“It’s an absolutely fantastically exciting time for the sector,” said Alice Bunn, International Director of the UK Space Agency, at the Farnborough Air Show in July. She has good reason to be optimistic. The last few months have seen a flurry of developments for the UK as the government aims to cement the nation as a driving force within the global space economy. The recently passed UK Space Industry Bill laid the groundwork for small satellite launch and suborbital flights from UK spaceports. Numerous announcements at the Farnborough Air Show signalled a commitment from both the government and the commercial space sector to make the UK a great place to do space business. The Air Show is one of the UK’s flagship aerospace conferences and provides a platform for the space world to do business both in the UK and internationally.
Speaking at the Air Show, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said: “The UK is a country that is very innovative, they’re investing heavily into a robust commercial marketplace for space operations.” This view was reinforced by numerous deals announced throughout the course of the conference. Virgin Orbit signed a deal with Spaceport Cornwall to launch its LauncherOne rocket from the future spaceport by 2021. The UK Space Agency announced a US$31 million deal with Lockheed Martin to build a spaceport and satellite launch system in Scotland.
Bryce Space and Technology, a global space consulting firm, recently established a UK office, signalling their recognition of growing opportunities in the UK. “The UK is a key player in the global space industry and we saw a clear need for the depth of domain expertise that Bryce offers. We are excited to work with our UK and European neighbours to advance space, cyber, and R&D innovation as a global analytics firm,” says Manny Shar, head of analytics for Bryce in the UK.
This optimism applies to the booming space startup community as well. $2.5 billion was invested in startup space companies in 2017, and whilst the US dominates the market, other countries are making their mark. According to Bryce’s Startup Space 2018 report, 20 percent of all non-US space startups are headquartered in the UK. In this article we cover the range of opportunities available to startups looking to make the UK their home.
A “one-stop shop” for the private space industry
The UK government is committed to facilitating a strong commercial space industry. The UK manufactures more small satellites than anywhere else in the world, owning 6.5 percent of the global space economy. The government’s target to increase this to 10% of the global space market by 2030 is backed up by actions that will help make this a reality. Graham Turnock, CEO of the UK Space Agency, said in a recent Space News article that the UK can “provide the finance, we can provide the clustering, we can provide technical support and maybe the grants that the public sector can’t offer.”
There are growing opportunities for space startups in the UK
If you’re building a space startup in the UK, there are a range of programs providing funding, technical guidance and other support to help you launch your business. Opportunities are available across the UK, not just in London.
- Accelerator Programs
The UK Space Incubator Network is comprised of a growing number of incubators dedicated to identifying and accelerating the growth of startups that use space technology. This support extends well beyond the capital. There are currently 15 incubators working across 22 locations. The incubators vary in scope and objective. Seraphim Space Camp, based in London, aims to help the best spacetech startups secure funding, achieve scale, and foster close working relationships with industry leaders. Mission 2 of Seraphim Space Camp kicks off in London on 17th September. The University of Leicester recently received funding to establish a graduate pre-incubator to help students develop entrepreneurial ideas. A full list of UK incubators can be found here. There are also many non-space-specific accelerator programs in the UK such as the Founder Institute.
According to the Bryce Startup Space report, the UK is home to 41 investors in startup space companies, second only to the US and Japan. The UK is home to space-focused venture capital firms, such as Seraphim Capital, as well as multiple private equity firms that invest in startup space companies, with the UK hosting 26 percent of non-US private equity firms.
Newable Private Investing, runs NPI Space Tech (also known as UK Space Tech Angels), a dedicated space investment portfolio for early stage companies. The program started in 2017 with 60% of their Space Tech Startups raising investment that year. They target pre-Series A investment and have a network of private investors, as well as their own fund. NPI also host a series of events to educate investors on the space industry. “Investors expect the space industry to be very capital intensive”, says Yann Moulary, network manager at Newable Private Investing, “but they are increasingly interested in the business applications of space technology. We’re excited by the UK’s commitment to grow the space ecosystem and see encouraging traction for future investment.”
- Government Support
In addition to the investment previously highlighted, the UK government has a range of initiatives designed to support space startups grow in the UK. The UK Space Agency has regular funding calls, including a partnership with the National Health Service to find hi-tech solutions to the major healthcare challenges. Innovate UK—a government agency that supports UK economic growth through, you guessed it, innovation—host a number of funding competitions to support development of space-related companies. One opportunity coming up in August is an expression of interest from UK Aerospace Research and Technology, providing grant funding to industrial research and capital projects to support UK civil aerospace. The UK also has a dedicated Global Entrepreneur Program to encourage foreign companies (including space startups) to relocate to the UK.
