Irish companies boldly go to final frontier

Space-related sales have taken off and are set to reach €130 million by 2020


For a country without a space programme Ireland is doing very well in the extraterrestrial marketplace. Irish companies involved in contracts with the European Space Agency (ESA) saw space-related sales grow from €18 million in 2008 to €70 million in 2015 with further growth to more than €130 million projected by 2020.

Jobs growth is also impressive. Employment at these companies is expected to double from almost 2,000 in 2014 to more than 5,000 by 2020.

“The number of companies working with the ESA has doubled to about 60 over the past five years and it is still growing,” says Tony McDonald, programme manager for space industry activities with Enterprise Ireland.

“For the most part, they are small companies with 75 per cent being SMEs. A number of technology start-ups are involved as well. The trend is towards highly innovative companies which have developed new technologies and they are now working with the ESA to see if they can be adapted and utilised in space systems.”

The benefits of this activity to both the companies involved and the national economy goes far beyond the actual value of the contracts. “The skill sets developed under ESA contracts feed into the companies’ other commercial activities and this supports growth in other areas”, says McDonald.

Strong returns

He also points to a study undertaken by the London School of Economics in 2015 which indicated very strong returns on public investment in space research and technology. In the Earth observation area the direct return was typically €2-€4 per €1 spent, with an additional spillover to the wider economy of €4-€12; in telecoms the direct return was an even better €6-€7 with a €6-€14 spillover; while in navigation the direct return was €4-€5 with a spillover of €4-€10.

He expects to see continued growth in space-related activities in Ireland as more companies see it as a genuine commercial opportunity and to the ESA as a means to develop and qualify technologies for that market. Key drivers will include the rapidly expanding internet of things market, with satellite communications technologies playing an increasingly important role; the continuing increase in commercial activity in the space launcher market, particularly in the United States; growing demand for geospatial data and positioning to support an increasing number of commercial applications.

“It’s a lot broader than pure space”, he says. “There are a lot of other activities involved. It’s not just about the stuff you put up in space. We see the ESA as a means of helping companies get into the area. The commercial space market is changing quite dramatically at the moment and we are seeing the increasing commercialisation of space. You can see it in the US with entrepreneurial space companies like SpaceX and so on. This is opening up a range of new opportunities for companies.”

These opportunities include direct sales to the organisations which are actually putting hardware in space as well as a range of terrestrial secondary applications. “We see it with mapping, for example”, says McDonald. “And this is changing with Galileo, which will make it more accurate and useful for a wider range of applications.”

The Galileo satellite navigation system will complement the existing American and Russian systems and increase their accuracy and reliability. This will open up a range of new opportunities in areas such as autonomous cars and precision agriculture.

“Space systems are being used as a solution in many areas and we are seen an increase in the translation of space applications. Space is about high performance and high reliability. Industries that require high reliability and performance include aviation, autonomous cars and life sciences,” he adds.

“Life sciences for human space flight is a very interesting area. Space is an accelerated environment for bone tissue growth and so on. If you can develop technologies for monitoring and controlling this in space there are much broader applications for it back on Earth. If you can develop something that works in extreme environment of zero gravity you can develop solutions that perform on Earth as well.”

He cites Arralis as an example of an Irish company which has won ESA contracts and is also bringing the technology literally down to Earth. “Arralis is a great example of a company which is developing technologies for space with the performance and reliability that make it usable for vehicle guidance systems for autonomous cars.

“We see the ESA as means of positioning Irish companies for opportunities like that. The ESA will support companies to develop technologies for space and position them to sell into the space market.”

Enterprise Ireland works with companies with technologies relevant to space markets. “We work with them to see if there is a commercial opportunity which can generate additional export sales and employment. The ESA issues calls for proposals in relation to technologies that it may require. It also issues open calls for technologies that may be relevant to the space market. The contracts awarded tend to be on the basis of co-funding so the Irish company has to invest as well. Enterprise Ireland’s role in relation to ESA is to assist Irish companies to bid successfully for these ESA contracts.”