There’s a place between a brilliant idea and a finished marketable product called the “valley of death.” It’s a treacherous place where fresh, visionary thoughts confront the harshness of real world implementation. When new ways of thinking confront this infamous valley, they need either the resolve and resources to weather the challenges ahead or to form an alliance with those espousing the knowledge and capability to pass confidently into production. Sometimes they need both. Just south of England’s renowned Oxford University lies the Satellite Applications Catapult, which not only helps new ideas in the space sector navigate through the “valley of death,” but accelerates them through it.
Having seen projects enter the “valley of death” never to emerge, we were intrigued by the mission of the Satellite Applications Catapult. What are the necessary steps to help a project move from idea to innovation? And what kinds of projects in the space sector are navigating this challenging phase of development? As we stepped inside the Satellite Applications Catapult, we met Karen Rogers who promised to shed a little light on the incubation process.
“We’re one of eleven Catapult facilities,” Karen shared with us as we made our way to one of the clean and modern looking conference rooms, “while our focus is space, other Catapults focus on everything from green technology to urban planning.” And while there is much diversity among the Catapults, they share the common goal of growing the UK economy both in terms of revenue and jobs. To achieve this goal, each Catapult spurs innovative growth in their respective sectors through the steps of education, ideation, collaboration, and commercialization. Each step helps ideas move swiftly beyond the “valley of death.”
The Satellite Applications Catapult’s goal was set and shared by the entire UK space sector, to generate 10% of the global space market, approximately 40-billion pounds (~$50 billion US) by 2030.
Space is the ultimate high ground. With satellites operating from as close as a few hundred miles above Earth to over 22,000 miles up (typical of geosynchronous satellites which remain “locked” over a specific part of the planet), never have we had such unique and continuous perspectives of our planet. Part of the Satellite Applications Catapult mission is to educate startups, small to medium enterprises (SME’s), and those with little more than a big idea that satellite data could benefit them. “We want to inspire people to see the application of space data,” Henrieta Sanislova, the Space Applications Catapult SME and Finance Manager told us. She serves as a conduit to help get data to new companies for creating new markets, businesses, and revenue streams. She also helps startups get the investors they need to launch their idea. Half the challenge of moving from idea to innovation is knowing what products are available to help you succeed. Henrieta gave us an example of food traceability, “What if you wanted to know exactly where your food was grown and if it was truly organic?” Satellite data can provide visual proof of traceability through remote observation of a farmer’s fields. Multitudes of other examples apply from efforts to combat illegal fishing and poaching to providing disaster response. Helping educate companies as to the possibilities of satellite data is one of the foremost tasks completed by the Satellite Applications Catapult.
Sometimes an idea needs to grow before it is ready to face development. The Satellite Applications Catapult can help with that too. If folks like Henrieta or her colleague Dan Wicks, a Senior Earth Observation Specialist, are faced with a startup or organization that needs to flush out their idea a little more, they help brainstorm and refine the idea. The Catapult even has a room that serves this very purpose – the Spark Room. Everything from the room’s color scheme to furniture layout is designed to ‘spark’ creativity and help in the ideation process. To help ideas feel a bit more real, sometimes rapid prototyping is used to showcase how satellite data can be interacted with and utilized. Dan has worked a bit with the Future Cities Catapult to do just that. With his background in agriculture and disaster monitoring, Dan has engaged local authorities to brainstorm how satellite data can help make quicker and more informed decisions for urban planning and design, thus improving upon ideas already being considered. Currently the urban planning process entails site visits, cumbersome spreadsheets, and expensive aerial imagery. Working with SME’s, Dan has explored how satellites can help provide more abundant data with greater accuracy and frequency. When combined with concepts for data management apps and other tools, Dan and the Satellite Applications Catapult have helped urban planners grow their ideas into something even greater than originally imagined.
Once an idea grows, it may need a little help to navigate through the “valley of death.” That’s where some local neighbors of the Satellite Applications Catapult come in. Airbus, Lockheed Martin and other major industries have come to the Catapult to see some of the ideas startups and SME’s have been coming up with. Agencies, like the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA) are working with the Catapult. In fact, 68 different companies and organizations now have located to the Harwell campus to be part of this growing network, where the Satellite Applications Catapult plays a central role. As we toured our way across the facility, we could witness one such collaboration playing out in real-time. Through a set of secure glass doors, we stepped inside the Satellite Applications Catapult Operations Center.
Rows of computer monitors stood opposite a floor-to-ceiling bank of screens showing a 3-dimensional terrain map. The data being piped into the Catapult’s operations center was coming from a rover, built at Oxford, and cruising through the Utah desert as part of a field test with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). If that’s not impressive enough, the field test was interlinked with actual satellite operations to mimic Mars surface operations. Whether it’s interacting with aerospace companies in one of the open spaces inside the Catapult or conducting field tests across the globe, collaboration is helping new ideas grow.
A good idea only stays an idea unless it is brought into reality. That’s the final step of innovation. The Satellite Applications Catapult strives to see big ideas through to this last step by assisting in commercialization. “It really is the best place to learn about commercializing ideas in the space sector,” Chris Brunskill shared with us. Chris is the Head of Satellite Missions and Technology for the Catapult and has seen some of the ideas coming into Catapult get launched into businesses. Perhaps one of the greatest success stories is that of Oxford Space Systems. The company has gone from a startup with an idea (novel carbon-fiber memory shaping materials for satellites) to producing commercially viable products for the likes of Airbus Defense & Space and the UK Space Agency. It was with the help of the Catapult and taking steps in education, ideation, and collaboration that the company has gotten off to a successful start. You can read more about the company’s success in this case study.
As we concluded our visit, Chris pulled out a prototype satellite which fit in the palm of his hand. Nanosatellites, like the shiny box in Chris’ hand, are continuing to push at the fundamental challenges of miniaturization for spaceflight. Companies like Clyde Space of Scotland have worked with the Catapult to take such challenges head-on. And it seems to be paying off. Clyde Space recently won a contract to build four small cubesats, slightly larger than the prototype nanosatellite Chris displayed to us, for a test launch from the International Space Station.
Looking to the future, satellites will need smaller propulsion, attitude control and communications systems. “Innovation begins with fundamental work, which is something we can’t forget,” Chris said as he passed the prototype satellite for us to hold. Fundamental work means making breakthroughs and achieving technological advances that change the state of the art. This kind of work typically starts with theoretical ideas. After a healthy dose of tinkering backed with a strong vision for the future, the ideas gradually become reality. That process requires a bit of education, ideation, collaboration, and of course, commercialization…and we have a feeling the Satellite Applications Catapult will be ready to help. Someday soon, the nanosatellite we’re holding will take flight. It’ll be another testimony to the Catapult’s formula for helping new space sector projects successfully navigate the “valley of death.”