Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has made headlines by signing on to become the first lunar tourist.

But the news of his quirky antics will be bittersweet for an Auckland startup that was forced to lay off nearly all its staff after the retail magnate pulled the plug on a US$72 million ($109m) buyout earlier this year. Millions in taxpayer funds were also squandered.

The entrepreneur, whose personal wealth has been estimated at $5.4 billion, will be ferried to the moon by Elon Musk's Space X, in 2023, for an undisclosed sum.

Profiles have made a lot of Maezawa's zany, creative character. The retail magnate has booked all tickets on the proposed lunar flight, and says the six to eight spots will all go to artists, who will create works along the way.


But he also has a hardnosed side, as Auckland-based Stretchsense found out in May.

The maker of smart clothing technology seemed to have hit the big time in November last year when it landed a $US20m investment from Start Today - the company founded by Maezawa that has grown to become Japan's largest online retailer.

With its investment, Start Today took a 40.44 per cent stake in Stretchsense, with the option to buy the remainder of the company for US$72m (NZ$108m) on September 30 this year - meaning it would have paid US$98m in total for the promising Auckland company (a huge amount by the standards of the NZ startup scene, but small by Maezawa's; in May last year he paid US$110 for a single painting by Basquiat).

The pair were to collaborate on the "Zozo suit", a garment with built-in sensors to take exact measurements of a shopper's body to allow them to choose online clothing purchases that fit perfectly.

But in May came the bombshell news that Start Today was pulling out of the deal. The Japanese giant had decided to go with an alternative technology supplier.

Stretchsense co-founder and chief executive Ben O'Brien was forced to lay off 145 of his 180 staff.

Read more: StretchSense cuts 140 jobs after $131 million deal falls through

It was also bad news for financial backers, who included the government-backed NZ Venture Investment Fund (NZVIF), which bought a stake in Stretchsense in its early days for an undisclosed sum, and Crown agency Callaghan Innovation, which awarded grants for matching R&D spending worth up to $15m.


Auckland University's commericalisation arm Uniservices was also a small shareholder. Stretchsense was founded in 2012 by O'Brien and fellow engineering student Tim Gisby, plus one of their lecturers, associate professor Iain Anderson.

After investing heavily in the Zozo suit, O'Brien effectively has to scrap his career's work and start over.

Maezawa, meanwhile is flying to the moon.

O'Brien did not immediately respond to a request for comment.