to know more about themselves. But importantly, the openness is not a two-way street: the donors can't ever ask for the identities of their offspring. It's the latter that consumer DNA testing really puts at stake.
"23andMe basically created the possibility that there will be donors who will have contact with their donor-conceived children, and that's not something that I think the donor community is comfortable with," says I. Glenn Cohen, director of Harvard Law School's Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology & Bioethics. "That's about the donor's autonomy, not the rearing parents' autonomy, or the donor-conceived child's autonomy."
Kochlany and Colimorio have an open identification donor and fully support their children reaching out to California Cryobank to get more information about him if they want to when they're 18, but having a singular name revealed isn't the same thing as having contact, nor is it the same thing as revealing a web of dozens of extended genetic relations. Their concern now is that if their kids participate in genetic testing, a stranger—someone they're careful to refer to as only "the donor" and never "dad"—will reach out to the children to begin some kind of relationship. They know other people who are contemplating giving their children DNA tests, and feel staunchly that it wouldn't be right for their family.
"With genetic testing, you have no control over who reaches out to you, and at what point in your life," Kochlany says. "[People] reaching out and trying to say, 'Hey I know who your dad is' throws a curveball. It's like, 'Wait, I never thought I had a dad.' It might put insecurities in their minds."
"We want them to have the opportunity to choose whether or not they want to reach out," Colimorio adds.
Kochlany says that when their twins are old enough to start asking questions, she and Colimorio plan to frame it like this: "The donor was kind of like a technology that helped us make you a person, and make sure that you exist," she says, role playing a conversation with their kids. "But it's not necessarily that you're looking to this person [for] support or love, or because you're missing a piece."
It's a line in the sand that's present even for couples still far off from conceiving. When Mallory Schwartz, a film and TV producer in Los Angeles, and Lauren Pietra, a marriage and family therapy associate (and Shamonki's step-daughter), talk about getting married someday, it's a package deal with talking about how they'll approach having kids. They feel there are too many variables and choices to make around family planning as a same-sex couple these days to not have those conversations simultaneously. Consumer DNA databases are already on their minds.
"It frustrates me that the DNA databases are just totally unregulated," says Schwartz. "I hope they are by the time we do this. I think everyone deserves a right to privacy when making your family [using a sperm donor]."
"I wouldn't want to create a world where people who are donor-conceived feel like they can't participate in this technology because they're trying to shut out [other] information."
On the prospect of having a donor relation pop up non-consensually for a future child, Pietra says, "I don't like it.It would be really disappointing if the child didn't want [contact], and unfortunately they're on the receiving end."
You can see how important preserving the right to keep this door closed is when you look at what's going on at The Sperm Bank of California. This pioneering cryobank was the first in the world to openly serve LGBTQ people and single women, and also the first to offer the open identification option when it opened in 1982, but not as many people are asking for their donor's identity as expected.
"We're finding a third of young people are coming forward for their donor's identity," says Alice Ruby, executive director. "We thought it would be a higher number." Viewed the other way, two-thirds of the donor-conceived people who could ethically get their donor's identity through The Sperm Bank of California are not asking the cryobank for it.
Ruby says that part of what historically made an open identification program appealing, rather than invasive or nerve-wracking, is how rigidly it's always been formatted around mutual consent, and protects against surprises for all parties. Those [donor-conceived people] who wanted more information were never barred from it, while those who wanted to remain in the dark could. No one group's wish eclipsed the other's. The potential breakdown of a system built around consent, expectations, and respect for privacy is why unregulated consumer DNA testing is most concerning to her as a path for connecting with genetic relatives.
For the last few decades in cryobanks around the world, the largest cohort of people seeking out donor sperm has been lesbian couples, followed by single women. For infertile heterosexual couples, the smallest client demographic, Ruby says donor sperm offers a solution to a medical problem, but in contrast, it historically "provided the ability for [lesbian] couples and single moms to have some reproductive autonomy." Yes, it was still a solution to a biological problem, but it was also a solution to a social one.
