After a 30-minute drive through the forest from the Latvian coastal city of Ventspils, past the ghostly living quarters, nothing prepares the visitor for Irbene, site of Latvia’s mighty Soviet-era radio telescope.
This relic of Soviet military intelligence, sabotaged but not destroyed in the Red Army exodus in 1994, has a stunning scale and space-age grandeur. Equally impressive is the Latvian ingenuity devoted to restoring it from sinister uses to peaceful scientific purposes, swapping its bulky ancient instrumentation with the neat blinking racks and boxes of modern high-powered computing.
For award-winning British astrophysicist Steve Lee, this 32m-diameter icon of VIRAC (Ventspils International Radio Astronomy Centre), excites more than scientific interest.
Lee calls it “this fantastic, underutilised scruffy, beautiful dish” and in collaboration with the commercially-minded Latvian scientists at VIRAC and the “space cluster” at Ventspils High Technology Park (VHTP) led by Dr Valdis Avotins, is helping to turn it into a commercial asset, transforming the former spy station into the main hub for processing satellite data in Latvia and beyond
“I remember visiting for the first time in the very last months of winter.” Lee says. “I was shown around this beautiful thing, climbed up to the very top of it, and from then till now I have never stopped thinking about it. I love it.”
Exuding enthusiasm, Lee is a rare kind of astronomer-entrepreneur, who financed the early stages of his company by playing the guitar in pubs. His ability to dream big dreams in Latvia – whose space sector is seen as behind the pace set by bigger-investing neighbours Estonia and Lithuania despite not having a resource like those in Ventspils – is partly based on the partnership he has formed with European Space Agency (ESA) and other commercial operators.
Specialising in astronautics and earth observation Astrosat is a multiple winner of the ESA’s Copernicus and Gallileo prizes for heat tracking and arctic route-finding technologies, a track record which helps to open doors.
He is also a passionate advocate of Latvia’s strengths as a joint venture partner, but by no means starry-eyed about the frustrations, and a perceived lack of ambition in some official quarters – but not in Ventspils.
Before I get him properly started on Irbene and his vision for the future of the big dishes, I ask about his other main concern, the 10-person international company he has been running between Latvia and the UK for over over two years. Called ThermCERT, it uses satellite imagery to show up heat emissions in urban areas, exactly the kind of practical application, via GPS, of space-based science that most excites European Space Agency and municipal partners.
As Lee describes it: “The technology behind ThermCERT was invented for space, and space is key to it, but it’s really like a technology transfer from the space sector to stop human beings destroying our planet. “
Since being introduced to Latvia by the trade facilitation company CCG, he has found commercial kindred spirits at VIRAC and the “space cluster” based at Ventspils High Technology Park. He is more than a little excited about Latvia’s intellectual capital, and its potential to “rock the world” via this infant space-based technology. After a year of preparation, and what he hints is a sometimes frustrating quest to get civic officialdom here to take a lead on supporting and applying the technology, the company soon be addressing a clear market need.
“The problem is that there’s too many leaky buildings out there. City administrations are going to get forced by European regulation to upgrade 1.5-3% of them every year. And they don’t know which ones to start with, and they don’t know what the return on investment would be to make them thermally efficient”.
“These buildings are spewing out heat, and it’s very hard to plan or do an analysis on paper about what’s the return, how will this impact on their targets, how can they maximise the amount of money I put in to get the biggest thermal efficiency?”
“Our technology does that, it tells them the best return, where to go, and it tells them where to track the impact, of those investments, so we can prove to the world that we can do what we promised to do.”
ThermCERT supported by ESA and by the UK’s devolved Scottish Government, was established over a year ago, funded with €200,000 from Riga-based VC Imprimatur Capital under Toby Moore.
After a successful pilot, the technology is still at prototype, pre-production stage, and is seeking municipal partners capable of seeing the benefits of cutting edge “smart cities” technology (in which Scotland’s biggest city Glasgow is a pioneer) that will allow them to target their efforts at carbon reduction. As he says, cities – especially Latvian cities – don’t tend to be “cutting edge early adaptors” so all of the vision, determination and creativity of Lee and his local team will be required.
“The municipalities don’t even know they have a problem right now, and we are already building the solution. So the trial is about making sure they start solving these problems before they hit them in the face. We will market it by demonstrating that they have a problem and that they will be required by EU law, they have to plan retrofits [of energy saving technologies].”
