Astropreneurs sat down with ESA BIC UK operations manager, Sue O’Hare, to learn more about their program for startup space companies.
Astropreneurs: What is ESA BIC UK?
Sue O’Hare: ESA BIC UK stands for the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Centre United Kingdom. We are managed and co-funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), part of UK Research and Innovation ESA BIC UK provides space-related startups with technical expertise and facilities, business facilities, business support, networking, office space, and funding needed to overcome innovation challenges and accelerate business growth. The program itself is long established and has been running for 9 years. We started out as the ESA BIC Harwell and, based on its success, the program expanded to an additional two STFC campuses last year.
Astropreneurs: What makes this incubation center different?
Sue O’Hare: Primarily, it’s the strong technical support from ESA and the STFC. We have an agreement with the Satellite Applications Catapult, through which our companies can access technical and commercial support. We also host our own business support program that provides 1:1 support, coaching, and regular investment readiness workshops. In addition, ESA BICs are always located alongside a R&D establishment or on a science and innovation campus so that participants can work within the community. This enables participants to develop their technology and develop commercially, faster. At the end of the day it’s all about networking and relationship building.
Astropreneurs: Do you find that companies need more support technically or commercially?
Sue O’Hare: Generally, it’s a bit of both. Some companies that apply are more technical; they may have developed a prototype but have a limited sense of how to take it to market. ESA BIC is not a home for such research teams; in that case we will direct them to your namesake, Astropreneurs, which is a Horizon 2020 project that provides free mentoring for earlier stage companies. Companies that begin the ESA BIC don’t need to be fully formed, but we do expect commercial expertise within the team.
Astropreneurs: What do you offer to participants in the business incubator program?
Sue O’Hare: We offer access to a large and flourishing network of science and industry through STFC’s world-leading science and innovation campuses at the Harwell Campus, Sci-Tech Daresbury, and the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. On these campuses, startups, SMEs, large corporates, investors, international organizations and universities are all co-located. This gives ESA BIC UK companies great exposure and enables them to access the latest research and advances in their sector, collaborate on international projects or strategic partnerships and harness a growing high-tech skills base.
Astropreneurs: How long is the program?
Sue O’Hare: The program formally lasts 1-2 years, but graduated companies remain part of our network, and about 40% have remained on site in Harwell. The business support program is open to alumni which our companies find very beneficial.
Astropreneurs: What’s success rate of the ESA BIC UK program?
Sue O’Hare: In total, we have 64 graduated companies with nine currently in the program. We have a ~94% survival rate and so far, our companies have raised £46.8million pounds, with £20 million of that funding being raised in 2018 alone (source: Beauhurst).
Astropreneurs: Let’s talk about the companies coming through your program: a lot of them are not what you would first think of as traditional “space companies”. How many are developing space technology that has terrestrial applications, or the other way round?
Sue O’Hare: There’s a real mix of companies that cross the board of what you might think of as a space company. We have a lot of space-enabled companies and people from across sectors so there isn’t such a thing as a typical ESA BIC company. Historically, the ESA BIC program has been purely about the application of space technology, but now it is open to companies that work in space as well.
Astropreneurs: What have been some surprising startups that come through ESA BIC that have applied space tech in innovative ways?
Sue O’Hare: It’s not uncommon for early stage startups to find things don’t work out exactly as planned and that they have to change their approach. But they often use what they learned to change tack and improve the company business model. A great example of this is Weedrbot. They arrived at ESA BIC UK to do laser weeding, that is using satellite positioning to target weeds in farmer’s fields. However, they soon discovered that the lasers they required didn’t exist at a price they could use. But during the ESA BIC we introduced them to the RAL space autonomous systems group that supported development of the Mars rover. So instead of using a static laser fixture as previously planned, Weedrbot switched to using an autonomous rover to target weeds. They set up one company to license the rover technology from STFC and another to develop the laser systems required; thereby starting ESA BIC with one company and leaving with three!
One of our companies, AutoNaut, has an unmanned vehicle, primarily powered by waves, but with supplementary solar power, that can go out to sea for months. The company are currently working with ‘The Ocean Cleanup’ to monitor the removal of ocean plastics from the Pacific Ocean. They use satellite navigations, satellite communications, and Earth observation data to provide a variety of ocean monitoring services. All-in-all they are very space-enabled! Autonaut spent about 18 months with the ESA BIC and benefited from relationships developed through the program. The team worked very closely with the Satellite Applications Catapult and partnered together on a monitoring project in Malaysia.
Another of our companies, Thrive Multi Visual has devised a chicken-weighing robot based on the same Mars rover technology to reduce farming labor. Instead of weeding, Thrive Multi Visual put cameras and sensors on the rover to autonomously monitor state of chickens in farms. The company combines visual and thermal imaging, together with artificial intelligence to identify and weigh the chickens and produce heat maps. They’ve learnt some fascinating things along the way that farmers weren’t previously aware of. For example, chickens’ feet are usually quite hot, but if they’re too hot it can indicate there’s something wrong with the environment. And who knew that chickens only sleep for a few hours each night?! It’s been great to see the value of our incubation center as it creates these kinds of connections and opportunities.
Another surprising ESA BIC UK alumni, Entocycle, is an insect farming company that breeds black soldier flies to create sustainable fish and animal food. Prior to joining ESA BIC UK, the Entocycle team originally had the idea of creating a sustainable source of food for astronauts on long space missions, but later realized that the business had terrestrial applications. The inspiration for the business came from space exploration, but they also incorporate space-derived robotics to automate their food production process.
Perhaps our biggest surprise has been Open Cosmos [read their interview with Astropreneurs here!] began selling educational kits to ESA and have now completely transformed to a rapidly growing company that provides space missions.
Astropreneurs: What makes a successful ESA BIC UK startup?
Sue O’Hare: If we take the commercial experience and technology as given, then it is really all about the team. Do they have the can-do spirit and the entrepreneurial attitude that is required to overcome the inevitable challenges? We encourage our startups to take the ESA BIC UK program as a starting point and run with it.
Astropreneurs: What are your general tips for those starting out as a space entrepreneur?
Sue O’Hare: Go and talk to people! It is so important to build your network and develop those connections. Understand your target audience and not just your product. To do that you need to talk to potential customers to understand their needs. Financial support is great, but we find that our companies benefit most from the rest of what the ESA BIC offers: technical support, business development, and connections that take companies to the next stage.
Astropreneurs: If a budding astropreneur wants to connect with the ESA BIC UK, how can they do so?
Sue O’Hare: First, check out our website or reach out to the team directly either at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. We love to talk to people first so that we can work with them on their BIC application, so please reach out!
Posted by Harriet Brettle