There are no space technologies as such
An entrepreneur who is behind the largest space entrepreneurship network in the world. Heading the Technology Transfer and Business Incubation Center at the European Space Agency, Frank is convinced that high-tech and innovation is the only route which Europe should go.
What potential do you see in space technologies?
I think there are no space technologies as such. Take for example making a phone call, watching a sports match live or using navigation. These things have become an everyday part of our lives that we do not even realize that they used to be made for space. Therefore, I say that space technology is more the infrastructure for our digital economy.
How do you gain access to sophisticated technologies to use them in a startup? Are they not patented?
Some of them have a patent. My office is trying to give these patents to our industry and maximize returns of tax payers. A lot of stuff is industrial secret, though, but programs like Copernicus provide space data for free. On the whole, I would say that the access to technologies is normally not a problem, rather their usability. In the past to get Earth observation data and images from satellites was very difficult and required scientific knowledge. Now, the situation is changing. We are pushing our partners to make data so easily accessible that you can take your phone, get access to them and use them.
Can you recommend any hot areas in the space tech industry? What are the gaps that entrepreneurs should be looking for?
I think that there are three layers where space can get commercial. The first is telecommunication and satellites which is all the standard stuff. You know companies like SES Astra or SAP that are good in this area. The second is navigation, we all use it daily and it is also quite well-covered. The hot subject will be the Earth observation. ESA produces with the Copernicus satellite 14 terabytes of data per day. This big data can be used for industries which have never thought about space.
Agriculture, disaster management, water management, emergency response, climate change observation etc. A satellite image has up to 350 layers and the resolution goes down to 30 centimeters. If you go swimming in the lake, I can tell you what the water temperature, visibility, quality, height of the waves, and wind speed is. I can even tell you which sun cream to take based on the radiation level. Or if you have a problem with asthma, what the ozone level is. Those are just a few examples.
Let’s say I know how to use this data and have an idea for a startup. How will ESA BIC help me?
We are like a nice uncle with 50 k in the pocket and the right address book. Besides the investment, we coach you, help you with marketing, business development and technical support, give you access to our network and provide you offices. Even after two years of incubation, we still stay in touch with startups and support them.
We are sending four of our companies to a big congress in the US where they will sit together with the heads of delegations of space agencies and space companies on the same panel. So, our job really is to give outreach, help you grow, and increase the likelihood to be successful.
Sounds great. I am curious to know whether it is possible to get support from ESA BIC in other countries?
Yes, it is. We are like a big family. With every new member we become stronger. In Brno, you have facilities on life science and materials. In Frankfurt, you have smart guys who specialize on navigation. It is the same guys who invented the MP3 algorithm. If you need chips, you go to IMEC Leuven. If you want to have a sectron, you go to STFC. If you need a clean room, special facility or engineers for solar, you speak with ESA. We are a partner network which is levered on local excellence and ESA is just giving a frame on top of that.
Do you also cooperate with some other partners?
We do the same with big corporates. Last year, we signed an agreement with T Systems about free cloud services. With SAP we are discussing the possibility to use their cloud service HANA. Satellite data is already embedded in the system and you do not have to worry about where you get the data from, you just program your algorithms on the platform and SAP does the rest. They have also customers in the salesforce.
The Irish have a nice saying “On the shoulders of the giants, you see further.” I like this saying because for startups incubators, corporates and government agencies are the giants. The only thing we have to do is allow startups to stand on our backs.
Sounds almost romantic. I am wondering now how you see the #brnoregion. Are there any giants?
I think you have got a good combination of universities, research centers and innovation and technology centers which are literally just across the street. People can change buildings and faculties and keep even the coffee warm by running because it is so close together. Overall, there is a good environment here and I think we should not only go to the big cities because bright heads are spread across the country and also here in Brno.
How will ESA BIC help the #brnoregion?
I don’t know if it will help. You know, I am convinced that we should plant trees to get the forest later. If we do not support young entrepreneurs and students, then we are doing something wrong. It is our job to be the good gardener, to give them the right sun, the right water, sometimes also to get them out of heat. This is what every region needs. See, I have twins who are 11 years old and I am sure they will not work in the coal industry or become farmers. If we want to keep our standard of living, high-tech and innovation is the only route which we can go.