Last week I posted an article about reports in the Dutch media concerning Mars One’s new business structure. Reporters with Financieele Dagblad drew parallels between the commercial arm of Mars One and so-called pump and dump scams that manipulate share prices at the expense of legitimate investors.
Mars One CEO Bas Lansdorp reached out to me over the weekend asking for a chance to address the concerns I raised. Given that I based my article on Google Translate’s interpretation of the original Dutch reports, I thought it only fair to let him respond. You can read it for yourself and come to your own conclusions.
First some background. Mars One’s corporate structure is split between a non-profit arm, the Mars One Foundation, and a commercial arm now called Mars One Ventures. The Foundation conducts all of the operations related to settling Mars. It commissioned technical studies from companies like Lockheed Martin. And it will select and train candidates to become astronauts, a process that a documentary production team will film.
Mars One Ventures handles the business side of things. It licenses the Mars One brand as well as any intellectual property the Foundation develops. Mars One Ventures will sell the broadcast rights for the Foundation’s astronaut training program and, if things work out as Lansdorp plans, broadcast rights for the settlement of the red planet. It's a business model that has more to do with Hollywood than Cape Canaveral.
What follows is based on a transcript of my conversation with Lansdorp. I made light edits to improve readability and moved related statements out of chronological order to improve the flow.
The concerns raised in Financieele Dagblad involve the potential use of Mars One Ventures by pump-and-dump schemes. The reporters asked the question “has the mission been hijacked in bad faith?” (Of is de missie gekaapt door malafiden?) Not surprisingly, Lansdorp rejects that question.
That’s really not the case. The Mars One Foundation which is organizing the mission as you know is completely independent from the commercial. In this case, Susan, Arno and myself [Mars One Communications Director Suzanne Flinkenflögeland Mars One Chief Technical Officer Arno Wielders] are directors of the Foundation and we are in full control of what the Foundation is doing which is organizing the mission and selecting and training teams when we get to that. The overall Mars One team holds a 55% majority in the commercial part after this six million investment is complete. There are certainly risks. I don’t want to downplay the risks. But there is no situation in which Mars One is hijacked.
Financieele Dagblad’s reporters looked at the way Mars One Ventures became a listed stock on the Frankfurt Exchange. Rather than joining the exchange directly, Mars One Ventures entered a reverse takeover with a Swiss company, InFin Innovative Finance. Lansdorp started by addressing the reasons for this approach.
I am sure you noticed that in the last two years we’ve not been able to make any exciting big progress which was only due to financial restrictions. We did work on a much better and detailed business plan than we had when we raised our first round of funding in 2013.
In our discussions with potential investors, listing [on a stock exchange] was mentioned several times as a good way forward for Mars One because in many ways it matches really with what we do. We want to be mankind’s mission to Mars. So with a listing anyone can buy one or two or more shares and feel that he is part owner of this mission to Mars.
A typical IPO at a good exchange was not an option for Mars One last year. So if we wanted to do this listing then we had to look for a shell company where the activities have been taken out or went bankrupt to take over. InFin was a good candidate [where the previous business activities] were taken out.
Every shell has its downsides. In the case of InFin we felt that - and still feel that - the pros certainly outweighed the cons. So we decided to go for it. It’s a shell where some of the risks were with the old team. And that’s actually good because an old team can be replaced. You can see on our website, for example on one of our community posts, that professor Hunzinger is the current interim CEO. He is the interim CEO. We are looking for a new CEO of the company and professor Hunzinger is helping us in the transition period.
So in a perfect world of course we would have done a fresh IPO but it simply wasn’t an option. This was the best option available.
One of the concerns raised in the Dutch reports was an investigation of InFin by German regulators into possible stock price manipulation.
In May of 2016, the German financial authorities warned for stock price manipulation in the shares in InFin. They didn’t imply that the company or its officers were involved.
It was before we were actually involved with InFin, but as far as we know it was simply recommended as a buy in one of those buy advice emails that many people receive every day. I certainly do receive them frequently.
