Stuart Martin

The Satellite Applications Catapult chief executive, Stuart Martin

The slingshot effect

The Satellite Applications Catapult is helping businesses back on Earth to harness the data collected in orbit, as chief executive Stuart Martin tells BQ Scotland editor Peter Ranscombe.

Britain has some ambitious targets when it comes to growing the size of its space industry – the sector wants to more than quadruple the size of the space-related economy to £40bn by 2030, creating around 100,000 jobs and giving the country a 10% share of the global market. And Stuart Martin is at the sharp end of turning those dreams into reality.

As chief executive of the Satellite Applications Catapult, Martin and his team aren’t just helping to create more companies in the space sector but are also allowing businesses from throughout the economy to harness satellite data. He’s undaunted by the lofty ambitions laid out for the industry. “We’re on course to hit those targets,” he smiles. “The industry has grown by high single-digit or low double-digit percentages over the past six years, including in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.”

His comments are supported by the latest data from the UK Space Agency. The biannual figures showed that the UK’s space-related economy grew by 6.5% between 2012-13 and 2014-15 and now has combined revenues of £13.7bn, adding £5.1bn of gross value to the UK economy. It’s not just a numbers game for Martin though. He’s passionate about the way that British companies can use the data being gathered in space to help improve life back down on Earth.

Some of Martin’s first memories are of the Moon landings and the experience inspired him to pursue a career in the space industry. He spent 20 years with technology company Logica, latterly running its international space business, which gave him an insight into how Britain’s overseas competitors operate.

“The way the UK is growing its space sector is unique,” he says. “It’s different from how any other country is doing it.

“Even the United States is interested in how we are using data from satellites to grow our wider economy. They think there are lessons that they can learn from us.

“France is also very interested in what’s happening in the UK and has quoted British examples in many of its reports. It’s even set up centres that look a little bit like our catapults.”

The catapult programme was launched in 2011 by Innovate UK, formerly the Technology Strategy Board, to help British companies benefit from emerging technologies. In the past, the UK has been at the forefront of scientific research, but has not always reaped the economic benefits of harnessing its breakthroughs. As well as satellite applications, there are now a further ten catapults operating throughout the UK, covering: cell and gene therapy; compound semiconductor applications; digital; energy systems; future cities; high-value manufacturing; medicines discovery; offshore renewable energy; precision medicine; and transport systems.

The Satellite Applications Catapult is based at Harwell near Didcot in Oxfordshire, at the heart of the UK’s space industry. As well as its head office, the catapult also has a network of centres of excellence spread throughout the UK, including the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications (SoXSA), which is hosted in Glasgow by the University of Strathclyde.

“The network operates more as a mesh than a traditional hub-and-spoke model,” explains Martin. “The companies can interact with the centres of excellence or with us at Harwell and the centres can interact with each other. Our work takes three main forms – energising the market, helping space companies to interact with customers and providing business enablement.

“When it comes to energising the market, we want to help explain to companies that have never thought of interacting with the space sector how using data from satellites can help their businesses. We run workshops and other events to show how satellite data can be applied in their fields.

“We also help companies operating in the space sector to speak about the products and services they offer. People already working in space like to talk about terms like navigation and Earth observation and communications, but when you explain that to potential customers in terms of logistics and situational awareness then they get a much better idea of how they could use that information.

“We provide business enablement through our expertise and facilities. That includes helping start-up companies to grow and explaining to venture capitalists why they should invest in the sector.” Facilities available at Harwell include an operations centre that can act as ‘ground control’ for British satellites, a ‘satcomms lab’ in which companies can develop and test their technology, and a visualisation suite for displaying and analysing data. Each of the centres of excellence is also developing specialisms, with SoXSA focusing on small satellites and the use of orbital data to help develop projects to harness offshore renewable energy.

“The most important facilities are based on cloud computing,” explains Martin. “They’re digitally accessible from anywhere.”
Those cloud-based systems include the Climate, Environment & Monitoring from Space (CEMS) facility. CEMS not only gives companies access to Earth observation and climate change data but also provides tools to help analyse that data.

“There are some great space companies in Scotland,” adds Martin. “The support structures are fantastic, so it’s a great place to setup space businesses and for attracting inward investment. Especially around Glasgow and Edinburgh, there are some top-notch UK companies.

“I’m convinced Scotland has a big role to play in achieving the UK’s targets. The likes of Clydespace, Astrosat and Ecometrica are playing big roles in not only building the space hardware but also harnessing the data that comes back to the ground.

“The founder of Bird.i, one of the first companies to spin-out from the catapult, has chosen to base himself in Glasgow because he found the network of support from Scottish Enterprise was going to be the best to help him grow his business.”

The next step in the catapult’s development is to help British companies make that leap into orbit. The catapult is buying four small satellites from Clydespace and is looking for businesses that want to use the equipment to test their technology in space, with launches pencilled in over the next two or three years.

“The four satellites will help firms to prove their concepts,” says Martin. “Companies need to demonstrate that their technology works in space so that they can win orders from their customers.”