- Space Clusters
The Harwell Space Cluster currently houses 80 space companies at various stages of development. These include established global players such as Thales and Lockheed Martin, up and coming startups and the European Space Agency’s Business Incubator Center. The National Satellite Test Facility, also based in Harwell and set to become operational in 2021, will provide all major testing facilities in one location. Harwell is also home to the Satellite Applications Catapult, an independent innovation and technology company created to drive economic growth through the exploitation of space for terrestrial applications. They provide tailored support to startups through their Spin-Up Factory, a Business and Design Sprints Program for developing your startup concept into a coherent pitch, and the In-Orbit Demonstration Program for a low-cost opportunities to test your service or technology on a CubeSat mission launched from the ISS. The UK recently announced a £780m investment for all Catapult programs with £68.3m going to the Satellite Applications in Harwell.
- Further Resources
The UK also has access to a range of European programs that support space startups. The Frontiers Development Lab Europe recently hosted an event in London highlighting different AI technologies developed for earth observation. The European Business Angels Network (EBAN) aims to promote and advance Europe’s ecosystem for entrepreneurship, innovation, and investment in the space sector. They provide a comprehensive list of accelerators and incubators from across Europe. Another is the Astropreneurs Space Startup Accelerator. It plans to turn space-related ideas into viable businesses and is promoting opportunities for entrepreneurs coming from the space and non-space sectors.
UK Startup Success Stories
Startups are already changing the space industry from the UK. Here we profile two that have seen early success.
Open Cosmos is aiming to become a one-stop shop in providing simple, affordable space missions. “One of the first big decisions for Open Cosmos was location: US or Europe”, says CEO Rafel Jorda. “We found that despite the extensive entrepreneurial opportunities in the US, the UK provided much more support. The UK is putting its money where its mouth is: they have a clear strategy for the space sector and consider it a core pillar of the UK economy”. Rafel first brought Open Cosmos to London’s Entrepreneur First incubator to build the team and they are now based at ESA’s Business Incubator Centre in Harwell. Read the recent Astropreneurs interview with Open Cosmos to learn more about their journey.
Orbital Microsystems (OMS) are building cubesats that will provide weather data and analysis to their customers. The US based startup expanded operations to the UK to access the UK’s unique In-Orbit Demonstration program. When speaking with Astropreneurs, they highlighted the speed with which they were able to integrate into the UK space ecosystem as a key selling point for the move. “In the US, grants are predominantly driven by scientific and military priorities with the hope that commercial spinoffs with follow”, says William Hosack, CEO of Orbital Microsystems. “As a result, applying for US government grants can be overly burdensome and expensive. In contrast, the UK approach is focused on developing a commercial space ecosystem that will support national needs”. OMS are looking to grow their footprint in the UK to over 100 employees within the next five years. They plan to expand UK operations through their Harwell base, as well as partnering with the University of Edinburgh to access their world class data science expertise. Hosack admits there is a weakness in the UK supply chain for hardware. OMS manufacturing is predominantly located in Colorado and they consider Boulder as the place to be for hardware R&D. However, they expect this to change as the UK space economy develops and the number of users grow.
The Elephant in the Room: Brexit
Whilst it’s easy to get carried away about the future of UK space with everything we’ve discussed so far, it’s impossible to forget that the UK is due to leave the European Union in March 2019. What does this mean for UK space? Will the government use the space sector to prove they can “go it alone” and be stronger than ever? Will the UK have access to existing European networks and support? Uncertainty appears to be the only certain thing. The UK will remain a member state of the European Space Agency given the Agency is independently funded outside of the EU. The UK and the EU have been crossing swords recently about access to the Galileo satellite navigation constellation. “The UK government has emphasized its support for the space sector through the sizable investments of late, as well as the support structures in place through organizations like the Satellite Applications Catapult. Although there are still many uncertainties around Brexit, I foresee minimal pressure on the near-term growth of the UK space economy and attractiveness for startups”, says Manny Shar of Bryce. Whilst access to EU funding might be uncertain, the UK remains committed to creating a great place for space companies to be. In addition, the government seems keen to make the space sector to be a UK success story.
Thank you to Mansoor Shar, William Hosack, Mitch Hunter-Scullion, Rafael Jorda Siquier, and Yann Moulary for their invaluable contributions to this article.
Posted by Harriet Brettle