Given that Latvia’s officials are at least as reluctant as other town halls to “jump off the precipice” by committing funds to world-leading technology why, I ask, did he decide to seek funding and establish ThermCERT here?
“I went into Latvia because of the skill sets, and it was one way to do non-space tech projects within Latvia. Also Ventspils is beautiful place to go to, especially in summer. It’s got a great beach!
“It turned out to be a great decision even if their municipalities don’t tend to take leadership. They find it hard to get money to do stuff, which is frustrating, but that’s where you form partnerships between Scotland and Latvia, the bigger brother looks after the younger one in some senses.”
“I think as much as Riga City Council are interested in what we are doing they struggle to see the economic benefit before it’s proven. So they won’t necessarily pay for it all. But that’s fine, there is a quid pro quo of investing in a smaller country. You are going to get great staff who are very hungry to do things, who are untapped resources, but you are maybe going to have to hold their hand occasionally when it comes to the funding.
“There is an element of underdog mentality in Latvia, which is good, you get a huge drive to do things. The downside is that it can also create a culture of following rather than leading. So you need strong leadership as well, but we are fortunate being Scottish that we are famed for providing that, so it’s a nice collaboration, it’s working really well.
“It wouldn’t be what it is without my Latvian team, and the work that Toby Moore at Imprimatur and Charles Cormack at CCG did to help us get the seed money and form this bridge between Scotland and Latvia.
Key to all such collaborations is personal chemistry, and Steve Lee considers himself lucky to have met Valdis Avotins, director of the VHTP, and an embodiment of the scientific-commercial mentality that excites him.
“Valdis is a Chemistry PhD, and one of the most commercially capable academics I’ve ever met. He runs VIRAC phenomenally well, he’s great at looking after the students but also has a forward-looking commercial attitude. There’s various universities that could have great commercial [satellite] ground stations, but if you mention commercialisation to many professors, they’ll just run a mile.
“Valdis manages never to do this, and also not to let the academic part slip either. He does this under quite a harsh environment, and does it with grace. He’s my favourite Latvian!
“The skillset of Latvia is strong. For example Sabine Lazuhina, who is running the project as general manager of our group sin-out ThermCERT LV, is just this phenomenal European-class superwoman.”
When human capital is mixed with unique hardware, the potential, says Lee, is off the scale exciting, which brings us onto VIRAC, based on the two fully turnable parabolic radio telescope antennas (32 and 16 meters). Initially a special department of Latvian Academy of Sciences, and a not-for-profit state attachment to Ventspils University College, in 2010 the site became a special research institute ‘Ventspils International Radio Astronomy centre’.
“VIRAC is a perfect Latvia-fighting-back-after-repression story.” Lee says. “Everyone will know you have these old Soviet spy satellites that were elaborately sabotaged when the Soviets left, and how some phenomenal Latvian physicists and astronomers decided to rebuild them under their own steam and probably their own cash and turned them into working radio astronomy telescopes. Everyone probably told them they were crazy.”
“That was an incredible feat and they have done some great science with them, including in times of recession when science budgets usually get pulled down.”
An introduction by Charles Cormack of CCG led to the formation of another spin-out satellite communications division to plug into the Ventspils space cluster, called Astrosat R&D.
“We are incredibly lucky to have the ability to work with the team at VIRAC, to work with the radio telescope and ground station. We are hoping that one of the two telescopes, maybe the 32m one, can be shared between astronomy and satellite communications and the 16m one has great potential for satellite communications.
“We would like to commercialise it, to do further development for other SMEs, commercialising this new technology we installed that allowed us to use the dish as a satellite communications ground station.”
“In the UK we are already speaking to various CubeSat [miniaturised satellites for space research] operators, and trying to speak to the ESA about turning it into the main satellite communications terminal within Latvia.”
“We are already getting a hell of a lot of interest. I think within the next six months we are going to be making big technological changes to that dish.”
“We are hoping to form a very strong commercial joint venture between VIRAC and Astrosat, and are going to start using the dish to downlink and fast-process satellite data”.
The organisations are working on the business model to underpin VIRAC as a ground station.
“What makes me very proud about that is that we will be able to do good work in the space sector. It’s going to employ a lot of high class engineers in VIRAC, but the profits from the joint venture will go into the VIRAC institute and into Ventspils College, allowing them to do cutting edge earth observation work”.
