Callum Norrie

Space Network Scotland network integrator, Callum Norrie

Making the right connections

Space Network Scotland is bringing together business people and academics to grow the industry north of the Border, as network integrator Callum Norrie tells BQ Scotland editor Peter Ranscombe.

Collaboration is one of the most exciting aspects of modern business. You never quite know what’s going to happen when you bring together business people and academics. Big companies, small companies; public sector, private sector. Mix it all together and that’s when the creative sparks fly; that’s when the exciting innovations occur.

Few industries feed off collaboration more than Scotland’s flourishing space sector, with more than 100 organisations engaged in space-related activities, the highest number outside the South of England. The 67 organisations that have their headquarters in Scotland had combined income of around £130m in 2014-15, according to the latest figures from the UK Space Agency.

“Collaboration is really important because of the complexity of the systems involved in designing and building satellites then putting them into orbit and harnessing the data they produce,” explains Callum Norrie, network integrator at Space Network Scotland (SNS), the body set up in May 2014 to provide a focal point and a resource for the country’s space sector. “The model for constructing a satellite involves a company that leads the build element, called the ‘prime’, and then ‘tier one’ and tier two’ companies that support the building. Each satellite has a number of sub-systems, all made up of components, and innovation occurs throughout the design and construction process.

“The sector is particularly open to the flow of technologies into the sector and out of the sector, mainly because the space sector isn’t as big as, say, the automotive sector or the aviation sector.”

SNS stimulates those collaborations by holding quarterly events on topics of interest to companies in the space industry, along with opportunities for networking. Collaborations don’t just happen between companies though – they can happen between entrepreneurs and academics as well. 

“We have a very diverse space sector in Scotland, covering each stage of the process,” says Norrie. “They range from ‘upstream’ companies – which design and build satellites then launch them into orbit and receive the data they collect – through to ‘downstream’ businesses, which offer services and technologies that harness the data produced by satellites. Our companies in Scotland also stretch from ‘traditional’ space businesses, which provide components and equipment for large satellites that cost hundreds of millions of pounds and take ten years or more to design and build, through to ‘new’ space companies, which produce and use satellites that cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and take typically two years from design to launch, which are produced by firms like Clyde Space.

Callum Norrie“There are also interesting new integrated space companies – like Spire Global and Alba Orbital in Glasgow – that both build nanosatellites and then use the data to offer services to customers that want to do things like track aircraft or ships or improve the accuracy of weather forecasts.

“Our universities also span that wide range. Some of the universities specialise in the upstream area – including Glasgow, and Heriot-Watt – while Edinburgh focuses on the downstream and we also have Strathclyde and Dundee universities that cover both.”

The lower costs of small satellites mean that new funding mechanisms are emerging. While traditional infrastructure was funded by government agencies, the military or telecommunications investors, the new smaller satellites can be financed by commercial entities.

Over the summer of 2016, SNS moved into its ‘second stage’, with Scottish Enterprise awarding the contract to continue running the service to the existing team led by Norrie and Gillian Mayman, a former director of Connect Scotland, a business network for technology start-up companies. The team will be supported by the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications (SoXSA) at the University of Strathclyde and by the University of Edinburgh’s School of Geosciences, which will provide increased help for businesses that want to use data collected from space.

Top of the agenda, is to help shape the right conditions to achieve the growth and profitability for the Scottish space sector and Norrie is well-placed to do this. While working for BAE Systems, he completed his doctorate in solid state lasers at the University of St Andrews, working under Professor Wilson Sibbett, who was made a commander of the order of the British empire (CBE) in 2001 for his contributions to science and who served as chief scientific advisor to the Scottish Parliament.

Calum’s work led him to join the European Space Agency (ESA) in the Netherlands as a technology transfer officer before completing a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) from the University of Edinburgh. His mix of science and international experience allows him to build bridges on behalf of companies based in Scotland.

“The space community in Scotland has become more integrated over the past five years, with organisations working more closely together and helping each other to identify opportunities,” adds Norrie. “As the network integrator, I’ve got a role in helping with particular projects, but my main role is to help industry help itself.

“SNS is here to provide a cultural framework as much as practical advice, helping the space sector in Scotland to develop its identity. The Scottish space community is very effective and fast moving and can help customers to meet the challenges and the issues they’re facing.

“Developing the space community in Scotland is not about putting up a ringfence and separating ourselves off from everyone else. In fact, it’s the exact opposite – it’s about Scotland showing the world that we can offer a whole range of products and services and that we’re connected with the best people and working to the highest standards.”