If you want to understand what’s happening in space technology, you should talk to the European Space Agency’s Frank Salzgeber
Frank Salzgeber, the Head of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Technology Transfer Programme Office, is one of the space network’s key movers and shakers. You get the quick sense talking to him that he may or may not be a secret project of ESA himself, a dynamic supercomputer of charisma and energy that seems like the appropriate person to help connect entrepreneurs with angels and marry off inventors of space-only tech with the innovators who can bring that technology back to the ground.
“There is no such thing as a crazy transfer. We have a data format used by the Vatican Library. BMW is using heat shields from one of our companies that are cheaper, lighter and better to protect cars’ undercarriages. There is another company that captures CO2 out of the atmosphere and brings it down for other products, like soft drinks for instance,” he asserts at the 66th International Astronautical Congress in Jerusalem.
Salzgeber is full of analogies and adages from his upbringing in the German Alps, extremely certain of the direction of modern technology from his experience at ESA. Citing one satellite technology which takes hundreds of layers of photographs, he asked me to imagine an “image with 500 layers is added to seismic data or geographic traffic.”
ESA might sell off their business centers as incubators, but the master plan really seems to accelerate development of its technologies which ironically tend to experience time more slowly the further away they are from the ground. Within the space industry, there is an industrial assumption that amazing space-breaking technologies take time. With no anticipation of profits, there is less pressure to test and improve products constantly.
That dynamic changes immediately when you are trying to sell someone something.
“Sometimes you need to put it in the speed of the normal market to force new developments while in the space industry things move much more slowly,” says Salzgeber, who explains that the demands of the market force companies to innovate more quickly, troubleshoot on products and improve or lose out to a competitor.
Salzgeber paints a cyclical picture, where space tech enters the “common” markets and then cycles back into the space industry, having gone through a time crunch of enhancements that will help in orbit and beyond. He cites the example of Lens R&D, a company whose less-than-fancy moniker disguises its achievements since graduating the Noordwijk Business Incubation Centre (BIC) in 2012.
“They took a device that used to cost $16,000 and sell it to solar farms for $350. Now, they are reselling the tech back to space. You need these small entitles to rethink these tech and products.”
How to break the cold European market
While in the U.S., investors might be more patient and expect a product before profit or in China, there is a seeming flood of cash into new companies, Europeans have plenty of cash but are more conservative with their investments and expect faster returns. According to Salzgeber, that isn’t realistic. Yet, things are beginning to turn around.
“With the ESA, I’m working for the European member states. We have the money for the seeds. The first stage is easy. Series B and C is the issue. Not that there isn’t money but getting it is harder in Europe if you’re a startup,” he explains.
“I see a Cambrian explosion of startups in Europe,” says Salzgeber, comparing Europe’s startup ecosystem to the theoretical evolutionary explosion of life. “It’s changing and the culture is changing.”
Of course, Europe is a hodgepodge of attitudes toward business. Sometimes it is the government that gets Easy Company back to base, but sometimes it’s a coalition of private efforts. Madrid will see major government investment, but Berlin does not. The Portuguese and Spanish used to be less entrepreneurial, but now their hubs are growing quickly. No investor environment is the same just like no local startup culture is the same. Europe is maturing in its expectations of innovative companies, which might reflect how the 15 ESA BIC hubs grow, the most recent of which launched in Madrid.
“You can’t carry the dog into the forest. It’s very important that the local partner is willing to go the last mile. We are simply the branding. It’s not the power of the network but the people behind it,” he believes.
Stepping into the void
According to Salzgeber, the ESA is considering lending support to some non-European hubs in the future, but it will again depend on the enthusiasm of local actors. It is a model that other, even more established startup ecosystems would likely benefit from. NASA recently announced the free licensing of its patents to new companies, similar to a scheme ESA already has in place. Israel has plenty of companies, but a partnership with ESA might open up patents and collaboration opportunities that will let the country go beyond whatever its achievements might be with SpaceIL and in nanosatellite technology.
He offers one last anecdote for the engineers and big thinkers who want the private space revolution to succeed: Spin out your technology like a boomerang and let it come back to you. The success of spacefarers can be propelled by the enthusiasm for innovation on the ground.
“The space industry has only one choice: either evolution or you die out. There’s no middle. If there is a vacuum in nature, something will fill it immediately.”