This can happen to any company especially if the company has limited trade volume and, preferably for the scam artists, a low share price. Any company can be adviced to buy in those scam emails and, as far as we know, this was simply the case with InFin back then.
At the beginning of the year Mars One announced that it would receive a €6 million investment from a Hong Kong-based company called World Stock & Bond Trading. The Dutch journalists pointed that the company does not operate out of the Hong Kong address listed in its registration and is “just a website”. I described it as being a “paper” company which Lansdorp took issue with.
That’s actually not the case. What the Dutch journalists wrote is that the company doesn’t have an actual office at the registered address. But Hong Kong is a tax haven and tax havens tend to attract companies that are registered there but are not there in person.
So for example, Holland where I am is a tax haven for anything that has to do with royalties. The Rolling Stones and several other big bands have their head office - and I’m making quotes in the air now - their head office here in Holland but of course their real offices are not here.
It’s very common for investment companies to also have offices in tax havens. That’s also the case with World Stock & Bond.
The Financieele Dagblad’s reporters tried to look into the background of Mars One’s new investors. They found “dozens” of companies similar to World Stock & Bond that have little to them beyond the website and share common investors. Some of the people identified in the report, including a World Stock & Bond director, may be implicated in various investment fraud cases in Canada and the United States.
What the Dutch journalists are worried about is that we might be a victim to a pump and dump scheme. I do agree and we’ve known this of course before the article that all the conditions for a pump and dump scheme are actually there. But this is the case for any small listed company that has big potential and that has limited trading activity.
As far as we can find and also the Dutch journalists have not found any direct evidence that World Stock & Bond or Pedersen or even the other director that they talked about have been involved in pump and dump schemes. There is really no direct lead to think that - only indirect circumstantial evidence so to say.
As far as we know there are no investigations at all into Torben Pedersen who is our point of contact at the company. One of the other directors is mentioned [by the] SEC, the American securities regulator, as the employee of a different company.
We have done our due diligence on World Stock & Bond Trades. They have given us evidence that they are able to do the investments. They’ve shared the source of the funds with us. They are not my best friends, I don’t know them as well as my best friends. But they’ve proven themselves reliable business partners. We had a delay in issuing their shares, the new shares for the take over, and they stood with us and they helped us.
These shares have been issued but the shares are suspended from trading. The new shares need to be admitted to trading which involves several steps. We are currently taking those steps. That’s one of the requirements that need to happen before the first installment of the investment will be made.
Of course I can’t guarantee that they will pay up when they have to. They are legally bound, but I can’t guarantee it. I can’t guarantee that they are not planning something evil. I don’t expect it after all of the discussions and the experiences that we’ve had with them and the due diligence that we’ve done. There is just no way to guarantee it.
We are in good contact with them. They stayed with us when they could have left. All my experiences with them have been positive. The investor has explained his long term plans with the Mars One shares. I believe him when he told that story because he has good evidence to support it.
So again, as I said before, in a perfect world we would have done a fresh IPO. In a perfect world we would have worked with a world renowned investment firm or with a retired world famous media tycoon as a our investor but we have not found such an investor yet.
This is a very good investor that we have good confidence in.
I concluded my article with my own commentary. The space industry is already highly skeptical of Mars One’s ambitious plans. Ultimately its media-based business plan depends on the goodwill of a global audience. Avoiding scandal and protecting Mars One’s reputation, I argued, ought to be Lansdorp’s top priority.
Of course you are absolutely right, there. I take this responsibility very seriously. But I also have a responsibility to make progress with Mars One because if there is no progress then at some point people are going to lose faith that we will ever go to Mars.
The two responsibilities, the responsibility to avoid scandal and the responsibility to make progress, are often in conflict and I am of the opinion that this investment deal doesn’t deserve a scandal.
