Gordon Venters

Gordon Venters of Scottish Enterprise

The sky’s no longer the limit

Scottish aerospace companies, their suppliers and a host of new technology firms are looking at the opportunities that the space sector represents. BQ Scotland editor Peter Ranscombe caught up with Scottish Enterprise’s Gordon Venters to find out more.

The skies above Scotland have been the backdrop for some of the aerospace industry’s key moments: Scapa Flow in Orkney was home to the first aircraft carrier, the converted Cunard ocean liner Campania, during the First World War; the UK’s first domestic air mail service flew between Inverness and Orkney; and Britain’s first air ambulance ferried patients between Kirkwall and the outer Orkney Isles. Now, Gordon Venters and his team at Scottish Enterprise want to help businesses north of the Border to become the pioneers of the space sector too.

A report compiled by London Economics for Scottish Enterprise showed that Scotland has the potential to grow its role in space from a fledgling industry today to a £4bn industry by 2030, as part of the wider UK aim of quadrupling its revenues to £40bn over the same period. Thanks to its strong presence in the existing aerospace market, there’s real potential for Scotland to extend its reach up further into the atmosphere.

“The space industry is important to Scotland because we have a long history of aerospace activity and great companies located here,” explains Venters, who is head of engineering at Scottish Enterprise. “We also have an emerging space industry a growing cluster of very good specialist companies – the question is how can that be harnessed and transformed into a big industry?

“The market opportunity splits broadly into two components – upstream and downstream. Upstream covers all the equipment and systems required to get satellites into space and to launch space vehicles. Downstream activities are all the applications of the data that can be supplied by space-based systems, which can inform a number of very different market opportunities – everything from what we’re used to on our mobile phones in being able to use location services, through to farmers using space data for precision farming to fertilise and seed their fields in the most accurate and efficient way, and to monitoring marine activity around the coast.

“The range of space-based applications is wide. In some ways, it’s similar to the early days of the computer industry, with ‘hardware’ and ‘software’. There’s a lot of hardware required to run the software, but the growth potential of the software side of the space industry is absolutely huge.

“Our ability to compete for that opportunity is strong but it’s an opportunity that many countries that are good at software-based applications could also compete for. We have a particular edge in Scotland with our aerospace background to add a hardware component too – such as developing and manufacturing satellites and launch systems – and the combination of the two creates a chance for large and small companies to collaborate to harness those opportunities.”

Venters’s remit as head of engineering covers a broad range of sectors, including the aerospace, defence, marine and security industries. As well as the opportunities for aerospace companies to get involved in the upstream arena and for technology companies to use the data produced for downstream applications, there are also openings for companies from outside the ‘traditional’ space sector. Precision engineering firms and other component suppliers have the chance to provide the advanced technologies that will help the big boys to put their vehicles and satellites into orbit.

“This is a fledgling industry, but one that can grow quickly,” Venters points out. “If you look at the companies that are in the supply chain for the aerospace industry then some of them are already active in this area.

“Every business asks itself where it should invest its money to get the strongest returns. We’ve got some very large companies in the defence sector that have been quietly working away in the space industry for a long time – they’re now looking with a keen eye to the commercial development of the space opportunity to provide further diversification.

“If those companies enter the commercial space market then their size and scale will be very beneficial to the smaller companies in the supply chain, which will be able to see routes to significant amounts of business. I think those large companies are going to become increasingly active on the commercial side of space.”

When it comes to filling all those jobs that could be created in the space sector, Venters thinks that Tim Peake’s space mission could help to inspire a generation of budding engineers to work in the industry. Peake became the second British astronaut to orbit the Earth when he arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) on 15 December, 2015, spending six months in space. His mission with the European Space Agency (ESA) has captured the imaginations of thousands of school children and their parents.

Venters is now looking forward to the knock-on effect. “Space is a really attractive industry for young people to think about,” he says. “It’s very exciting. The space agency’s work around Tim Peake’s mission – and how visible it was – has been incredibly helpful.

