“I definitely believe that a large part of it [is] as a space enthusiast.” That’s what Matthew Brown told CNBC on March 23, when asked why he was considering a $200 million investment into Virgin Orbit, a nearly bankrupt rocket company.
A week later, that deal collapsed, and Virgin Orbit, which had begun to bring employees back to work in expectation of new funding, is facing the end. The company has ceased operations and will lay off some 675 employees, CEO Dan Hart said in a meeting reported on later by CNBC.
Sporting a purple Texas Christian University hat and shifting uncomfortably in his chair, Brown claimed on TV to have investments in 13 space companies and argued that Virgin could compete based on its rapid launch capability. Several investors who were watching told Quartz they set aside the business case to wonder: Who is this guy?
“Simply put: I am a simple guy from Fort Worth / Dallas who made a few good bets (and a lot of bad ones) and spend my time trying to advance the UN’s Goals,” Brown told Quartz via email. “ALL my $$ will end up in philanthropy to support those efforts. I happen to live a simple and minimalistic life and love to be at peace surfing on the shores of Hawaii while—financially—supporting those much smarter than myself.”
But Quartz could not substantiate many of the claims he has made about his business experience. Presented with a detailed description of the discrepancies we found, Brown said they were “factually incorrect” but declined to explain how.
Matthew Brown claims associations with Mark Zuckerberg and T. Boone Pickens
Tyson Halsey, a South Carolina-based investment advisor, was supposed to introduce Brown at a conference for family offices in Miami last year.
Halsey said Brown told him he started his career as a teenage tech entrepreneur working with Mark Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss brothers before selling a company to Salesforce. Then, while a 19-year-old enrolled at TCU, Brown won an executive position and, shortly thereafter, the top job at a Texas family office managing $6 billion in assets. He advised the Obama White House and the famed investor T. Boone Pickens on renewable energy. From there, he started several investment funds, and his own venture investment vehicle, the Matthew Brown Companies.
TCU officials confirmed that Brown was enrolled at the school, but said he did not earn a degree there. Meanwhile, Quartz found no evidence that the Woods Family Office, where he claimed to work, exists beyond its website. Brown withdrew his next company’s registration as an investment advisor with the Securities & Exchange Commission in 2019, and has never filed 13F reports required by money managers with more than $100 million in public securities. According to Pitchbook, a private investment database, Brown has invested in three space companies—SpaceX, by buying shares in the secondary market, and in venture rounds with Rocket Lab and Astra. Rocket Lab told Quartz that Brown never participated in any private venture round; Astra, now public, is currently in a quiet period.
As for that conference in Miami, conveniently timed to coincide with Art Basel, Brown never showed up. According to Halsey, Brown told him that “you should have gotten a note from my assistant. I was in a helicopter accident and I’m in the hospital.”
The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board have no records of any helicopter accidents occurring in Hawaii during the month before the conference. Brown told Quartz he was injured when he failed to wear a seat belt during a rough landing after his helicopter suffered a mechanical failure during a flight to Oahu, but doesn’t remember when the incident occurred.
A financial wunderkind?
Other stories that Brown told Halsey are equally impressive, including that he collaborated with Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss and Mark Zuckerberg through a web company he founded before selling it to Salesforce—an interesting story given the famous feud between the Winklevii and Zuckerberg, all of whom declined via spokespeople to comment. Quartz obtained a list of six companies acquired by Salesforce before 2008—Instranet, Slideaware, Koral, Crispy News, Kieden, and Sendia. None was based in Texas or led by Brown, although in 2006 the Dallas Morning News reported that a Matthew Brown was a finalist for a youth entrepreneurship award for his web company “Provost Enterprises/Provost Designs.”
Brown told Halsey his next act began in 2008, when he became an executive at Woods Family Investments, serving one of the families that inherited shares of the General American Oil Company, which was sold to another firm in 1983.
According to Halsey, Brown began working on renewable energy, and as the financial crisis and commodities bust bore down on the oil-focused fund, he pitched a strategic overhaul to family patriarch Eric Woods in a 30-page memo. Halsey says Brown told him he was offered the job as CEO of the family office the next day, managing $6 billion in assets, when according to public records Brown would have been 19 years old. According to Halsey, Brown made returns of 11% to 17% investing in wind and solar.
Brown has also indicated, on LinkedIn and elsewhere, that while at the Woods Family Office, he spent years advising famed Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens on renewable energy investments, and that he launched a joint venture with Pickens’ Mesa Power.
Jay Rosser, who served as Pickens’ chief of staff and spokesperson from 2002 until Pickens’ death in 2019, told Quartz that he and colleagues hadn’t heard of Brown. “I was very close with T. Boone Pickens,” Brown says. At the University of California, Berkeley, where Brown claimed to be an advisor to a renewable energy laboratory, the lab told Quartz he had no official role. But its director, professor Daniel Kammen, said he did recognize Brown from open meetings at the lab.
