Naveen Jain: Moon Man

How a disgraced Bellevue businessman landed a contract with NASA.

Naveen Jain must be the best talker on the planet. Wait, maybe we should make that the galaxy. The founder of Bellevue-based Intelius, it has recently emerged, is not content with the Earth's resources. Now he's after the moon's, with a new company that promises to build robots that can mine lunar surfaces. What's more, NASA is behind him, according to his company's press releases and stories in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. As usual with Jain, though, his claims are exaggerated. Jain, a self-proclaimed "wizard of the Internet" and the subject of a Seattle Weekly cover story ("The Internet 'Wizard' Strikes Again," March 18, 2009) that examined Intelius' dubious marketing tactics, announced in April that he had formed California-based Moon Express. His co-founder is Barney Pell, a former NASA manager who now works at Microsoft as a leading architect of the search engine Bing. "From an entrepreneur's perspective, the moon has never truly been explored," Jain told the Times last month. "We think it holds resources that benefit Earth and all humanity." He elaborated for the California-based newspaper IndiaWest, which this week quoted him as saying he expected to find "precious minerals and metals" that "will power everything from electric car batteries to aerospace applications." Both newspapers reported that Moon Express had won a NASA contract worth "up to $10 million" (emphasis added). The company's website simply says the contract is worth "$10M." This would seem a nice stamp of government approval for Jain, whose first start-up, InfoSpace, was accused of insider trading, and whose second, Intelius, was one of a group of Internet companies lambasted by a Congressional committee for what its chair called "un-American" business practices. Intelius last year entered into a $1.3 million settlement with state Attorney General Rob McKenna, who also accused the company of deceptive marketing. "Background checks on people or companies is not part of the process," says NASA spokesperson Michael Braukus, explaining why the agency would have nonetheless given Jain's latest venture its seal of approval. NASA simply looked at the proposals it got from companies which are building extraterrestrial robotics. It then selected six companies, including Moon Express, to enter into what you might call a non-contract contract—or what Josh Byerly, another NASA spokesperson, calls a "best-in-the class approach." NASA, which is interested in developing robotic technology for exploring the moon and beyond, wants to see what these companies can come up with. "If we see something of interest, we might purchase the technology," Braukus says. In that case, NASA would spend anywhere from $10,000 to $10 million per company. That's quite a range, which hardly warrants the contract being flat-out valued at $10 million, especially when you consider the kicker: If NASA doesn't like what a company's got, Braukus says, the agency will pay nothing at all.

 
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