The British government has invested a lot in building its entrepreneurial prowess over the years, which dovetails with its goals to take a bigger chunk of the increasingly private space-faring sector over the next few years. With its own share of cubesat companies and geolocation startups, it’s easy to forget that there’s an origin for the local industry. One of the seeds to the Empire’s stellar programs can be found in Guildford, England, a once unassuming rural spot 35 minutes by train outside of London. In Guildford sits the University of Surrey, home to a pillar of public interest in R&D and one of the suburban hubs of the British space scene.
The Surrey Space Incubator is one of those cosmic centers, a project decades in the making that has become the center of the so-called Guildford Satellite Cluster. About 75% of the UK’s space industry is located in this cluster, according to the incubator. Some 69 companies with full or partial membership in the incubator work there.
Despite the hype, incubators are nothing new. The UK has a major legacy with them. For Guildford’s University of Surrey, the original incubator goes back to 1981 when it was founded primarily for agricultural companies.
One company births a space port
The original space incubator on its own was an organic development. One company fortunate enough to grow thanks to one University of Surrey PhD’s research needed space to manufacture its satellites, which the university invested in.
“The business grew to the point the university couldn’t fund it anymore, so we sold it to Airbus, who ended up building a large facility and satellite factory on campus,” CEO of Surrey Satellite Technology, Malcolm Parry, commented.
The Tycho House and the 2011-inaugurated £10 million Kepler Building are now the full-fledged corporate headquarters of that company, Surrey Satellite Technology, LTD (SSTL). They’ve launched 34 satellites since their founding and are a major provider of first-time space technology to fledgling space programs for countries like Nigeria, Algeria, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. The company now offers space engineering courses through the University of Surrey.
With the British government’s Higher Education Reach Out to Business initiative in 1997, Surrey got public money to formalize its structure and start a co-working space, which Parry calls a “pre-incubator.”
By the mid-2000s, the Southeast England Development Agency (SEEDA) had granted 1 million GBP to build up the early space incubator.
The incubator wasn’t initially successful, despite earning a strong local and industrial reputation for satellite development. But the rise of the startup era brought with it new fortunes as it merged with a consortium of universities in southeast England called SETsquared. The consortium includes the Universities of Surrey, Sussex, Bristol, Reading, and Southampton with the Surrey Technology Center taking a leading role in the group. The general Surrey incubator has an affiliated Angel 100 club, a director of incubation and share common staff.
SETsquared partnered to launch an International Space Innovation Center in Harwell and at Surrey (ISIC). ISIC Surrey has since evolved into the Surrey Space Incubator after its brother ISIC Harwell merged with the Satellite Applications Catapult in Harwell (more on them in another feature). The two maintain a partnership that intersects with the UK Space Agency and European Space Agency (ESA).
A space scene with teaching investors
The incubator finds a home nestled in the university’s Surrey Space Centre (@SpaceAtSurrey). The center includes research groups on astrodynamics, autonomy and robotics, control systems, on board data handling, spacecraft structures, space vehicle control, plasma dynamics, propulsion, and instrumentation.
The incubator provides space, access to private investment networks (like the Surrey 100 Angel Club), professional development, management consultancy, and links with other satellite and application pros. Five companies are enjoying the benefits of the incubator: Visual Atoms, Isardsat, Ikinema, Red Skies, and TISICS.
Stephen Kyle-Henney, Managing Director at TISICS, an early incubatee in the center’s current iteration, told Geektime that it was thanks in large part to the incubator that his company has been able to make some major strides.
“The Surrey incubator has supported TISICS with networking activity in space and other sectors and helped raise our profile in commercial and UK government initiatives,” Kyle-Henney added, providing insight on fundraising and giving them the chance to take full advantage of all their pitch and showcase events, including at Accelerating Growth 2014 at the Shard last year.
“I think that the support provided by the incubator is fantastic. TISICS has not made use of all of the support on offer as we are not based in the incubator premises, but we have tapped into their advisors when needed.”
“They have access to the entrepreneur(s) in residence, on a program with a set of benchmarks to reach, and are checked every three months through an entrepreneur panel,” Parry told Geektime. The Surrey 100 Angel Club doesn’t charge for pitch training and you are given regular meetings with mentors every six weeks. The club is led by accomplished former CEO of 3i, Michael Queen, and includes several other local entrepreneurs like former incubatee James McFarlane.
“We make no money out of it, but it has a huge success rate: 90% survival for three years. Selection is critical and we cover a wide range of technologies.”
The companies have collectively raised 32 million GBP in leveraged funds from the 100 Club over the last seven years, but Parry says the number could be much higher because he doesn’t have an accounting of undisclosed rounds from investors outside the Surrey angels like the FSE Group (Finance Southeast) and their own FSE angels.
The incubator is still a university program at its heart, nurturing entrepreneurs likes students (and having a bit of mercy on students who try but fail versus the ones who don’t put in the effort).
Parry noted, “We still have the legacy of the original business community going back to the 1980s. They don’t throw you out if you don’t perform, only if you don’t listen. Some companies take a long time to build up because they have to pivot a couple of times.”