Astrosat founder and chief executive Steve Lee
Astrosat uses data from space to come up with a host of solutions for its clients back on Earth. Founder and chief executive Steve Lee explains why intellectual property is at the heart of the business.
Some companies talk about changing the world – but Steve Lee and his team at Astrosat are making it happen. The space services firm is helping to tackle a range of problems, from how to best provide emergency relief following an earthquake through to protecting the rainforests from illegal logging. The firm, is based at Musselburgh near Edinburgh, doesn’t just provide its clients with satellite data. It also supplies the information and analysis that those customers need to understand the data and apply it.
“Our company’s motto is ‘Give us a problem and we’ll solve it with space’,” explains Lee, an astrophysics graduate from the University of Edinburgh, who launched his company in 2012. “We’re driven by the belief that every problem has a space solution. Space is the nuts and bolts of our toolkit.
“Space is a service like software is a service. We merge satellite and ground-based data to provide valuable information to a wide range of sectors.
Lee’s idea for the company came after he had experienced success as an entrepreneur in the United States. As a skilled musician, he’d played gigs at his local pub to help him through university and to fund a technology start-up back in 2003.
“When I left university, there was nothing happening in the space industry and the European Space Agency (ESA) wasn’t recruiting,” says Lee. “I’d already decided that academia wasn’t for me and I was thinking about joining the RAF and becoming a helicopter pilot.”
Instead, Lee went to Boston where he set up a geo-spatial mapping company. After selling his part of the business he came back to the UK but still found a “desert of a space industry”.
“Then I met my wife and life started to get serious,” he says. “What I really wanted to do was start using my physics and to do that I had to launch my own company. Round about that time, the space industry was waking up and looking for new thinkers and innovative start-ups to work with. ESA opened up access to satellites so with my credit cards and gigging I set up Astrosat to develop commercial astronautics, space technology and Earth observation products.
“My wife became pregnant around the same time so there was a lot going on and I won’t say it wasn’t stressful,” he recalls. “She told me to get a move on and get the company started before my son was born and we did that with a couple of months to spare. We managed to buy some data and get things up and running – and even make some money. There was no looking back.”
That data – thermal information that morphed into ThermCERT, a carbon emission reduction spin-out – was a pivotal point for Astrosat. ThermCERT uses space-based technology to plan and track investment in heating systems, a technology described as “a thermal and hyperspectral Google Street View”.
ThermCERT went on to win ESA recognition in the form of the prestigious Copernicus Award.
Astrosat has continued on its stellar prize-winning trajectory with other major ESA Masters Awards for its products WaveCERT, WinterVision and RoadTask, along with the 2015 Copernicus Masters Smart Cities and Intelligent Transport Challenge, sponsored by the Satellite Applications Catapult, for its eXude urban flood monitoring application.
The eXude system provides an advanced flood-monitoring tool that makes use of the latest in synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and radar altimetry data-processing techniques for flood identification and mapping, including in urban areas. Coupled with the ability to receive additional data sets, the system provides information on drainage capabilities and hazard assessment, or infrastructure failures within flood management infrastructures,
In 2015, the UK Space Agency awarded Astrosat one of seven contracts to work with international partners to develop satellite technology in emerging economies. The Recovery and Protection in Disaster (RAPID) involves working with partners including the Vietnam Ministry of Science & Technology.
The system provides a vital link between critical satellite imaging information and “in the field” emergency responders making crucial decisions during and in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Huge amounts of data are produced by satellites that can be used to mitigate the impacts of climate change and natural disasters.
RAPID is designed to get this information to where it is needed and to who needs it, allowing the right decisions to be made in order to protect lives and get the local economy working as soon as possible after an event. Along with the other six projects, it was funded through the UK Space Agency’s International Partnerships Space Programme (IPSP), and demonstrated how UK satellite or space technology can provide societal and economic benefits to countries that do not currently have such capabilities.
Fast-forward to 2017 and Lee’s boyish enthusiasm hasn’t waned in the slightest. New contracts mean turnover this year will be between £4m and £5m and the 25-strong workforce – or “crew” as Lee likes to call his team – will rise by another eight in the coming months and “probably reach around 50” by 2018.
In December 2016, Astrosat was one of the youngest and “lesser known” companies to win three contracts as part of the UK Space Agency’s £150m International Partnership Programme (IPP), which followed on from the IPSP pilot scheme. The programme uses people’s space knowledge and expertise to provide a sustainable, economic or societal benefit to undeveloped nations and developing economies – in other words, to address real-world problems.
One of the contracts, worth £2.5m, follows on from the IPSP work, further developing RAPID in Vietnam. Under the two-and-a-half-year project, Astrosat is acting as the prime contractor and is working with Telespazio Vega, Vietnam’s Ministry of Science & Technology, and the Vietnamese Space Committee to support typhoon landfall prediction, assessment of critical infrastructure during floods, flood extend mapping, and humanitarian and disaster response situational awareness.
Another contract, FMAP, is helping to fight the illegal removal of timber from fragile rainforests in Guatemala. The £6m deal – a major coup for Astrosat, which again is acting as the prime contractor – involves the firm developing a ground-breaking “CCTV in the sky” system in partnership with UK and US-based company Earth Observation to monitor forests and detect illegal activity.
Other partners in the three-year FMAP project are Deimos and Telespazio Vega, along with several organisations in Guatemala, including the Guatemalan National Forestry Institute and ARCAS, a not-for-profit non-governmental organisation formed in 1989 by a group of Guatemalan citizens who became concerned as they saw their precious natural heritage – especially their wildlife – rapidly disappearing before their eyes.
The third contract is for the £11.4m EASOS project in Malaysia. Astrosat is part of a wider consortium, with its share of the project worth around £1m.
“Earth observation can be a highly useful tool for smart decision-making,’ says Lee. “When you know what is happening, even in the most remote locations, decisions that save a lot money can be made. With satellite communications you can find solutions to all sorts of problems on Earth and technology transfer helps identify technologies that can be used commercially for everyone’s benefit, particularly when it comes to helping undeveloped nations and developing economies.”
There’s no doubt that Scotland’s space industry is booming. Research published by London Economics on behalf of Scottish Enterprise has shown that Scotland has the potential to grow its role in space from a fledgling industry to a £4bn industry by 2030, as part of the wider UK aim of quadrupling its revenues to £40bn over the same period.
“Intellectual property (IP) is at the very heart of our business,” Lee adds. “Our innovations are what set us apart from our competitors and help us to fulfil our clients’ needs.
“When you have strong IP like we do, it means you can come up with new solutions for customers. If a client comes to us with a problem that we haven’t tackled before then we can use our IP and our expertise to help them out.
“We entered the IP100 because we wanted an independent assessment of how well we’re managing and exploiting our IP. We’ll be able to use the results to help us get even better at helping our clients.”