On the 22nd of January, at the 11th European Space Policy Conference, commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska, gave a speech that presented several policy, strategy, and business changes in how space will be managed at the EU level. This article presents an analysis of her speech and some insights into its significance for astropreneurship.

A History Lesson

Historically, the EU was not participating in large-scale space programs, leaving space policy decisions up to its member states. Most EU countries are ESA member states and managed their space activities through ESA and their national agencies. However, not all EU countries are ESA member states, and not all ESA Member States are EU countries.
Once the EU started participating in space projects, it had two main focus: the Copernicus program for observing the Earth, and the Galileo program as an alternative to the USA’s GPS and the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS) that augments the GPS signal and makes it usable for applications where precision is critical to safety. Although the funding for these programs is largely provided by the EU, their implementation has been managed by ESA’s Earth Observation and Navigation directorates respectively. As these programs have progressed, the European Union has also started encouraging and funding downstream activities that bring the benefits of these systems down to Earth, for example through the Copernicus Masters, the Galileo Masters and more recently the Copernicus Accelerator.

The Changes

The first large announcement was the proposal which is being discussed to raise the EU space program budget to 16B€. These funds will be used to reach some key objectives.
Regarding Copernicus, it will ensure the EU can autonomously observe the Earth which will be important for security-related applications and to fight climate change. EGNOS and Galileo will ensure the EU’s access to positioning systems and enable new business models in the fields of connected transportation and the Internet of Things as well as security-related applications.
The budget, a marked increase from previous years, is meant to strengthen and secure the EU’s position as a leader in the space field as new countries and business models emerge.
In order to achieve this, however, a series of new initiatives are also on the horizon around the themes of strategy, security, and economy. First of all, the EU is committed to ensuring their member states can access space, thereby formally supporting and ensuring the existence of a European launcher system as a strategic objective. Second, on the topic of security, three new programs will be funded, one to avoid satellite collisions (Space Situational Awareness), one to provide secure satellite communications for governments (GovSatCom), and one to explore quantum encryption for communication.  

A European Approach to New Space

As interesting as these developments are, it’s the last that touches the astropreneurial community the most, which is the development of a “European approach to New Space”. Commissioner Bienkowska acknowledged that the space industry is undergoing a radical transformation and that the European Union should respond to this. Rather than following the approach of other countries to New Space, she proposes that Europe should forge its own approach to this new system. First of all, large companies and startups should coexist in this space, each drawing on their unique strengths to contribute towards the exploitation of space technologies and the provisions of space-based services. However, she acknowledges that there is still a funding gap towards new ideas and that innovative funding instruments are called for (see below). Second, she calls for more contamination between the space sector and other sectors where beneficial synergies could occur, and confirms the EU will strive to increase the participation of non-space companies to the space sector in the coming years.

New Funding Schemes for Astropreneurs

The EU has recently launched two specific calls for space startups and SMEs. One supports in-orbit validation and demonstration for space technologies in partnership with ESA, with a total budget of 100M€, and is meant to support companies in demonstrating the correct functioning of their technology in space, thereby gaining credibility and advancing their technology readiness level. The other call is a competition to identify a low-cost launch service for small satellites, where the winner will be awarded 10M€.
In addition, recognizing that European space startups struggle to access funding, a first contract approach is proposed, defined as “supporting [Union-based space companies] in accessing risk finance […] and by creating innovation partnerships”, also increasing the efficiency with which funding requests are handled. The speech also mentions a smart financing approach and includes the creation of a Space Fund as part of the European Investment Fund, which, in the pilot phase, should make 300M€ available for startups raised both from the public and the private sectors. This is proposed as a stepping stone towards the creation of a large EU space-equity fund.

Some key takeaways:

  • Rather than focusing on the space economy as something that is developed in outer space, the EU sees space technology as an enabler of advanced services to enhance our lives on Earth, adding value to disparate sectors such as transportation, IoT, communications and security.
  • In this framework, the EU is especially keen to contribute to fighting pollution and global warming and finding ways in which space technology can support these endeavors.
  • The space sector is open to companies from all sectors, large or small, who could use their technologies and their ideas towards these objectives.
  • The EU is committed to supporting both large and established space companies as well as nimble newcomers with fresh ideas, by streamlining their funding and procurement processes to accommodate start-ups fast pace of development.
  • New and innovative funding instruments are being put in place that astropreneurs can access to grow their ideas

She concludes her speech with a question that is relevant for all of us:

“where are we going? What is our shared and collective objective and vision in space? What makes us different?”

What is your answer?

You can find the full text of her speech here.

Posted by Paola Belingheri