The commercial exploitation of space is a hot topic everywhere in the world, but particularly within Europe. Discussions around how to remain competitive globally while maintaining sovereignty are intensifying. This was one of the key themes that ran throughout the space programme at ICT Spring 2022.
Why European space sovereignty is important
It’s clear that space is becoming more important to all countries, as it plays a crucial role in both strengthening national defence and supporting economic growth – the global space economy’s value is expected to reach $1tn by 2040. As such, space sovereignty for Europe is becoming more necessary.
As Guillaume de la Brosse from the DG Defence Industry and Space at the European Commission explained, it’s important because, “space assets are becoming critical assets and it’s becoming critical to our security – we need sovereign space infrastructure that we can control.” Additionally, with current supply chain issues and geopolitics impacting global trade flows, it’s beneficial to be less dependent on other countries.
But, as de la Brosse points out, “there is no contradiction between sovereignty and competition.” And Elodie Viau, Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications at the European Space Agency agreed. “Competition is good because it encourages everyone to go further. It stimulates innovation.”
Staying competitive in the global space economy
However, this competition needs to take place on a level playing field. Until now, most investment in space by European governments has been directed towards traditional institutions, which makes it hard for new space players – private companies – to compete.
Particularly as VCs are reluctant to invest in space startups until there is a real proof of concept and a guaranteed customer base. This makes getting started as an SME difficult. As Anthony Baker, CEO of Satellite Vu explained during a panel on fostering a sustainable space economy, “revenues in the space industry come quite late as the infrastructure needs to be built first.”
As a result, Europe risks losing talent to the US, where the number of private players is growing thanks to the investment opportunities available. Juan Hernani, Co-Founder and CEO of SATLANTIS, pointed out that “the US is the biggest market for space – it has 4 or 5 times the investment of Europe. And a lot of advances are made by companies that didn’t exist 10 years ago. Everything is in a certain equilibrium because the government pays for the services.” He believes that European governments need to support startups and SMEs in the same way. This could happen either by European countries dedicating a specific budget to private space SMEs, or by encouraging more collaboration between institutions and private players. The latter is already happening, according to Viau.
Sustainable growth of the European space industry
Another way of supporting growth of the space industry in Europe is identifying opportunities beyond the traditional space sectors. As Marc Serres, CEO of the Luxembourg Space Agency points out, “the power of space is massively under-utilised. We need to throw space out of space and bridge the gap between the space industries and other industries.”
There are plenty of other sectors, such as agriculture, mobility and financial services, that can benefit from services generated by the space industry. Ultimately, new space players are a small, but already valuable part of the European space sector. As Jonathan Galic, Co-Founder and CTO of Unseenlabs points out, “space throws up a lot of challenges and small companies are able to tackle specific problems and provide solutions to the big institutions.” These types of collaborations need to continue, alongside additional funding, if the industry is to grow and remain competitive on the global stage.