The Sperm Bank of California updated its registration forms to include language urging parents, donor-conceived people, and donors not to use consumer DNA tests, and to go through the cryobank if they, understandably, want to learn more about who they're connected to. But truthfully, there's not much else cryobanks can do to protect clients on any side of the donor transaction from surprise contact right now—especially not from relatives of the donor who may not even know someone in their family has donated sperm.
A Tricky Position
Personally, I've known I was donor-conceived from day one. It has never been a source of confusion, angst, or curiosity, and in fact has never loomed particularly large for me in any way. I see it merely as a type of reproductive technology—on par with in vitro fertilization—that enabled me to exist, and, now that I do exist, is irrelevant. Being confronted with my donor's identity or any donor siblings would make this fact of my conception bigger than I need it to be, as an adult with a full-blown identity derived from all of my other life experiences. But I still wonder about the minutiae of my ethnicity in much the same way as anyone else who wonders, and feel there's no safe way for me to find out without relinquishing some of my existential independence.
The author and her mom in spring of 1998.
"People obviously want to participate in 23andMe and Ancestry because they're interested in knowing more about themselves," says Shamonki. "I wouldn't want to create a world where people who are donor-conceived feel like they can't participate in this technology because they're trying to shut out [other] information."
After all, it was the allure of that exact conceit—knowing more about oneself—that seemed to magnetically draw in millions of people to these tools in the first place. It's an experience that clearly taps into a population-wide psychic need, even—perhaps especially—if one's origins are a mystery.
When Erika Schreder’s 14-year-old daughter, who is Black, had her curly hair braided at a Seattle-area salon two or three times recently, the hairdresser applied a styling gel to seal the tresses in place.
Schreder and her daughter had been trying to avoid harmful chemicals, so they were shocked to later learn that this particular gel had the highest level of formaldehyde of any product tested by the Washington State Departments of Ecology and Health. In January 2023, the agencies released a report that uncovered high levels of formaldehyde in certain hair products, creams and lotions marketed to or used by people of color. When Schreder saw the report, she mentioned it to her daughter, who told her the name of the gel smoothed on her hair.
“It was really upsetting,” said Schreder, science director at Toxic-Free Future, a Seattle-based nonprofit environmental health research and advocacy organization. “Learning that this product used on my daughter’s hair contained cancer-causing formaldehyde made me even more committed to advocating for our state to ban toxic ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products.”
In 2013, Toxic-Free Future launched Mind the Store to challenge the nation’s largest retailers in adopting comprehensive policies that eliminate toxic chemicals in their personal care products and packaging, and develop safer alternatives.
Now, more efforts are underway to expose and mitigate the harm in cosmetics, hair care and other products that children apply on their faces, heads, nails and other body parts. Advocates hope to raise awareness among parents while prompting manufacturers and salon professionals to adopt safer alternatives.
A recent study by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based nonprofit public interest environmental law organization, revealed that most children in the United States use makeup and body products that may contain carcinogens and other toxic chemicals. In January, the results were published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Based on more than 200 surveys, 70 percent of parents in the study reported that their children 12 or younger have used makeup and body products marketed to youth — for instance, glitter, face paint and lip gloss.
Childhood exposure to harmful makeup and body product ingredients can also be considered an environmental justice issue, as communities of color may be more likely to use these products.
“We are concerned about exposure to chemicals that may be found in cosmetics and body products, including those that are marketed toward children,” said the study’s senior author, Julie Herbstman, a professor and director of the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health. The goal of the survey was to try to understand how much kids are using cosmetic and body products and when, how and why they are using them.
“There is widespread use of children’s cosmetic and body products, and kids are using them principally to play,” Herbstman said. “That’s really quite different than how adults use cosmetic and body products.” Even with products that are specifically designed for children, “there’s no regulation that ensures that these products are safe for kids.” Also, she said, some children are using adult products — and they may do so in inadvisable ways, such as ingesting lipstick or applying it to other areas of the face.
