Has Mars One Been Hijacked?

The old publicity saying “any news is good news” has its limits. Many people have accused Mars One, the effort to establish permanent settlements on Mars, of being a scam. Now Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp is responding to claims his organization has been hijacked by “pump-and-dump” investment scammers.

Credit: Mars One / Bryan Versteeg

As I reported in my October recap, Mars One began restructuring last year. It already existed in two forms. A Dutch-registered non-profit would organize human settlement of Mars while a for-profit company would license Mars One merchandise and will sell broadcast rights for the efforts' reality/documentary broadcasts.

Mars One moved its for-profit entity, at least on paper, from the Netherlands to the United Kingdom in March 2016 when it registered Mars One Merchandise PLC. The newly-formed business’ shareholders included Lansdorp, Chief Technical Officer Arno Welders, Chief Medical Officer Norbert Kraft, Communications Director Suzanne Flinkelflogel, and Mission Concept Artist Brian Versteeg. Financial holding companies Ultra Plus Technologies and Anchroisk Holdings were also listed as shareholders.

In November a Swiss company filed a letter of intent to buy Mars One Merchandise. InFin Innovative Finance was a financial technology company that specialized in mobile payment systems. Its CEO, Moritz Hunzinger, was a politically-connected PR consultant convicted for perjury amid a scandal that forced the resignation of three German politicians.

InFin bought Mars One Merchandise and renamed itself Mars One Merchandise AG with Landsorp as its chairman and Hunzinger as its CEO. Since InFin was already listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, Mars One was able to join the exchange without an IPO.

Mars One announced the deal in January along with news that Hong Kong-based World Stock & Bond Trade would invest €6,000,000 in the new company. In celebrating the news, Lansdorp said the deal “will give Mars One the resources to take the next important steps in our mission to Mars.”

Or so it seemed. 

Financieele Dagblad reporters Jereon Molenaar and Sandra Olsthoorn investigated Mars One’s financial dealings. They start with a straight, even respectful, explanation of Mars One’s business model. But things get darker quickly as they delve into Mars One’s new backers. 

They report that German regulators are investigating InFin and its officers for stock price manipulation. Even murkier is World Stock & Bond Trade and its shadowy network of owners. The company only exists on paper, its Hong Kong address a mailbox provided by an accounting firm. 

World Stock's founder, Torben Pedersen, is a Danish citizen who owns dozens of these paper companies. Pedersen and his business partners appear to be investors in companies that have been investigated by securities regulators around the world.

Molenaar and Olsthoorn spoke with experts who say the Mars One investment vehicle matches the pattern of a “boiler room” scam operation. In this scenario, the scammers use the announced promise of a €6,000,000 investment to drive up Mars One’s stock. The scammers then dump their shares at the inflated price before investors learn Mars One will never get the€6,000,000.

Pedersen refused to respond to Molenaar and Olsthoorn’s questions and only issued a statement through Lansdorp. The Mars One CEO steadfastly insists that the financial maneuverings are legitimate. He repeated that in an interview with Dutch broadcaster BNR, saying “I think the story is a bit over exaggerated.

Are you kidding me? Since its launch in 2012, Mars One has been dogged by accusations that it was little more than a scam. Lansdorp has spent the past five years defending his vision and Mars One’s operations from the critics.

Lansdorp had one clear responsibility: Avoid scandal at all costs. 

He claims that he performed the proper due diligence before entering business with people like Hunzinger and Pedersen. But a little googling on my part uncovered Hunzinger’s background. More skilled and thorough digging by professional journalists like Molenaar and Olsthoorn traced Pedersen’s network of paper companies.

A CEO ought to put as much effort into protecting his organization’s reputation.

I’ve always taken the view that Lansdorp and his team are space cadets caught up in “New Space” rhetoric that private enterprise will magically open the Solar System to human expansion. There’s no evil intent. Just a naive faith that the technical challenges can so easily be overcome.

Maybe it was financial naivety that brought Lansdorp to this pass. Maybe Pedersen’s and Hunzinger’s backgrounds are irrelevant. Maybe €6,000,000 will appear in Mars One’s accounts.

Maybe.

What is certain is that Lansdorp has failed the Mars One Candidates. They have placed their faith and hopes in someone who just doesn’t get it. I document how much effort the Candidates devote to public speaking events and outreach to schools. What credibility Mars One has comes from their work. 

Lansdorp has tarnished that credibility by associating with the financial system’s grey fringes. It does not matter how much Mars One needs a cash infusion. It does not matter whether the deal is legitimate or not. The appearance of impropriety for an organization with an already-shaky reputation is catastrophic.

As the news trickles beyond the Dutch-language press, the Candidates will find themselves bearing the brunt of reporters’ questions. Is Mars One a pump-and-dump scam? How do you explain Mars One’s dealings with people like this? Is the money real?

The Candidates will need answers to these question. I don’t think Lansdorp can deliver them.