Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 84

Submission from JRA Technology Ltd



  This submission briefly addresses the contributor's view on what is generally understood by space research technology spin-off; what has been the UK experience to date; what programmes have been in place to foster and support this spin-off; what have been the benefits to date, also the contributor's brief comments and suggestions for the way ahead.


  John Rootes is the founder of JRA Aerospace Ltd and JRA Technology Ltd, and was a co-owner until those companies were acquired by the Sitec Group in January 2006.

  A primary activity of JRA Technology has been technology transfer support largely in the aerospace, space and university sectors. Clients have included MOD, BAE SYSTEMS, QINETIQ, BT and the EU. JRA was involved in setting up the European Space Agency Technology Transfer Programme (ESA TTP) in 1990, based initially on a model established for the MOD by DTE Ltd in 1988.

  More recently JRA and John Rootes have been involved with University technology commercialisation and start-up support, and in 2004 raised the Park Technology Seed Fund with Brunel University and HSBC.


  Space spin-off has been brought to the public notice by widely publicised examples and the American experience of the 1960s. The classic "non stick frying pan" example however typifies some of the problems involved in trying to identify pure space research technology spin-off, in that it was probably more truly a spin-off from defence and broader aerospace research than from space.

  The fact that space missions are of themselves high risk, with a significant requirement for autonomy post-launch, actually means that space vehicle designers, where possible, try to rely on existing proved technology—much of it derived from defence programmes in the early days.

  This tends to lead to a situation where space researchers are actually working with already developed technologies and it is often their task in making them "smaller, cheaper and faster" for space use that makes them more attractive from a wider commercialisation point of view. On the other hand the need to use electronic components resistant to radiation and atomic particles sometimes makes space components more expensive and not immediately so easily transferable.

  Thus computers were not invented for the space programme, but efforts at miniaturisation within the Apollo programme possibly hastened the advent of the PC. That said the subsequent wider public demand for ever more capable computer games has driven the state of the art in software graphics and animation far quicker than space or defence requirements.

  All this makes tracing the pure space origins of a technology advance quite difficult on occasions. One area however where clear advances can be identified is in payloads, and for the UK, developments in gamma and x-ray, microwave and atomic particle detection and analysis for space science and astronomy missions have led to advances in CCD and multi channel plate detector technologies and analytical software, which have clear, if sometimes niche, beneficial application in life science and broader commercial situations.

  Another factor that sometimes confuses reports and statistics in this area is the tendency in some quarters to lump pure technology spin-off (non-intended benefits) with other aspects of space commercialisation such as Earth Observation products and applications, satellite navigation products and applications and even the whole area of terrestrial communication commercialisation. The following paragraphs attempt to deal with classical technology spin-off.


  Non-space commercialisation of space technology has not been a major priority for all space companies in the UK in recent years. In 2001 a survey of 187 UK space companies/research groups identified 26 that had admitted to pursuing non-space commercialisation of their research. Whilst this survey was not exhaustive it gives an indication of the number of organisations content to focus on their primary research aims.

  Again the difficulty in separating pure space research from broader technical advance makes this quite a difficult statistic to pin down. For example in the 80s and 90s GEC/BAe companies diversified into TV antennae, in-flight entertainment and car alarms etc. Much of this expertise had come from defence projects, but some had come from space programmes and thus, whilst the origin of the commercially beneficial advances are not instantly obvious, the probability of there being wider benefits from space research than are superficially apparent should be borne in mind.


  The major source of specific public sector support to UK space spin-off in recent years has come from the European Space Agency. ESA set up the ESA Technology Transfer Programme in 1990 based on a model developed for the UK MOD in the late 1980s.

  In brief, a network of technology transfer practitioners was established in ESA contributing countries to offer practical support to space to non-space technology transfer. The (12 country) network assisted with marketing, business planning, partner search for technology commercialisation, organised promotional events and facilitated access to ESA experts and other sources of funding.

  JRA has been involved with the network from the beginning as the UK point of contact, and has also at times had responsibility for network management and TT activities in Scandinavia. Over the 15 years of TTP operation JRA's income from ESA has averaged £100,000 a year. In recent years the programme has suffered as a result of the ESA moratorium with direct income dropping to an average of £30,000 per annum over the past three years.

  Further direct support to JRA for space TT activities has come from BNSC and PPARC mainly in the form of support to conferences (eg "Bio Imaging—Can Space Help?"), one-off studies or reviews etc and has averaged £15,000 a year over the past 10 years.

