Craig Clark

Craig Clark of Clyde Space

The father of Scotland’s satellites

Craig Clark tells Kristy Dorsey about his exciting journey from setting up Clyde Space through to putting Scotland’s first satellite into orbit.

If the race into space is a galactic gold rush, then Craig Clark is handing out the spades. With industries as varied as communications, health, energy and environmental monitoring looking skywards for answers to some of their most perplexing questions, the commercial value of data mined from outer space is only beginning to take off, and that data is collected by satellites.

Clark’s company, Glasgow-based Clyde Space, designed and manufactured Scotland’s first spacecraft, a ‘CubeSat’ for the UK Space Agency that was launched in July 2014. Since then, his business has been focused on further bringing down the cost of going into space by producing high numbers of small standardised systems, rather than far more expensive custom-built satellites. “When you are building by hand, there is very much a limit to what you can do in bringing down costs, and quality control is also an issue,” Clark says. “The challenge for a company like ours is to scale up fast enough to meet the demands of our customers within the timeframes that they require. To do that we have invested heavily in our manufacturing processes.”

Clyde Space is currently developing a ground station to control its low-orbit CubeSats – fully-functional satellites that are roughly the size of a loaf of bread, and which reach space by ‘piggy-backing’ on existing launch solutions or are deployed from dedicated launchers such as Rocket Labs, to minimise costs and increase versatility, boosting the commercial viability of space access.

Supported by a research and development grant from Scottish Enterprise, the ground station is soon due to be operational. Within its facilities at Skypark in Finnieston, Clyde Space also boasts in-house vibration and thermal vacuum testing equipment, with 12 identical integration stations.

“We have the full ability to design, test and very soon perform on orbit operations,” Clark says. “That is potentially a unique capability – most companies have to go somewhere else for at least some of their testing.”

This is key in keeping down price points, which will help fuel the space race. But with clients spanning the commercial, academic, civil and military sectors, reliability is equally crucial. With this in mind, Clyde Space recently appointed its first chief operating officer, Jennifer Riddell-Dillet. Previously a senior executive with multinational optical specialist Daysoft, her experience in an industry with high performance and safety demands is expected to assist Clyde Space on its continuing journey into mass production.

The appointment of Riddell-Dillet was announced alongside that of Will Whitehorn, the former president of Virgin Galactic, to the post of non-executive chairman. Currently on the board of a number of UK firms and organisations – including his chairmanship of the nearby Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre (SECC) and SSE Hydro in Glasgow – Whitehorn had a long career within Virgin that included brand and corporate affairs director of Virgin Management between 1987 and 2007. During that time, he helped grow the brand globally, and acted as a spokesman for Sir Richard Branson. He was then president of Virgin Galactic up to December 2010, heading efforts to establish space tourism flights for the paying public. Born in Edinburgh, he is a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and holder of the 2010 Geoffrey Pardoe Space Award for his contributions to the industry.

Clark says the combined experience of the two will help the transition of Clyde Space into supporting growing demand for production of high volumes of advanced small spacecraft. “They have a wealth of knowledge that will keep us on the correct course for the future,” he adds. “That will be invaluable as our markets continue to grow and mature.”

The company now employs more than 80 people who are collectively helping to turn out an average of six satellites per month from the clean rooms at Clyde Space. Clark’s ambition is to up that to “tens of satellites” per month. Turnover in the latest financial year to 30 April 2016 reached a record £5m, up about £2m on the previous 12 months.

Clyde Space factoryIt’s been a lengthy yet worthwhile journey for Clark, a long-time advocate of the potential of CubeSats. Raised in Cumbernauld, he studied electrical engineering at the University of Glasgow before earning his master’s degree from the University of Surrey, where he afterwards began his career. Returning to Scotland in 2005, there were no space industry jobs to be had. A friend suggested he should start up his own business, which he quickly did, building upon the 11 years he spent as a power systems specialist with Surrey Satellite Technology.

Clyde Space is today held up as a shining example of the potential impact the industry could have upon Scotland’s fortunes. Clark says space-related work is a “hidden gem” within the economy, but admits that he initially had no particular notion of becoming a maverick in an emerging field. “I had no real inkling of starting a business here, or anywhere else for that matter,” he recalls. “There was no grand plan.

“When you start a company you only think in terms of two or three years, or at least I did. You don’t really have time to think beyond that about some much bigger picture.”

The turning point for Clyde Space came in 2014 with the successful launch of UKube-1, the first satellite ever to be fully assembled in Scotland. It went up on the Russian Soyuz-2 rocket launched out of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. UKube-1 has now completed its primary mission for the UK Space Agency, celebrated its second birthday on orbit and entered its next phase of operations.

“It was a very intense period,” Clark says. “We invested money in it, and it was ultimately successful, and since then we have gone from strength to strength. Our annual growth has been around 65% during the last three years.”

