Space Catapult driving new markets


Rolling out innovations – making use of a whole field of new opportunities
Subverting concern that in the UK we fail to exploit our technical leads, the Satellite Applications Catapult foresees a big future in space and is charting new applications for satellites and facilitating path-finding initiatives in technology, markets and finance.

Next week: Accelerating the adoption of innovations
Big changes are difficult to bring about. So far semi-public but independent bodies have been the spur behind them – with their ability to take radical approaches. Is it time for institutions and associations to take the baton?

With the rapid miniaturisation of components, the enhancement of data transmission, and the substantial decreases in the cost of launching satellites, there has opened up a starlit array of opportunities for startups to make commercial use of space satellites. InnovateUK has just launched its first technology demonstration satellite (TechDemoSat-1) – to piggy-back experimental payload and platform technology from academic and commercial organisations.

Views from space are finding new applications in city planning and inspection, agricultural productivity and natural resource management, transport navigation and management, weather forecasting and climate change, and site security, among other emerging uses.

The Satellite Applications Catapult’s main objectives are to bring different parties together to facilitate the development of the field – mainly in technology, markets and then finance.

On the Science and Technology Facilities Council site at Harwell, in addition to the Satellite Applications Catapult there are some 50 space businesses; and elsewhere there are centres of excellence in this field working in conjunction with Universities, notably in Scotland.

The Catapult is the source of information about the state of knowledge in this field, about experts – their expertise and about their needs, and about the substantial supply chain of technology providers. One of its main aims is to demonstrate what can be done. With a team of eight in business development, it is putting designers alongside entrepreneurs in creating startups; and it can bring organisations together to achieve the advances it foresees. Moreover it has the trust of its community.

The Catapult regularly hosts Hackathon-style events known as ‘Inventorthons’ – unique two-day event combining traditional technology development with an entrepreneurial spirit. Their objective is to enable groups of people to work together to solve a set of challenges derived by specific communities, organisations or individuals. They focus on using space technologies and data to identify how they can be used to benefit other markets sectors, eg. transport, healthcare, natural resources, emergency services, etc. And they are open to anyone who would like to participate – software developers, engineers, technologists, scientists, designers, artists, educators, students and entrepreneurs etc. Winners of each Hackathon are given the opportunity to work with the Catapult to develop their solution further.

The Catapult’s Co-space facility provides workspace is a vibrant, entrepreneurial environment that can be used by anyone from start-ups and small- to medium-sized enterprises to large organisations, as well as end-users and academic researchers (free till end 2015). Co-Space clients can use the facility to work together to develop new satellite-based services, technologies and applications, and also get access to valuable networking and business growth events. Where required, technical and business experts from the Catapult can offer mentoring support.

Focusing on technology, while there are two companies in the UK building nano (100Kg), notably in Scotland and Surrey, there are none building micro-satellites (between 10kg and 100kg). The Catapult has been working with InnovateUK to a programme for funds with which to build one so as to encourage existing and new companies in this field to do so.

Combating illegal, unregulated and unlimited fishing is a market that can benefit from satellite data. While there is the political will to do so, together with some funding, it is currently an extremely expensive approach. The Catapult has created a demonstrator (WatchRoom), and tested it in a delimited area – the Pitcairn Islands, and is now challenging satellite operators to change their business models and enter this field. While such operators have so far sold and managed satellites, the Catapult is encouraging them to become a service provider, and by doing so to open up a larger market for itself in this particular field.

The Accelerator ‘MassChallenge’, has selected two space startups for its first UK cohort, which will start in June and culminate four months later in ‘Demo Day’ for investors. One of them (WeatherSafe) is designed to help coffee growers to use satellite data to plant, harvest and sell their produce more effectively; and the second (Bird.i) aims to make use of under-exploited earth-observation data by making it available to the mass market.

The Catapult’s picture of Space in 2030 foresees the manufacture of advanced materials and biomedical products in space, the provision of high-level real-time global monitoring from space, benefiting finance, construction, transport and manufacturing – fostering new industries and becoming a major field of growth in our economy.

John Whatmore
June 2015