Disrupting Space – The Rise of the European Space Sector
By Sarah Cruddas
The exploration of space is the most significant thing we will ever do as a species. Curiosity and the drive to explore is at the very essence of human existence. Yet while the first foray with the stars was driven by politics, and a cold war between two Super Powers, space grew into something that has became accessible to many nations. But in today’s new space era, space is no longer the preserve of governments. Commercial companies are driving forward exploration – something which is no different to what we have seen on Earth.
While America, an original space Super Power, is leading the way in this new commercial space sector, there is opportunity across the world for startups to develop and change the way we explore space. Whereas once young engineers wanted to push the frontiers of space through government agencies, now there is a growing appetite to transform the way we explore space through disruption. In Europe this March the Disrupt Space Conference in Berlin aimed to bring together space startups from across the continent, helping to support and nurture the new space sector there. “Entrepreneurs are the best way for innovation in space, in both spinout and spin-in. For spinouts and space applications such as data, to create information for products, there is so much potential.” Explains Philippe Cyr, co-founder of Disrupt Space. “But it’s also important that they meet with potential customers and end users so they don’t create solutions to problems which don’t exist.”
The conference bought together 88 start-ups from more than 30 countries, who had raised more than €50 million between them, with 14 investment firms and angels, including Space Angels members, as well as European Commission representatives. The aim was simple; to support Europe’s burgeoning commercial space sector. “The main thing is helping to grow and push forward the commercial space sector.” Adds Cyr. “Disruption will happen by introducing sustainable business models into the sector.” As well as helping entrepreneurs develop a sense of identity for start-ups in Europe; “Entrepreneurship is tough, we want to create a sense of community.” Among those angel investors attending was Space Angels member Brett Grossman, “I heard clear wishes from industry representatives to re-imagine the relationship between government-based space agencies and the commercial players which made lots of sense to me. I am hoping changes like those will increase investment opportunities and jump-start cash flows.”
While Europe might not have the space history of its American counter-parts, the space start-up scene is growing. “We have all the right pieces, but it hasn’t been communicated effectively” says Cyr. “The US has the ability to take more risks when it comes to investment. In Europe, we haven’t seen that to some degree, but there is potential, a lot of potential.” It is a sentiment echoed by Space Angels CEO Chad Anderson, who was awarded the title of ‘Disruptor of the Year’ at the conference, for his work in helping drive forward this new commercial space sector. “The three key elements to a robust entrepreneurial space sector are heritage in space technology, an efficient flow of early-stage capital; and a regulatory framework that supports the dynamic nature of the industry. Europe has all three, so I expect the amount of funding and the number of startups receiving seed funding to continue rising in the coming years.”
Among the startups attending, were those working in applications – such as Space Analyzer and Mundialis, launch – including Norwegian sea-launch company Ripple Aerospace, and frontier – including iSpace and Hypercubes. With one of the strongest focuses being on making use of data from space, such as making use of space data from the European Copernicus and Galileo Earth observation programs. It was a sentiment echoed in the conferences keynote from space industry executive and SETI board member Amaresh Kollipara “Data is king and space applications is the low hanging fruit that will drive the next generation of infrastructure in space.” For Kollipara it was European startups Cloud EO and Astrocast which impressed him. “Both are focused on end user applications – in addition to some hardware.”
In Europe there is a push to create space clusters and entrepreneurial ecosystems. However, there are lots of services, according to Cyr, that are ‘un-coordinated’. In order for the commercial space sector to succeed in Europe, Cyr and his co-founders believe is a ‘grass roots platform’ is needed, bringing stakeholders and the community of entrepreneurs together. In terms of talent and ideas Europe arguably has this already. “Many of European-based entrepreneurs I met were equally as prepared, engaging, thoughtful about their ventures as those I’ve met in the United States.” Says Grossman.
But it is the the ability to take risks in terms of investment in a new sector that is not quite there yet. “This is something we haven’t yet seen” says Cyr, who believes communication is key to changing that attitude. Of the 14 investment firms attending Disrupt Space just over half have not yet made investments. This is something Kollipara believes will change, “The world is becoming flat in the context of new space. Although American investors will throw money at any decent idea on the back of a bar napkin (in contrast to European investors), the playing field is quite level in the context of space startups. In fact, I have noticed slightly more viable application focused startups in Europe than the US.”
All of this matters because it is global competition which will help drive forward new space. Whereas Apollo can be thought of as the Columbus moment, this is the Mayflower moment in terms of exploration. What is happening now with private companies trying to transform the way we explore space, is no different to anything else we have seen on Earth before. But the innovations set to come from this new space era will not only push humans further into the cosmos, but also improve and transform life for all of us on Earth. For Cyr, the key lies with working with companies outside of the space sector, which space applications may disrupt. “Get them involved with activities, interact with people from outside space.” Success in Europe will help the industry rise and encourage further investment and interest as well as, just like Apollo, helping to fuel the imagination of the next generation of space explorers.
Sarah Cruddas is a Space Journalist, Broadcaster and Author with a background in astrophysics. She is the voice of space on British TV for channels including Sky News, Channel 5 and ITV. Specializing in space exploration she has reported on the industry from across the world.