Space for innovation: Technology transfer in the space sector

An image to represent technology transfer in the space sector.

The head of ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme Office, Frank Salzgeber, spoke to SciTech Europa about how the office supports new businesses.

The European Space Agency’s Technology Transfer Programme Office (TTPO) mission is to inspire and facilitate the use of space technology, systems and know-how for non-space applications. It uses a network of technology brokers to assess the market needs in areas where there is a potential for exploitation of space technologies.

TTPO aims to strengthen European industry by identifying new business opportunities for providers of space technology and systems. It enhances the know-how and competitiveness of these providers while broadening their business horizons.

SciTech Europa spoke to the head of ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme Office, Frank Salzgeber, about tech transfer in the space sector and how ESA approaches this.

How does ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme (TTP) work and what are the biggest challenges involved in implementing it?

First, we take care of the European Space Agency’s patents, which are only 450 patents due to the fact that of the €6.3bn budget that we have, some 90% of that goes to industry, which means that industry keeps the IP. Second, we help the European space industry and researcher organisations to utilise their technology via technology transfer, where we have a network of brokers who look for what industry needs and then provides them with solution technologies and knowledge from the space community.

This is technology transfer in the same way it is practiced by other sectors. However, we are also looking specifically at our activities in Earth Observation (Copernicus etc.), where space can be used as an assets to solve a particular problem. In these areas, we are sorting start-ups, around 160 across Europe per year, and we do that by not only giving them funding, but also by helping them with networking, branding, and technology and business support via our programmes for at least three years.

This has been particularly useful in many countries throughout Europe. For instance, we have recently visited the Ministry of Science and Technology in Israel to support them with their start-ups in the space sector. Many countries are making good progress with companies and start-ups in other sectors, but their space industry is only now starting to develop, and we are assisting with that. We work with numerous European companies which we use to help introduce such start-ups to the industry proper, helping them to grow.

What are the biggest benefits and the biggest barriers in tech transfer in Europe today?

The biggest benefit comes from actually utilising the investment. So, when you look at what is being spent on Galileo and Copernicus, it has to be ensured that the money goes back to the taxpayers and the ecosystems. In this sense, you could perhaps say that we are something of a ‘recycling office’ for the innovations that take place, and it is important to note that innovation can be used in more than one field; indeed, it should be used in many.

To take the Internet as a great example of innovation: the Internet was not developed with today’s usage in mind. The same goes for GPS – this was not developed in order for the public to be able to find a specific street by using their mobile phone. But they have both become a disruptive technology and are now integral to the everyday lives of citizens all over the world. These two examples demonstrate that there are almost always new applications for a technology, innovation, or service, and it is the very finding of these unpredicted applications which is the biggest benefit in bringing innovation into the wider world.

The biggest hurdle is perhaps the fact that it is quite easy to find money for infrastructure, but much harder to find support to help companies grow, because this is an-going effort.
How does ESA work with start-up companies? Could you expand on how you support and incubate these companies and how successful ESA is in doing that?

We start at a very early stage; we support companies right from the generation of an idea through to turning that into a business concept and then creating a business plan, on to establishing the start-up, right the way through to internationalisation; we provide support across the entire value chain.

And we don’t do this alone; we run the biggest space-related ecosystem in Europe, with incubation centres established in over 40 locations across Europe supporting around 160 start-up companies per year, and that is growing.

We support these companies with financing, branding, marketing, access to customers, growing acceleration rates, and so on; whatever it is that they need. And this is always more than just financial investment; an address book can be much more valuable to them.
Every company and every innovation is different, and so requires a different approach. Our survival rate is over 80%, which could perhaps be seen as a negative rather than as a positive, in that such a high survival rate could suggest that we don’t take enough risk. As such, we might see this number falling moving forwards as we begin to support riskier ventures.

How would you characterise the way that space-based technologies and companies are supported towards commercialisation and a wider roll-out in Europe today (outside of ESA)?

Space is the backbone for the digital economy – from communications to navigation and to Earth Observation. When it comes to areas such as automated driving, shipping, aerospace and many others, the Internet is crucial and none of them will work network without space-based activities. Satellites are used for everything, from the weather forecast to telecommunications, to citizens using Google maps to find a location; space is the backbone for all the work taking place in the digital sector today.

Do you feel that more could be done through instruments such as VentureEU or the SME Instrument to support space-based ventures in Europe?

Yes, I do; it is always good to invest in entrepreneurs because they drive innovation. Bosch, for instance, was once a start-up company, as was Philips, and look at them now. As Steve Jobs has said, if you want to predict the future, then you have to invest in it.
It is better now than it has been in the past, but we still need people to create companies and create risks, and we need to help them to take these risks.

In Europe, we have almost everything that we need to continue to lead in this area. We now just need an enhanced level of co-operation and a higher level of risk taking to really begin to see further improvements.

Frank M. Salzgeber
Head of Technology Transfer and Business Incubation Office
European Space Agency (ESA)
European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC )
Tweet @esa

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