“The incredible growth of companies like Clyde Space is starting to attract other businesses to Scotland. There’s an increasingly-strong cluster of companies starting to operate here and that’s providing inspiration and opportunities for young engineers.

“The Scottish Government is also keen to see the gender balance improving in the engineering sector. We’re already seeing that coming through with Primary Engineer and other programmes in schools and similarly with skills-based activities in the universities. Space is becoming a reality for people instead of something that feels out of reach.”

Clyde Space has pioneered the construction of small satellites – or ‘cubesats’ – and its expertise has helped to attract other businesses to Glasgow. San Francisco-based Spire Global co-located with Clyde Space in the city, bringing with it added expertise in not just building nanosatellites but also harnessing the data they produce for a range of applications, from monitoring aircraft and ships through to improving weather forecasting models.

Gordon Venters“If you ask anyone in the space industry then they will know of Clyde Space, they will know of Glasgow, and so they will know that Scotland is of interest to them,” says Venters. “There are other activities around the sector that are not as visible but are by no means any less important.

“We want to attract all the components of the supply chain; all the way from the elements required to build the launch systems and launch vehicles – which are a clear extension of the aerospace industry – through to building the satellites and other payloads they will carry, and running the applications that will be needed by satellite operators.

“Joining all of that up is wider than simply growing indigenous companies on their own. There are a number of Scottish companies that can and will grow as a result of the expansion of the space sector and there will be new entrants, but we would be foolish not to take advantage of the opportunity to attract international investors to our emerging and growing cluster.

“Not long ago, I met with Katherine Courtney – the chief executive of the UK Space Agency – and she was very impressed when she visited Glasgow with the strength of our cluster here in Scotland. That’s something we want to develop, both through helping indigenous companies to grow but also by attracting more inward investors.”

Scottish Enterprise has been playing its role to help grow the industry by setting up and funding Space Network Scotland, an organisation that helps to integrate the demand side of the market with the supply side. Through a series of networking events, the body has helped to instil a sense of community within the space sector. The economic development agency is also involved with the Aerospace, Marine, Defence & Security (ADMS) Industry Leadership Group, which brings together representatives from large and small companies. The industry leadership group published a strategy in March 2016 and set up a sub-group to focus on space.

“That shows the maturity of the industry in Scotland,” Venters says. “Much of the current activity is focused on fostering collaboration between the companies we have in Scotland. We’re working to bring together companies in the aerospace industry with the industry leadership group and with businesses that could join the supply chain, all to help build the cluster.

“In the past, space has been about exploration – now it’s becoming more focused on the commercial opportunities. That’s why it’s a natural progression for the industry leadership group to be looking at the opportunities in this area.”

Venters highlights the work being done by Prestwick-based Orbital Access on the Future UK Small Payload Launcher (FSPLUK), a project funded by the UK Space Agency. He points to the FSPLUK as a prime example of collaboration in action, with Orbital Access teaming up with other companies within the sector and also with academics at the universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde. The growth of the space industry fits into wider plans to expand the ADMS market in Scotland. The latest figures show the sector consists of 825 companies, which together generate revenues of more than £5.5bn a year, employ more than 38,000 highly-skilled people and add £1.7bn of gross value to the economy.

The industry leadership group’s strategy wants to see growth of between 6% and 10% by 2030, which would involve adding £500 million of revenues each year and creating or securing 3,000 jobs. The strategy also involves reducing the industry’s effect on the environment by cutting the amount of carbon dioxide its companies emit into the atmosphere.

“From a personal perspective, my experience of working in the space industry today is that there are some terrific people, terrific companies and terrific opportunities, but it’s a little bit fragmented,” he adds. “I think the question for Scotland is how can we bring that together so that, as a small country operating on a world stage, we can punch above our weight when it comes to our potential to take a share of the space industry?

“My sense of that is we will have to bring some focus around what Scotland can be really good at. It’s a bit early to make predictions, but I think there are some indicators already around the expertise in cubesats and their applications, and secondly the opportunity if we can offer access to space through developing a space port and providing launch vehicles that can reduce the cost of accessing space. Those two aspects taken together could become a really compelling competitive proposition for Scotland.”