Submission from JRA Technology Ltd
TECHNOLOGY SPIN-OFF FROM UK SPACE RESEARCHPRACTICE
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.
2. THE CONTRIBUTOR
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 technologymuch 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
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
4. EXTENT OF
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.
5. SUPPORT TO
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
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
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 ImagingCan 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
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.
6. RESULTS AND
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 Standardsdeveloped from
experience with large high profile multinational programmeswere
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
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 Ltd||
||Medical applications of shape memory alloys
|DMD Ltd||||Non medical applications of SMA
|ThruVision||||Terahertz imaging for security applications
||Centrifuge technology for drug research
|BioAstral||||Imaging technology for micro arrays
|Symetrica||||Gamma Imaging for Security applications
|AK Rainbow||||Bioluminescence techniques
|IPStar||||Space 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.
7. COMMENT AND
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
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 sidea 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
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 projectsto give more, but less often.