We’ve had at Mars One a scandal when journalists suggested that candidates who contributed the most in donations made it through to the next rounds which was of course absolute nonsense. Even now there are still candidates who never bought or donated anything to us or bought anything from our website - which is fine.
I think this investment deserved an investigation by journalists. I think the investigation resulted only in limited reason for skepticism which is always there when you are doing business because there are simply no perfect deals.
We are always going to aim for the perfect investor and the perfect supplier and the perfect new team member, etc. But when reality catches up with your plans you can either move forward by taking the not quite perfect choice or you can give up.
In that position I will always choose to move forward and then create a work around to solve the imperfections as well as we can. In the case of an imperfect investor that means putting the additional effort into due diligence and to get as much certainty as possible. There are simply no real guarantees in this field.
Preserving Mars One’s reputation also protects its candidates. Many of them actively engage the public and the media in their home countries. They visit schools to promote science education and the excitement of space exploration. As a result, Mars One’s reputation has a direct effect on the candidates’ personal and professional reputations. When accusations, or even implications, of impropriety appear, the candidates are often the first ones who must field challenging questions from the press.
Most of the information that I’ve just told you we’ve also shared that with our candidates. I pointed out to them that I do feel that I have failed the candidates, as you say, because we’ve had delays. We’ve had criticism. Some of it ungrounded, but some of it also grounded.
So I’ve emailed that to them and I’ve actually received many replies from candidates who say we know what we’ve gotten ourselves into. We’ve always known that this is not going to be easy. We knew that there would be all kinds of issues and this is just another one.
We are in very good contact with our candidates. We share a lot of information with them also information that does not go out to the rest of the world. We try to treat them as well as we can. We do have some limitations, again, because we are a publicly traded company now. But we give them as much information as possible. I think they appreciate that a lot. But you are absolutely right they get a lot of questions and that’s certainly something that we feel responsible for and we try to help them.
Of course we don’t give them guidance because they are not our employees. We don’t want to control what they say. We do give them the information such that they can evaluate what we are saying and judge it by themselves and either use it or use what they think is the right thing to say. Of course we do give them the information and they can do with it whatever they want.
We always tell them that they are not Mars One employees so they can always say “I know why I want to go to Mars”. There are reasons why they think Mars One is their preferred solution or one of their solutions. I don’t know the candidates as well as for example Norbert Kroft our Chief Medical Officer who is in charge of the selection process. I know that at least one of them is also applying for Nasa. They see Mars One as a potential route to making their dreams come true.
But they are not required to know all the details. As a group who is only they are still only in the selection process so they are not required to know all the details.
I don’t want to downplay that because we really appreciate what they are doing.
And as you say all of them know pretty much about our mission plans and they have their opinions about that. But many of them really don’t know a lot about the commercial side of Mars One and they are not required to know that.
So we tell them if you don’t know the answer to a question that’s a perfectly good answer because you are not in a position where you need to know all the answers. So simply refer any of those questions to Mars One and we will do our best to answer them.
So Lansdorp did what he had to so Mars One could get the money it needs. Assuming the promised investments appear, Mars One Ventures will produce a documentary of the next, more rigorous, candidate evaluations. If it can sell the broadcast rights profitably, Lansdorp has evidence that his business model might work. That could lead to more investments that would finance the astronaut training program which would also be televised. Mars One is banking on that proving the case for its media-based business strategy.
Was that the right call? It’s easy to play the CEO when you are not the one with the responsibility. But I will anyway.
Lansdorp presented his choice as being between moving forward or giving up. it seems to me he could have taken a third path. The “pivot” is a time-honored tradition in the world of start-ups. He could have adopted a more achievable near-term goal and reset the timetable for Mars settlement far in the future (this is what Nasa does by calling Mars its “horizon goal”).
In the end, Lansdorp chose to stick with the original plan and do business with a "not quite perfect investor". Was that the right call? If the €6 million comes through and Mars One produces a blockbuster reality/documentary series then maybe the answer will be yes. In Hollywood success can erase many sins.