A voluntary member of the Space Industry Advisory Group since April 2016, Clark has further high hopes for the sector amid impending plans to set up the UK’s first spaceport. This dedicated base for space-planes will give the UK industry end-to-end control of the entire value chain – making it less reliant on the launch capabilities of other countries – and has a good chance of coming to Scotland.

The UK sector as a whole has been growing at 6.5% per annum according to a recent report from the UK Space Agency. Total exports in the latest year under review soared to £5bn, or 36.4% of total income, up from 31% in the previous 12 months. Export values are an even bigger story at Clyde Space, which generates about 90% of its income from outside the UK. One of its largest customers is California-based Spire Global, which provides world-wide, round-the-clock weather information for clients in meteorology, global trade, shipping and air traffic control. The strength of the relationship between Clyde Space and Spire has led the latter to open a centre in Glasgow to allow closer collaboration between the two.

“I guess you would say that we are not exporting to them anymore,” Clark says. “They are just across the hall from us.”
In response to demand from its US client base, Clyde Space is currently exploring its options in that country, having announced last year its incorporation of Clyde Space Inc and intention to set up its first overseas subsidiary. It is a “logical step” for the company, says Clark, as about 40% of its business comes from the US through the supply of sub-systems to companies such as Spire, as well as organisations ranging from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) and the US Air Force.

“We also supply full spacecraft to the University of North Carolina Wilmington,” he adds. “Establishing a US company will put us in a position to attract more work from the American government, including in areas where we are currently restricted.”

The subsidiary will initially focus on developing sales, but the plan is to quickly expand into manufacturing, replicating the base in Glasgow. This was determined to be the best option following a review of joint venture possibilities.
The biggest question at the moment is location. The Scottish, UK and US governments are all providing Clyde Space assistance in selecting the right place for setting up shop.

The San Francisco Bay area – from where Spire hails – is “very interesting”, says Clark, while Seattle also has an active space technology community. However, an east coast location could make more sense in terms of the time difference with the UK.
“It is quite a complex thing to set up,” Clark says. “We are looking at a few options. At the very latest we will be operational over there by the end of this year.”

Closer to home, Clyde Space is adding to its string of high-profile government and agency contracts with the recent announcement that it has been commissioned by Innovate UK and the Satellite Applications Catapult to build four CubeSats for a £1.5m pilot programme offering quick, regular and more affordable access to space.

The satellites will eventually be launched from the International Space Station (ISS) in an “in-orbit demonstration”. The launch opportunities from the ISS are being provided by NanoRacks via its Space Act Agreement with NASA’s US National Lab. Other current projects include a £1m deal to build three CubeSats for American global broadcaster Outernet, which is aiming to provide free internet content globally from outer space. Other prestigious orders include a contract with the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy, which studies the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere of Earth and
other planets.

Clark remains the largest shareholder in Clyde Space with a roughly 40% stake, having set up the business with the proceeds from a house sale and investment from friends and family. The company received further backing in 2010 from Coralinn, the investment vehicle of Scottish entrepreneur Hugh Stewart, and Nevis Capital, the private equity group owned by John and James Pirrie.

Additional support for recruitment during the company’s recent rapid expansion has come from a regional selective assistance grant of £480,000 from Scottish Enterprise, which has hailed Clyde Space for its “growing influence” in the international field of space technology. Despite the high proportion of graduates in Glasgow with experience relevant to the industry, Clark says the company must plan carefully to keep ahead. “Due to the need for highly skilled staff to service our customer needs, it can take time for us to recruit and embed new members of the team,” he explains. “Given how fast our market and company are growing, we really need to recruit ahead of time.”

Looking even longer-term, Clyde Space hopes to inspire school children to take up science through events such as the October visit by Major Tim Peake, who became the first UK astronaut to make a spacewalk during last year’s ‘Principia’ mission. Children from Baljaffray Primary School and Bearsden Academy got the opportunity to meet the Major and question him about his historic six-month stay on the ISS. “That was great,” Clark says. “It was really good of him to stop in, given some of the other places where he went on his post-flight tour of the UK.”

On the commercial front, much of the excitement at the moment around the small satellites in which Clyde Space specialises is focused on start-up firms leveraging cheaper access to orbit to exploit new business ideas. But further down the line, Clark expects large incumbent operators to have the biggest impact once they begin using constellations of CubeSats to track things such as the movement of oil pipelines, pollution, crop growth or the outbreak of diseases.

Clyde Space has already held discussions with large companies interested in using small satellites to get applications into orbit much faster than the timelines often associated with larger geostationary devices. CubeSats, he adds, are “ideally placed” to support the rapid expansion of the downstream space data sector.

“I often come across people who see the space industry as not a serious business market, more suited to scientists and technology geeks,”

Clark explains. “However, with the space market showing sustained growth at almost 10% over the past few years, and our specific market segment of small satellites growing at close to 40% per year, it’s clear there is an excellent business case.
“We are creating multiple high-skilled jobs here in Glasgow – I think the space industry is a hidden gem in the UK economy and I’m delighted we’ve managed to bring the space industry to Scotland.”