3D Systems Invests In Asteroid Miners Planetary Resources, Opens Up New Seed-Stage Venture Arm

Planetary Resources‘ plan to scour the heavens and find asteroids to mine may seem a little out there as far as startup ideas go, but that hasn’t stopped some big names from backing the company. Today, that list just got a little bigger — 3D printing giant 3D Systems announced that it has invested in Planetary Resources, and that it will aid in the development of the startup’s ARKYD series space telescopes by fabricating components for them.

In case you haven’t been keeping tabs on Planetary Resources, the company was founded in 2009 with the goal of creating a fleet of autonomous drones capable of mining raw materials and minerals (think water and platinum, to name a few) from asteroids as they swing through our corner of the solar system. More recently, they’ve attempted to win over the masses (well, the masses familiar with crowdfunding) by starting a Kickstarter campaign for its ARKYD orbiting telescopes.

People could pledge money in exchange for the opportunity to give the ARKYD a target to photograph, or purchase chunks of access time that could be distributed to schools and research institutions when the telescope goes live. The team is aiming to get it running in orbit in 2015, but they should get their money well before that. The campaign has already blown past its $1 million funding goal and there’s still four days left on the clock.

While I’m sure the folks at Planetary Resources are glad to have another big name join their pool of investors (which already includes Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, and former prominent Microsoftie Charles Simonyi), this investment marks an interesting new direction for 3D Systems. For years the company has been churning out industrial-grade 3D printers and has recently branched out into consumer models and software, but now it’s opening up a separate venture arm called (what else?) 3D Systems Ventures.

PR is the first such company that 3D Systems Ventures has backed, and while the company wouldn’t confirm the size of the investment it made in Planetary Resources CMO Cathy Lewis shed a little light on what 3D Systems hopes to accomplish by funding early-stage startups. Apparently, 3D Systems’ MO is to keep an eye out for startups that would not only benefit from using their 3D printing prowess, but startups whose goals “have something to do with improving the environment, ecology, or life as we know it.” In short, don’t expect 3D Systems Ventures to get name-checked the next time a flash-in-the-pan social app announces a new funding round.

Lofty as those goals may be, this is all very tentative stuff. Hugh Evans, the newly named VP tasked with running the venture wing, hasn’t even started full-time yet. Only time will tell if 3D Systems Ventures works out the way the company’s board and CEO think it will, but here’s hoping the companies it winds up backing are just as wild-eyed as Planetary Resources.