Innovation is something of a buzz word, and ‘game changing’ is a phrase frequently banded around. In reality it is rare for an SME to have the opportunity to do something truly different in their industry. But now could be the time as access to satellite derived data and the technology used within the space industry is becoming more readily available for exploitation by SMEs across the country.
Recognising the innovation potential from the space sector the government is provisioning funding through a number of channels. Some funding is regional and some of it is national. It can take a little research to find the opportunities, but once you get a handle on where it is you can find both funders and advisor support needed to access it. An obvious starting point is to look to the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and the European Space Agency (ESA), note that the latter will still be available after Brexit as although ESA is funded by the EU each country commits itself to projects of interest and provides appropriate contributions. While some of this funding is about getting things into space they are also interested in making use of assets that are already there, in particular the massive amounts of satellite imagery that is generated every day, much of it available for free. Even the programmes that focus on getting into space need expertise in materials, machine learning, electronics, robotics and the like. While you may not have the complete answer yourself there are many companies and universities looking for partners to form consortia that can apply for funding.
Where to get a bit of space innovation
In addition to agencies with “space” in the name there are funders such as Innovate UK and the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA). Often your Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) will have funding for innovation at different levels that can be tapped into. In particular the LEP’s surrounding the clusters of space businesses in Harwell, Durham, and Leicester (to name a few of the many) can be a rich source of funding and information. The UK has announced interest in both horizontal and vertical launch capability in Cornwall and Scotland, both of these initiatives will need local and national business support.
As hinted at above the space sector is very broad and the companies engaged in sector innovation are looking for partners and suppliers for their supply chains. This can be manufacturing, data scientists, electronic and systems designers and builders, machine learning, visualisation, and the list goes on. Also, some of the technology used in satellite sensor development is now being transferred to the medical imaging sector, and similarly in energy management systems. It is an urban myth that NASA developed Teflon (it was invented in 1931), but it is true that the mobile phone in your pocket has many space sector derived innovations embedded within it.
One of the most accessible space assets is data. You don’t need to have your own satellite for this, there is a wealth of free data available through the Copernicus programme. Some of this is raw data and some is already processed for use in specific business sectors. Enterprising developers have already created mobile apps using this data relatively easily. Sectors already looking at satellite data include insurance, tourism, agriculture, transport, urban planning, and pollution monitoring. If you like the idea don’t write off having your own satellite as the costs of developing and deploying are falling rapidly. There are companies specialising in the low cost access to space just waiting to talk to you.
The SPRINT programme allows SME’s to outsource part of an innovation project to one of 5 universities within the consortia using a voucher system. These universities are: the University of Leicester; University of Southampton; University of Surrey; University of Edinburgh; and the Open University. There is a cash match but this only amounts to a small portion of the project value, therefore de-risking the project both from a financial and expertise perspective. Projects funded so far include: semi-autonomous drone search and rescue utilising satellite communication, development of new photo cathode technologies for sensors, portable medical imaging systems, a system for identifying counter-fit scotch, monitoring systems for airborne pollutants, a novel satellite antenna system, and a greenhouse gas monitoring solution; and there are a number of other interesting ones in the pipeline. SPRINT is only one of many programmes of support available to SMEs.
Don’t stop listening when you hear someone talking about the space sector, it’s not just people in shiny suits. There are opportunities for businesses in many sectors, and the support is available to make it happen!!
Dr Stephen Wright is the Business Development Manager at the East Midlands Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications at the University of Leicester. You can get in touch with Stephen to find out more about the SPRINT programme of support for SMEs to compete and grow using space technologies and applications. SPRINT gives funded access to the expertise and equipment of leading UK universities to support your new product and market developments.