Earlier research demonstrated that beauty and personal care products manufactured for children and adults frequently contain toxic chemicals, such as lead, asbestos, PFAS, phthalates and formaldehyde. Heavy metals and other toxic chemicals in children’s makeup and body products are particularly harmful to infants and youth, who are growing rapidly and whose bodies are less efficient at metabolizing these chemicals. Whether these chemicals are added intentionally or are present as contaminants, they have been associated with cancer, neurodevelopmental harm, and other serious and irreversible health effects, the Columbia University and Earthjustice researchers noted.
“Even when concentrations of individual chemicals are low in products, the potential for interactive effects from multiple toxicants is important to take into consideration,” the authors wrote in the journal article. “Allergic reactions, such as contact dermatitis, are some of the most frequently cited negative health outcomes associated with the use of cosmetics.”
Children’s small body side, rapid growth rate and immature immune systems are biologically more prone to the effects of toxicants than adults.
In addition to children’s rapid growth rate, the study also reported that their small body size, developing tissues and organs, and immature immune systems are biologically more prone to the effects of toxicants than adults. Meanwhile, the study noted, “childhood exposure to harmful makeup and body product ingredients can also be considered an environmental justice issue, as communities of color may be more likely to use these products.”
Although adults are the typical users of cosmetics, similar items are heavily marketed to youth with attention-grabbing features such as bright colors, animals and cartoon characters, according to the study. Beyond conventional makeup such as eyeshadow and lipstick, children may apply face paint, body glitter, nail polish, hair gel and fragrances. They also may frequent social media platforms on which these products are increasingly being promoted.
Products for both children and adults are currently regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. Also, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967 directs the Federal Trade Commission and the FDA “to issue regulations requiring that all ‘consumer commodities’ be labeled to disclose net contents, identity of commodity, and name and place of business of the product's manufacturer, packer, or distributor.” As the Columbia University and Earthjustice authors pointed out, though, “current safety regulations have been widely criticized as inadequate.”
The Personal Care Products Council in Washington, D.C., “fundamentally disagrees with the premise that companies put toxic chemicals in products produced for children,” industry spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in an email. Founded in 1894, the national trade association represents 600 member companies that manufacture, distribute and supply most personal care products marketed in the United States.
“No category of consumer products is subject to less government oversight than cosmetics and other personal care products.” --Environmental Working Group.
“Science and safety are the cornerstones of our industry,” Powers stated. For more than a decade, she wrote, “the [Council] and our member companies worked diligently with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders and a diverse group of stakeholders to enhance the effectiveness of the FDA regulatory authority and to provide the safety reassurances that consumers expect and deserve.”
Powers added that the “industry employs and consults thousands of scientific and medical experts” who study the impacts of cosmetics and personal care products and the ingredients used in them. The Council also maintains a comprehensive database where consumers can look up science and safety information on the thousands of ingredients in sunscreens, toothpaste, shampoo, moisturizer, makeup, fragrances and other products.
However, the Environmental Working Group, which empowers consumers with breakthrough research to make informed choices about healthy living, believes the regulations are still not robust enough. “No category of consumer products is subject to less government oversight than cosmetics and other personal care products,” states the organization’s website. “Although many of the chemicals and contaminants in cosmetics and personal care products likely pose little risk, exposure to some has been linked to serious health problems, including cancer.”
The group, which operates the Skin Deep Database noted that “since 2009, 595 cosmetics manufacturers have reported using 88 chemicals, in more than 73,000 products, that have been linked to cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm.”
But change, for both adults and kids, is on the horizon. The Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022 significantly expanded the FDA’s authority to regulate cosmetics. In May 2023, Washington state adopted a law regulating cosmetics and personal care products. The Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act (HB 1047) bans chemicals in beauty and personal care products, such as PFAS, lead, mercury, phthalates and formaldehyde-releasing agents. These bans take effect in 2025, except for formaldehyde releasers, which have a phased-in approach starting in 2026.
