The European GNSS Agency (GSA) joined the European space community to discuss how to better fund and support innovative space applications at the 8th Annual European Space Policy Conference in Brussels.
The word of choice at the 8th Annual European Space Policy Conference was ‘competitive’. From policy makers to representatives of space industry and space entrepreneurs, the message was clear: if Europe wants to keep its place as a global leader in space, it must make itself more competitive.
Held just days after the passing of David Bowie, the singer was a common reference and timely metaphor during the conference’s presentations. As one speaker pointed out, in order to be competitive Europe needs to take inspiration from Ziggy Stardust – Europe’s most famous space ambassador – and think outside the box.
In other words, to be competitive, Europe needs to be innovative.
“We all know that space policy matters, not only for its scientific benefits, but for the implications it has on the single market and the European economy as a whole,” said Commissioner for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs Elżbieta Bieńkowska. “Its cutting edge innovation has many spill over effects on other sectors, offering enormous opportunities for both European citizens and European companies.”
This being said, conference speakers continually stressed that Europe cannot afford to rest on past success. As noted by the Commissioner and numerous other speakers, the global market is quickly changing and, in turn, becoming increasingly competitive. Although the US market remains the largest, competition is now also coming from such emerging markets as China, Russia and India.
“If Europe is to maintain its competitive edge it must create conditions that give businesses the confidence they need to invest in European space,” said the Commissioner. “This requires us to shift our focus from the deployment phase to a focus on building a competitive downstream market, using our space policy to support the development of innovative applications and services that utilise the Europe’s space infrastructure.”
A New Approach to Funding
Joining a panel discussion on European R&D funding, GSA Executive Director Carlo des Dorides emphasised the importance of increasing the level of investment in space and the GSA’s role in doing so. “The role of the GSA is to maximise the return on investment of Galileo and EGNOS and make it a market success for the EU,” he said.
According to des Dorides, the development of new, downstream market applications is key to strengthening European industry and its ability to compete. In line with this, the GSA has been actively involved in the funding process via the successful FP7 and Horizon 2020 framework programmes for research and innovation, among others. These programmes, which aim to ensure that space remains accessible to Europe and safe to operate in the long run, have already produced tangible results. For example, FP7 saw the launch of 45 commercial products and 80 prototypes, and Horizon 2020 is expected to only increase these numbers.
Despite the many success stories coming out of these initiatives, des Dorides stressed the need to go further. In comparison to the funding for space-related R&D in the US, as an example, he noted that the US has a clear advantage over Europe in its large internal market that was created via government spending on space. “When it comes to investment in civil space R&D, the US invests twice as much as Europe,” he said. “If Europe is to achieve a leadership position in space related activities, it simply must invest more in the downstream market.”
As an example of how to achieve this, des Dorides noted that European space public R&D would benefit from a more focused and coordinated funding process. Currently, funding comes from multiple sources, from Member States to the ESA, GSA, REA and EASME. “Some industrial actors worry that R&D funding may be too disparate, making it difficult to establish clear returns on investment,” he said. “Therefore, it is very important that we coordinate the activities among all involved players.” To assist with this, the GSA published a Funding Guide, a centralised database listing all available funding initiatives for space.
But it’s not just better coordination that is needed, it’s also about building a more focused and efficient funding mechanism, in particular for the downstream market. “We need to take into account the overarching problem of time to market,” said des Dorides. “We need to maximise the use of existing tools to ensure funded projects achieve a shorter time to market and look for new financial mechanisms geared towards more mature space solutions.”
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Traditionally, projects funded by FP7 or Horizon 2020 take between three to four years to reach the market. This can be a problem as when innovation happening elsewhere moves faster, it risks leaving the European project obsolete by the time it is read to market. To tighten this timeline and swing the advantage back to European industry, various funding tools have been proposed, including the establishment of Centres of Excellence and fast track to innovation programmes that aim to bring a product to market within around one year. Des Dorides also noted the need for new financial tools that respond to the growing maturity of space technology, most specifically the use of incubators and venture capital.
“As to venture capital, we are starting to see some small steps from the private sector, but the public sector needs to do more to further this and promote commercial projects,” he concluded. “With Galileo, which will see the launch of initial services this year, we have the public infrastructure. Now we need the applications and services that capitalise on this infrastructure, and here is where venture capital could be an answer.”
In the US the catchphrase for innovation is ‘disruption’. Such innovation giants as Google and SpaceX are thinking outside the box and using innovation to disrupt the space sector. In order to maintain its leadership position against such competition, Europe needs to build on its strengths and better coordinate funding, encourage risk taking and promote the benefits of space to the European public.
“We may not be able to counter the US giants, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything,” says ESA Head of Programme Planning and Coordination, Earth Observation Programmes Josef Aschbacher. “We need to organise ourselves better, intensify our commitment to funding, work to get the topic of space further into policy discussions and issue legislation that promotes and protects companies that are working in the space sector.”
In summary, whereas the US has embraced disruption, perhaps Europe needs to take embrace its own unique approach to space innovation and, as one presenter suggested, be more ‘rebel rebel’ in its space policies.
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