What started as an intention to facilitate technology transfer within the European Space Agency has now become a solid framework, a well-oiled machine generating companies, which is currently implemented in five ESA member states across Europe, and eyeing non-member-countries in its next step.
Think about solutions, the kind of solutions that save children's lives, increase your security and safety, maintain sustainable environment, and provide you with a level of lifestyle that brings Europe to a leading and competitive position as a technology pioneer.
Those solutions are here, and they are reflecting the innovation power of the European Space Agency, with its Technology Transfer Programme Office (TTPO) leading a network of seven incubation centres across Europe.
What makes ESA's Business Incubation Centres (BICs) into a solid framework is their combination of efficiency and neutral stand.
“Six weeks. This is the time our application handling process takes - from the stage of presenting the idea proposed by an entrepreneur about a space technology spin-off solution, to a contract offer by our ESA BICs, located in one of our centres,” explains Frank M. Salzgeber, Head of ESA's Technology Transfer Programme Office.
Additionally, ESA's unique neutral stand, claiming no share in the new company's success, is a key for a successful process, while focusing solely on local needs and public procurements.
“ESA's Technology Transfer Programme is the nice uncle with €50K in his pocket, and with the right contact book,” says Salzgeber, “We are supporting ideas, and through our Business Incubation Centres, we are turning them into businesses. The mission of ESA is to enable the European Space Industry, we have used this model and are now enabling the creation of start-up companies.”
Local backing is essential for the success of the centres, and so the centres are established by ESA and, at the same time, gain an equal national participation and contribution.
“Hosting a business incubator is complex. We have to balance the local and the international support, but as an ESA entity, we are looking at it as we are looking at a satellite for space - a strong framework with adaptable qualities. ESA is excellent in managing highly complex projects. We have merged this knowledge with the commercial and business oriented approach.”
And what is in it for the start-ups, the so-called ‘incubatees’? Their gain is a winning package - initial investment, ESA branding, a combined technical and business support throughout the company start-up process, and of course the world wide network, which is covering all industrial sectors.
Bruno Naulais, the European Space Incubators Network Manager, from ESA TTPO explains, “We are bringing the incubatees into our centres. They gain from our know-how and technical expertise, which are added to their business idea, and over the two years at one of our BICs they are being shaped into becoming fully operating companies, with all the support needed.”
“It's also good to remember, that the incubatees are not the only ones who benefit. The maths is simple - more companies, more jobs, helping us all here in Europe in today's global economy - and it's all based on the spin-off from our investments into new technologies for space exploration.”
Every year, ESA BICs help to create viable businesses and new jobs by providing support to 60 companies throughout Europe, and to date, more than 180 start-up companies have received support from ESA's Business Incubation Initiative.
The framework of the Agency's Business Incubation Centres, operating for eight years and now present in The Netherlands, Germany, UK, Italy, and Belgium, has caught the eye of other countries and partners. Spain, France and Sweden are now all in the process of preparing applications to open their own respective ESA Business Incubation Centres - and Naulais emphasises, “We are happy to expand, as this is a great advantage for both the applying country and for us all in Europe. We are looking for expanding our network further.”
And he adds, “More countries, also outside of Europe are now looking into adapting our successful BIC-model. We receive requests on the method, model, and implementation process in Russia, Japan, and Thailand; these are different countries with different needs. We just have to see what is the strength of each country and use it for the model. It will further strengthen our European network to have partners also in other parts of the world.”
One example of where the ESA BIC model is being successfully adapted outside of space technology is at the Sci-Tech Daresbury science and innovation campus in Cheshire, UK. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which manages the ESA BIC Harwell in the UK, has teamed up with CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) to create a STFC CERN Business Incubator. The first of its kind, the centre aims to transfer technologies developed for high energy physics research and bridge the gap between fundamental research and the creation of new products and services.
Paul Vernon, STFC's Head of Campus Development who leads business incubation initiatives said, “STFC has very strong and long standing relationships with both ESA and CERN. The collaboration with CERN was directly made possible by our strong track record of business incubation through the ESA BIC Harwell, where we now have 17 high-tech companies that are successfully translating space technologies into award winning, profitable businesses.”
Supporting fresh ideas, ESA TTPO is also supporting the European Satellite Navigation Competition (ESNC) - Galileo Masters - which is a launch pad for innovative business ideas and solutions involving satellite navigation. The winning start-up of the ESA Innovation Prize is awarded €10,000. “We have the technology and know-how within ESA, and investing in such a competition, where European entrepreneurs are developing this existing knowledge, is not only investment in them, but also in future space and business development,” said Frank Salzgeber.
This competition is a great source of innovative business ideas in virtually every field of industry, and through it, the TTPO finds and supports new ideas for the commercial use of space technology, and seizing the opportunity as a deal flow generator.
Among the innovative ideas for satellite navigation applications originating from the competition's previous years is a system that reports flooding in real-time, a corporate application for tracking carbon footprints, and commercial location-based services.
Based on this success the ESA BIC Bavaria was contacted by the Fraunhofer Institute ISS based in Nürnberg, which is well known primarily for the development of the audio coding technique, MP3. Since the year 2012 this ESA BIC is also hosting the incubation activities related to navigation for the Institute.
Looking at the future, with countries lining up to open Business Incubation Centres, and partners using the ESA model, it is the importance of investment in future talent, and building around it a solid framework, which guarantees sustainability in every location.
Moreover, the start-up companies may take advantage of other TTPO activities: the commercialization of ESA IPRs, the ESA Broker Network and the Open Sky Technology Fund, a €100m Venture Capital Fund managed by Triangle Ventures.
“At the end of the day the vision is clear. We are looking for products, not projects, and the customer is the start-up. If they are successful, ESA TTPO is successful,” says Salzgeber.
Cosimo A. Quarta is a member of the Technology Transfer Office at the University of Salento, Lecce, Italy. In 2006 he contributed to the establishment of the ITech incubator of BIC Lazio at the Tiburtino Technological Pole in Rome. He implemented a start-up support programme in the aerospace industry in co-operation with the European Space Research Institute (Frascati, Italy) and made agreements with leading Italian research organizations CNR, ENEA , University of Rome “La Sapienza”. Formerly Cosimo was involved in local economic development, EU project design and entrepreneurship support. He is currently carrying out a PhD in economic geography on urban networking in Europe.
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