While Lee pays tribute to renovation work that VIRAC has accomplished and paid for, his own contribution has been to attract the attention of ESA, where Latvia’s involvement lags behind its Baltic neighbours, and complete the transformation of this place of pure science into a place where commercially applicable ideas can be conceived, hatched, and sent out into the world, to the benefit of customers, and of Latvia Inc.
“There are some very clever people involved and no doubt they did have plans to commercialise it, but sometimes you need the vibrancy of an SME to come on board and get it going, and also you need to have someone with the right contacts.
“It’s a case of ‘hands across the water’ because we can help them up, and of course they’re helping us, as without the fantastic dish we wouldn’t have this ground station.”
Until early summer 2015 Astrosat R&D will be spending European research grants into its commercialisation research, with a view to opening for business in six month’s time. He has been talking to potential clients, such as the San Francisco-based Planet Labs, a major launcher of CubeSats, and another UK Space Agency partner so there’s a bottleneck of
data stuck up in space, and there’s a commercial opportunity in getting it down and processing it.
Lee is working hard to source EC funds, but thinks that he can raise the €60,000 needed to get the ground station into good enough working condition to start charging companies to use it. “We don’t need that much, largely because so many of the upgrades are being done already under EC funds, but I’m hoping to raise €250,000.
The vision is to use the smaller 16m telescope to download satellite data, and add in tertiary services like a high performance computer lab in Ventspils. “Maybe some of the earth observation companies can take that data and use it. The joy of the space cluster is that you can walk across Ventspils and have access to an entire space supply chain. If you go another 50km up the road you have VIRAC and a beautiful fibre link between the two.
Lee is already looking beyond the existing infrastructure, to creating further dishes, and other hardware like low frequency pick-ups and smaller arrays of dishes. “The land is there, the desire’s there, we’re going to get the cash and the customers.”
Lee admits that progress is slow, and that he sometimes gets frustrated – but never disheartened. The only place he encounters scepticism about Latvia’s potential as a space nation is in Latvia itself, and he continues to be astonished by the calibre of the engineers.
“They want to change the world, you don’t get that in many places. Their talented people put their energy into their work, not into going out and partying at weekends. I have to stop them working at weekends!”
I ask Lee what he thinks the world need to know about Latvians in space?
“They need to know that there will soon be a brand new ground station, ideally placed to link with others that are aligned in the UK and Ireland– in places like Oxford, Dundee and Cork very competitively priced with worldwide coverage and supporting a local university, we will be doing phenomenal stuff because it sits on the back of infrastructure, including a big investment in fibre network, that allows us to do work of NASA quality.”
“They need to know that there will soon be a brand new ground station, ideally placed to link with others that are aligned in the UK and Ireland – in places like Oxford, Dundee andCork. It will be competitively priced, have worldwide coverage and will supporting a local university. We will be doing phenomenal stuff on the back of this infrastructure, which includes a big investment in fibre network, that allows work of NASA quality.
“We won’t stop investing and doing research in Latvia, we want to keep this collaboration going.”
It’s hard not to share Lee’s enthusiasm for the concept: the Cold War ill-will behind the creation of VIRAC has given Latvia the keys to the universe. The possibilities are almost as infinite the cosmos made accessible through this portal amid the pine trees.
To infiity and beyond: Businessmen in space
Created in 2009 and located in Ventspils High Technology Park, the Latvian space cluster currently involves around 44 organisations. It exists to promote collaboration and networking with a view to developing new products and projects, and to promote research.
The cluster also contributes to Latvia’s national space policy, and promotes co-operation with the European Space Agency. Under the management of Maija Cebere, as well as space and high technology enterprises, it involves research institutions, higher education institutions, and NGOs, all with the purpose of facilitating national competitively and boosting exports. In Latvia, as in most other countries, space technology is less about launching rockets and satellites than about seeking new ways to exploit data from space to use to improve daily life – and business – on earth.
There are three main sectors: production of rocket components and other hardware; services such as satellite navigation (including GPS), satellite communications for TV and phone, and Earth observation services for such purposes as weather forecasting. Participants in the cluster receive up to €200,000 for three years to develop new technologies, products and services, to promote marketing and commercial collaboration, and to raise efficiency and productivity within the value chain, and comes with strict conditions to prevent the distortion of competitiveness.