  In carrying through the programme JRA has been able to assist in leveraging additional public sector support direct to space researchers/companies for technology commercialisation developments. This has taken the form of DTI grants, further direct grants from ESA, regional grants and funding from the EU RTD programmes. More recently, start-ups based on space technologies have received grants from university based funds. Whilst it has not been possible to quantify this level of support in the time available an estimate of £10-20 million is made for those which JRA is directly aware of.

  There will also be other commercialisation activities that JRA has not been associated with and companies that would have made their own applications to national and European sources of funds. No estimate for these can be given.


  ESA advises that the TTP has stimulated 200 successful space-non space technology transfers and generated nearly one Billion euros in cumulative business turnover since its inception. JRA has been involved in more than 35 of these transfers, the majority transnational.

  Within the UK some of the more successful spin-offs have involved software, materials technology and sensors and instrumentation.

  ESA Software Standards—developed from experience with large high profile multinational programmes—were commercialised by Logica and have been sold throughout the world. Whilst the actual income from sales of the books has probably not exceeded a few tens of thousands of pounds, their influence on the efficacy and smooth running of software programmes world-wide can only be guessed at. Similarly the DOORS Requirements Management Software package, developed by a British ESA TTP staff member and commercialised in the UK, is a world leader now earning tens of millions of pounds annually for its current owners Telelogic Plc, and has increased management efficiency of countless major software and engineering projects.

  On the materials side the ESA TTP supported early developments in wider applications for shape memory alloys. The sale of Anson Medical to Lombard Medical for £20 million in 2001 has led to that company expanding its operations in the provision of SMA stents and other devices and it continues to grow.

  Concerning sensor technology, Aromascan Ltd was formed in 1994 around artificial nose technology developed in Manchester against an ESA space contract (a device was also used for atmosphere monitoring on-board the MIR space station). Now operating as Osmetech plc it is turning over nearly £5 million annually and expanding.

  Space and astronomy-led developments in optical, x-ray, gamma, microwave and atomic particle detection and analysis are starting to find applications in life science, medical and other applications. E2V have had commercial success and some of the start-ups listed below indicate just some of the potential of this technology area in which the UK is a world leader.

  The ESA programme has stimulated the creation of more than 30 spin-off companies. The UK has been a leader in this area, and the following give an indication of the UK start-ups that have been assisted or will be assisted through the ESA TTP.
Anson Medical LtdMedical applications of shape memory alloys
DMD LtdNon medical applications of SMA
ThruVisionTerahertz imaging for security applications
Dynamic ExtractionsCentrifuge technology for drug research
BioAstralImaging technology for micro arrays
SymetricaGamma Imaging for Security applications
AK RainbowBioluminescence techniques
MRPB Research Terahertz imaging
IPStarSpace technology commercialisation
(TBD)Portable gamma imagers for medical apps

  ESA has also established an incubator at ESTEC at Noordwiyk in Holland which currently holds 39 start-up companies. Several UK companies aided by JRA have made applications for support, however the need for Dutch residency for the company has in the event proved a stumbling block and currently IPStar is the only UK-originated start-up in residence.


  Whilst the above conveys a brief indication of the results and benefits of spin-offs from UK space research and the programmes that facilitate them, a definitive financial analysis has not been undertaken and, for the reasons stated above, would be quite difficult.

  In the analysis that ESA has undertaken, a qualifying transfer is one that for the purposes of the programme involves an investment in non space commercialisation of a minimum of €40,000 from a third party. This leads to the usual drawbacks of "target-led" programmes in that it does not necessarily give a clear indication of the actual situation.

  On the negative side—a significant number of technology projects, whilst qualifying for transfer status, do not subsequently go on to full commercial success. For a large number of European and UK companies and SMEs, for example, applications to EU Technology RTD programmes are often an end in themselves and not a stepping stone to greater commercial success.

  On the positive side however the effect of the promotional events and actions stimulated by the TT, and its work in bringing different areas of industry together to discuss new technology developments, can and does bring incalculable benefits which often are not visible to either ESA or the intermediaries involved.

  There is therefore a case to be made for continuing public funding support for space technology commercialisation as part of a wider initiative. The UK national effort has been lacking in this area to date and the recent PPARC initiative is to be commended.

  On a broader front, JRA has had quite wide involvement in technology start-ups and commercialisation in recent years. A further observation we would make is that public seed money should be more accurately targeted. Usually start-ups are initiated by technical staffs, who seek to apply further funding for technical developments when often an earlier concentration on market and commercial aspects would be more beneficial.

  Also there is often quite a large gap between the levels of funding available for early stage growth and that needed to de-risk the technology sufficiently for VCs to be attracted. This can be particularly the case for the complex detector and instrumentation technologies of the sort identified above. There may well be a case therefore for being more selective in the application of public funds to projects—to give more, but less often.

December 2006

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