Industry and advocates view this as a positive development. Powers, the spokesperson, praised “the long-awaited” Modernization Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022, which she said, “advances product safety and innovation.” Jen Lee, chief impact officer at Beautycoutner, a company that sells personal care products, also welcomes the change. “We were proud to support the Washington Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act (HB 1047) by mobilizing our community of Brand Advocates who reside in Washington State,” Lee said. “Together, they made their voices heard by sending over 1,000 emails to their state legislators urging them to support and pass the bill.”
Laurie Valeriano, executive director of Toxic-Free Future, praised the upcoming Washington state law as “a huge win for public health and the environment that will have impacts that ripple across the nation.” She added that “companies won’t make special products for Washington state.” Instead, “they will reformulate and make products safer for everyone” — adults and children.
You shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist to shop for shampoo.-- Washington State Rep. Sharlett Mena
The new legislation will require Washington state agencies to assess the hazards of chemicals used in products that can impact vulnerable populations, while providing support for small businesses and independent cosmetologists to transition to safer products.
The Toxic Free Future team lauds the Cosmetics Act, signed in May 2023.
Courtesy Toxic Free Future
“When we go to a store, we assume the products on the shelf are safe, but this isn’t always true,” said Washington State Rep. Sharlett Mena, a Democrat serving in the 29th Legislative District (Tacoma), who sponsored the law. “I introduced this bill (HB 1047) because currently, the burden is on the consumer to navigate labels and find safe alternatives. You shouldn’t have to be a toxicologist to shop for shampoo.”
The new law aims to protect people of all ages, but especially youth. “Children are more susceptible to the impacts of toxic chemicals because their bodies are still developing,” Mena said. “Lead, for example, is significantly more hazardous to children than adults. Also, since children, unlike adults, tend to put things in their mouths all the time, they are more exposed to harmful chemicals in personal care and other products.”
Cosmetologists and hair professionals are taking notice. “Safety should be the practitioner’s number one concern” in using products on small children, said Anwar Saleem, a hair stylist, instructor and former salon owner in Washington, D.C., who is chairman of the D.C. Board of Barbering and Cosmetology and president of the National Interstate Council of State Boards of Cosmetology. “There are so many products on the market that it can be confusing.”
Hair products designed and labeled for children's use often have milder formulations, but “every child is unique, and what works for one may not work for another,” Saleem said. He recommends doing a patch test, in which the stylist or cosmetologist dabs the product on a small, inconspicuous area of the scalp or skin and waits anywhere from an hour to a day to check for irritation before continuing to serve the client. “Performing a patch test, observing children's reactions to a product and adequately adjusting are essential.”
Saleem seeks products that are free from harsh chemicals such as sulfates, phthalates and parabens, noting that these ingredients can be irritating and drying to the hair and scalp. If a child has sensitive skin or allergies, Saleem opts for hypoallergenic products.
We also need to ensure that less toxic alternatives are available and accessible to all consumers. It’s often under-resourced, low-income populations who suffer the burden of environmental exposures and do not have access or cannot afford these safer alternatives-- Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá.
Lesliam Quirós-Alcalá, an assistant professor in the department of environmental health and engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said current regulatory loopholes on product labeling still allow manufacturers to advertise their cosmetics and personal care products as “gentle” and “natural.” However, she said, those terms may be misleading as they don’t necessarily mean the contents are less toxic or harmful to consumers.
“We also need to ensure that less toxic alternatives are available and accessible to all consumers,” Quirós-Alcalá said, “as often alternatives considered to be less toxic come with a hefty price tag.” As a result, “it’s often under-resourced, low-income populations who suffer the burden of environmental exposures and do not have access or cannot afford these safer alternatives.”
