ESA’s startup point man reveals the next big trends in space innovation
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Lilium Aviation is building a 2-seater electric plane while being incubated by ESA in Germany (Lilium)

Speaking to Geektime at Slush 2016 in Helsinki, Finland, ESA BIC Director Frank Salzgeber is optimistic about a new kind of satellite future

ESA BIC Director Frank Salzgeber compared his new view of space innovation at Slush 2016 in Helsinki, Finland to a shared icon: Superman.

“He was not only the Man of Steel with enormous power. He was also flying and that was amazing,” Salzgeber told the crowd in Helsinki. “And what I liked at the age of 6 was his view — the Superman view — because it was the X-ray view, he was looking through things; but also the infrared view, the skin view, the microscopic view, seeing things far away.”

“What happens when you take the Superman view . . . and add it to space?”

Frank Salzgeber is all about data right now, and he wouldn’t relent that all innovation would depend on it going forward when he spoke to a crowd of about 2,000 people.

Displaying antique maps to a crowd of a couple thousand isn’t usually going to hold people’s attention, but in this case it did. The maps of today are multi-layered and multi-dimensional. ESA’s satellites can report on 500 different metrics, giving scientists and commercial-savvy engineers information toward creating new products and services that segment, integrate, and correlate data like never before.

Nurturing space-faring entrepreneurs

That isn’t to say he didn’t wow the crowd with some heavy-duty hardware. Bavarian startup Lilium is developing a hybrid between a car and a plane, recently getting off the ground with its first test flight. Still another company is developing its own rockets.

ESA BIC Director Frank Salzgeber talks the future of mapping and big data at Slush 2016 (ESA via Twitter)

ESA BIC Director Frank Salzgeber talks the future of mapping and big data at Slush 2016. Photo credit: ESA via Twitter

“We have super clever people,” Salzgeber told Geektime, singing the praises of the companies under his tutelage. But these are engineers here, not dealmakers, and part of his job is to shape them up to do business.

Incubatees cover the gamut of technologies either being spun out of space exploration into the general public or applying new tech to space for the first time. Nanotechnology and material science, AI and robotics, and a host of satellite applications are the primary focus of the SMEs that have entered ESA’s continental space startup ecosystem.

The network has dozens of examples of companies that have gone through or are going through its programs: The Code Company AB (Sweden) offers constant monitoring of forests, Maporama MobileTech (Noordwijk) navigation technology, Agribase (Netherlands) for crops, Geografiska Informationsbyrån (Sweden), fleet management startup Desert Express (Noordwijk), INNERSENSE (Southern France), and European metro guide Citynavigators (Noordwijk).

“They have [some] knowledge issues; they have business issues. I love my kids, but if they don’t behave I tell them what is right and wrong.” One of those things is teaching entrepreneurs to be more assertive and not to expect investors or buyers to fall right into their laps.

“No. I’m the girl at the bar. You’re approaching me.”

Salzgeber was hard to keep up with. He was in his element, hard to pin down as passers-by stacked his schedule with five and 10-minute windows of opportunity to talk to ESA’s point man for innovation.

“I like it, but it’s quick! It goes boom boom boom boom,” Salzgeber said of his Slush experience, who boasted about meeting the Crown Princes of Norway and the Netherlands between marathon meetings with aspiring nanosatellite makers and would-be space investors at the ESA booth.

Big space wants big data

While electric planes and new kinds of rockets are definitely sleek and sexy, Salzgeber was looking for a mental rush. ‘Data fracking,’ as he called it, is the future, and he wanted all the Slushers on hand to know it.

“Data fracking, fracking the layers. You pump something in you pull out more than you expect. It’s hacking the Matrix. You can use it for the good, you can use it for the bad.”

ESA is collecting eight terabytes of data per day using satellites that can provide up to 500 different layers. “It’s like a lasagna. Layer, layer, layer. Depending on where you are, you may have different tastes,” Salzgeber told Geektime before his presentation. “The future will be putting that in the cloud, SAP Hana, then making a cool logic store out of it, and make micropayments” to access it.

“We see more and more [of these] startups coming in our incubation centers, and more and more investing in this area. Trust me, Facebook is Mickey Mouse against this stuff.”

He pointed to the Millennium Tower in San Francisco, a 58-floor, 200-meter tall skyscraper. Using data from ESA satellites, one of their startup companies was able to prove the tower was sinking at a rate of four centimeters per year. That was eight years ago.

Building Radar, founded by Paul Indinger and Leopold Neuerburg, examines open sites ahead of future construction. Instead of sending people to scout the site, the company offers multilayered radar data.

He highlights that only a few science companies are trying to access and utilize that data right now, “but give it to the 400,000 iOS and Android developers and see what happens.”

Expansion

ESA's Business Incubator Centres (BIC) will expand to Norway, Finland, Estonia, Hungary, and Poland in 2017 and 2018 (Image: ESA, courtesy)

ESA’s Business Incubator Centres (BIC) will expand to Norway, Finland, Estonia, Hungary, and Poland in 2017 and 2018. Image: ESA, courtesy

Bringing technological access to more civilians is the goal of ESA’s Business Incubation Centres (BIC), a continental network of incubators as far west as Portugal and as far north as Stockholm. In the coming months, several new centers will open in Finland, Norway, Estonia, Poland, and Hungary.

ESA has 22 member states but has various kinds of cooperation agreements with several other countries, including Canada, Cyprus, Lithuania, Malta, Bulgaria, Latvia, Slovenia, and Slovakia. Some of them might look for a hub of their own, but non-members also cross Salzgeber’s mind.

Salzgeber would neither confirm nor deny rumors that Israel had also tried to join ESA, but he did say there was definitely interest in working with Israeli innovation in the network in some way.

“We have to be a little bit smarter and use the power of the startups. There’s so much going on.”

Salzgeber argues that Europeans need to build on the historical trade links other regions have toward the continent. Brussels should want Tel Aviv to look north toward the classical direction from which commercial ships would arrive, just as Scandinavians look to build links to their south and Indians to the west. “We should strengthen that.”

He added that two far-flung non-members had expressed interest in launching local programs: Singapore and Saudi Arabia. Given the fact that ESA depends on the initiative of municipal or regional governments, personal networking to build grassroots support for a new incubator is critical.

“You use the links, the national links; the personal links,” to build these incubators, Salzgeber explained to Geektime. That means investing in incentives for matchmakers to offer entrepreneurs to come to an ESA BIC. “You need $600,000 a year to be the guy or the lady to arrange those marriages.”

Keeping Europe ahead of America

“We have to go more international in collaboration to grow companies after their incubation period. I don’t want the companies moving to the US.”

“ESA has a budget of 413 billion EUR. I’m the head of the recycling office,” he describes, referring to the way incubated startups have access to ESA patents and technology to create commercial applications. “My job is to invest. Our job is the development. I want the jobs created here in Europe.”

It was tough to hold back, but he gave an honest assessment that fears of a slowdown in H-1B visas under a Trump Administration is actually something some Europeans welcomed.

“They have a lot of professors from abroad and it’s always hard to get good ones,” he said, saying the head of a technology institute in Switzerland had actually told him, “Thank you Mr. Trump. You just made our jobs easier.”

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