Meanwhile, there are few records of the Woods Family Office or the Woods Family Investments, where Brown’s LinkedIn profile indicates he worked for 14 years. The Woods Family Foundation mentioned on the family office website has never filed the IRS’s 990 form for tax-exempt organizations. The company’s website claims that it operates Hogshead Spouter Co., a Hong Kong-based investment manager also referenced on Brown’s LinkedIn profile, but no such firm is registered with Hong Kong’s securities regulator. Brown declined to introduce Quartz to any members of the Woods family, or employees of the family office.
Woods is supposedly a descendent of Henry W. Peters, one of the founders of the General American Oil Company. A brief history of the company by the Texas Historical Society and news reports of its sale make no mention of Woods or Peters. Key facts in the family history on the Woods website appear to be incorrect; notably, company founder Algur Meadows passed away several years before he was supposedly involved in the sale of the firm.
The family of Algur Meadows still operates a philanthropic foundation today. When contacted about Woods, a Meadows Foundation spokesperson could not substantiate the Woods office’s existence. However, she did note that the Meadows Foundation had discovered a website claiming to be connected to the Great American Oil Company; it is similar to the Woods Family Office website. The Meadows are not connected to the site and are trying to determine its owners.
A tangled financial web
Brown has been involved in other financial companies, according to his LinkedIn profile, Pitchbook, and SEC records.
One Brown vehicle, Tamara-Tacoma Capital Partners (TTCP), is described on Brown’s LinkedIn as an investment arm for family offices worth “$5b+.” There are no records of the company or its funds at the SEC, but Pitchbook says the fund has $150 million under management.
The company was involved in at least one deal, purchasing a distressed wind farm in Colorado. That deal became embroiled in litigation in 2016 after TTCP put the company in receivership and declined to pay $8.5 million owed to the US subsidiary of Sany, a Chinese firm that delivered the wind turbines.
In court, TTCP argued that the power plant significantly underperformed, but Sany alleged in a court filing that TTCP had transferred $910,000 from the company to insiders at TTCP, including Brown, his partner, and his partner’s American Express card. TTCP’s attorneys from the firm Eversheds withdrew from the case; in a discussion with the court, the attorneys said disclosing the reasons why would be prejudicial to their clients. TTCP and Brown obtained new lawyers and the parties settled the case on undisclosed terms in 2019.
Brown was also a founding partner of Energent, an private equity fund focused on renewable and alternative energy. That fund filed paperwork with the SEC to raise $150 million in 2017, but Brown and his partner Shane Starr withdrew their registration as investment advisors in 2019 and it’s not clear if any money was ever raised. Ben Nelson, an attorney who served as the president of the fund, told Quartz that Energent never made any deals before shutting down.
Brown told Quartz his investments are made through special-purpose vehicles that do not trigger SEC reporting requirements. Private investors do frequently use trusts, shell companies, and offshore financial centers to structure their transactions for privacy and competitive reasons. However, that task grows more difficult as the assets under management increase.
PPP loans, social media posts
While Brown’s venture investments have proven difficult to confirm—he says each one includes a non-disclosure agreement—his investment company (employees: one) did receive two loans totaling nearly $42,000 from the US government’s Paycheck Protection Program in 2020. Those loans, like many of the emergency PPP loans extended during the covid-19 pandemic, were forgiven.
Brown’s social media, meanwhile, is stocked with images documenting the life of a high-rolling entrepreneur who spends time in Hawaii and travels by private jet to visit factories building high-altitude blimps and satellite launchers.
Brown may be a SpaceX shareholder, but his goal of owning a space company outright has collapsed under scrutiny, with Virgin Orbit’s leadership unable to determine if he had the money to save their company. According to a Virgin Orbit employee not authorized to speak publicly, the team at the rocket-maker was first elated by news of a potential rescuer, then dismayed by more of what they learned about Brown as the deal crumbled.
Brown told Quartz he had the financing ready but wanted more assurances from Virgin.
Curious edits on the Virgin Orbit Wikipedia page
Four days before Reuters broke the news that Brown was negotiating with Virgin Orbit, an anonymous IP address in Dallas updated the company’s Wikipedia page with news that Matthew Brown was planning to buy the company; the day before the news broke, that user added more detail.
The same IP address also is responsible for adding Brown’s name as an investor in OpenAI and Boom Aerospace, and as an executive with the Houston Texans football team. The same account also said that Brown and Eric Woods were early investors in SpaceX. Most of those changes were reverted by Wikipedia editors for lacking outside citations; none of the companies has responded to inquiries from Quartz.
One thing is for sure: The future of Virgin Orbit and its employees no longer hangs in the hands of a 33 year-old investor—if it ever did.