Written by Carlo des Dorides.
“Europe’s investment in space delivers vitally important benefits in many areas, including science, defence and in economic growth. Innovation spills over into many sectors, creating jobs and opportunities for Europeans and European business. This opportunity is once again underlined as Galileo moves toward the delivery of Initial Services.
Despite this recognised potential, we struggle to adequately support innovation. If Europe wants to remain a global leader in space, it must become more competitive today. We cannot afford to rest on our past successes.
The European GNSS Agency (GSA) actively funds innovation through EU programmes such as Horizon 2020. These initiatives that aim to keep space accessible and safe in the long run, have already made a difference.
For example, FP7 produced immediate results, including 80 prototypes and 45 products. New Horizon 2020 projects are expected to add to these and contribute wider adoption of Galileo and EGNOS.
Although there is much to celebrate, there is also room for improvement. An ongoing challenge is that these projects often take three to four years between submission and product testing. In other parts of the world, such as the United States, innovation moves much faster. European-supported projects risk being obsolete before they reach the market.
We can help by tightening timelines and implementing solutions. One such solution is creating Centres of Excellence. Built on local competences in different EU member states, these could multiply the impact of EU R&D funds, leveraging the local excellence of SMEs and universities.
This will also rationalise EU investment, improving how public money is spent and limiting the risk of national duplication.
Another solution is a ‘Fast Track to Innovation’ approach. This would support innovative projects from demonstration to market uptake, targeting new technologies, concepts, processes and business models.
A third solution is venture capital. There are an increasing number of mature, innovative space solutions on the market that often need further investment to modernise. Venture capital can be an efficient funding instrument in such cases, as it tends to invest at later, and thus less risky, growth stages.
One of the biggest challenges is EU funding. Currently, this complements research investment made by member states and the European Space Agency (ESA). With so many players, some industrial actors worry that R&D funding may be too disparate to establish clear returns on investment.
It is useful to contrast EU space funding with that in the US. According to the OECD, the US spent $39bn (€35bn) on its institutional space budget in 2014. Although the US programme has seen severe cuts in recent years, it is still massive compared to the EU. The size of investment in the US has triggered huge R&D efforts on a much larger scale than what is happening here in Europe.
Another difference is that the US space programme is managed by both civilian and defence organisations, including NASA, the Department of Defence, the Department of Energy and the Department of Transportation.
Each of these organisations has its own space budget for research and innovation. Likewise, civilian space R&D programmes in the US also have their own budgets. In 2014, the US government invested $10.6bn (€9.6bn) in these programmes – nearly 17 per cent of the country’s entire governmental R&D spend, and almost double that of the EU.
US space efforts also receive support from its large defence and aerospace private sector. US multinationals companies are investing $9.3bn (€8bn) in aerospace and defence R&D, comparted with $1.144bn (€1.03bn) in the European Union. Increasing investment is the key to achieving leadership in space-related activities.
We must also involve the private sector. However, this demands we create conditions that give businesses the confidence to invest. With Galileo declaring Initial Services this year, we already have the public infrastructure. Now we need the applications and services to capitalise on it.
When it comes to the funding for space-related R&D in comparison to the United States, we are at a clear disadvantage. If we want to maintain a leadership position in space-related activities, we must invest more in the downstream market now. This is a fact we simply cannot afford to ignore.
It may seem fanciful to think Europe can compete with US numbers. However, we can organise ourselves better, intensify our commitment to funding and innovation, work to get space into policy discussions, and issue legislation that promotes and protects companies working in the space sector.
Historically, Europe has held a leadership role in space. Let’s work together to keep it that way.”
About the author:
As Executive Director of the European GNSS Agency (GSA), Mr. des Dorides sets the vision of the Agency and ensures that the GSA is well placed to accomplish its mission of supporting the effective operation, maintenance and security of the Europe’s satellite navigation systems, while guaranteeing optimal service levels and developing applications and services that ensure the satellites benefit end users.
Mr des Dorides has almost three decades of experience managing space service focussed teams. Most recently, he had key management responsibilities at the European Commission and was responsible for the definition of the Galileo/EGNOS exploitation phase and the EGNOS operational phase.