To advocate for safer alternatives, Quirós-Alcalá suggests that parents turn to consumer groups involved in publicizing the harms of personal care products. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is a program of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, a national science-based advocacy organization aiming to prevent the disease by eliminating related environmental exposures. Other resources that inform users about unsafe ingredients include the mobile apps Clearya and Think Dirty.
“Children are not little adults, so it’s important to increase parent and consumer awareness to minimize their exposures to toxic chemicals in everyday products,” Quirós-Alcalá said. “Becoming smarter, more knowledgeable consumers is the first step to protecting your family from potentially harmful and toxic ingredients in consumer products.”
Story by Big Think
On June 12, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket deployed 72 small satellites for customers — including the world’s first space factory.
The challenge: In 2019, pharma giant Merck revealed that an experiment on the International Space Station had shown how to make its blockbuster cancer drug Keytruda more stable. That meant it could now be administered via a shot rather than through an IV infusion.
The key to the discovery was the fact that particles behave differently when freed from the force of gravity — seeing how its drug crystalized in microgravity helped Merck figure out how to tweak its manufacturing process on Earth to produce the more stable version.
Microgravity research could potentially lead to many more discoveries like this one, or even the development of brand-new drugs, but ISS astronauts only have so much time for commercial experiments.
“There are many high-performance products that are only possible to make in zero-gravity, which is a manufacturing capability that cannot be replicated in any factory on Earth.”-- Will Bruey.
The only options for accessing microgravity (or free fall) outside of orbit, meanwhile, are parabolic airplane flights and drop towers, and those are only useful for experiments that require less than a minute in microgravity — Merck’s ISS experiment took 18 days.
The idea: In 2021, California startup Varda Space Industries announced its intention to build the world’s first space factory, to manufacture not only pharmaceuticals but other products that could benefit from being made in microgravity, such as semiconductors and fiber optic cables.
This factory would consist of a commercial satellite platform attached to two Varda-made modules. One module would contain equipment capable of autonomously manufacturing a product. The other would be a reentry capsule to bring the finished goods back to Earth.
“There are many high-performance products that are only possible to make in zero-gravity, which is a manufacturing capability that cannot be replicated in any factory on Earth,” said CEO Will Bruey, who’d previously developed and flown spacecraft for SpaceX.
“We have a team stacked with aerospace talent in the prime of their careers, focused on getting working hardware to orbit as quickly as possible,” he continued.
“[Pharmaceuticals] are the most valuable chemicals per unit mass. And they also have a large market on Earth.” -- Will Bruey, CEO of Varda Space.
What’s new? At the time, Varda said it planned to launch its first space factory in 2023, and, in what feels like a first for a space startup, it has actually hit that ambitious launch schedule.
“We have ACQUISITION OF SIGNAL,” the startup tweeted soon after the Falcon 9 launch on June 12. “The world’s first space factory’s solar panels have found the sun and it’s beginning to de-tumble.”
During the satellite’s first week in space, Varda will focus on testing its systems to make sure everything works as hoped. The second week will be dedicated to heating and cooling the old HIV-AIDS drug ritonavir repeatedly to study how its particles crystalize in microgravity.
After about a month in space, Varda will attempt to bring its first space factory back to Earth, sending it through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds and then using a parachute system to safely land at the Department of Defense’s Utah Test and Training Range.
Looking ahead: Ultimately, Varda’s space factories could end up serving dual purposes as manufacturing facilities and hypersonic testbeds — the Air Force has already awarded the startup a contract to use its next reentry capsule to test hardware for hypersonic missiles.
But as for manufacturing other types of goods, Varda plans to stick with drugs for now.
“[Pharmaceuticals] are the most valuable chemicals per unit mass,” Bruey told CNN. “And they also have a large market on Earth.”
“You’re not going to see Varda do anything other than pharmaceuticals for the next minimum of six, seven years,” added Delian Asparouhov, Varda’s co-founder and president.