Tuesday January 21, 2020

Irish tech firms boldly going into space sector

The boom in the industry is providing rich opportunities for innovative companies – and they can also commercialise their technologies in terrestrial markets

Emmet Ryan

Technology Correspondent

14th July, 2019
Rory Fitzpatrick, chief executive of the National Space Centre: ‘I grew up through the Cold War, Star Trek and Star Wars. I’ve always been into space’ Picture: Cathal Noonan

When Rory Fitzpatrick attended a dinner in Brussels six years ago, one guest in particular stood out. There with MEP Sean Kelly, Jill Tarter of the Seti (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute and investors from Singapore and China was Buzz Aldrin, the second person to set foot on the moon.

Fitzpatrick, who had grown up obsessed with space, found himself talking to one of his idols. And it came about essentially because the broadband business where he was chairman went under.

After Solas “went wallop”, as he puts it, he turned his attention to a site in Elfordstown, Co Cork, that housed a giant mothballed satellite dish that had been used by Eir. Fitzpatrick saw a chance to pursue his dreams and founded the National Space Centre.

“We saw the opportunity here so I, my brother and some investors went after it,” he tells The Sunday Business Post. “I grew up through the Cold War, Star Trek and Star Wars and all that kind of stuff. I’ve always been into space. When we had the opportunity of getting involved in the space business, it was like being paid to play, you know. It really was a fantastic opportunity.”

The NSC primarily works as a ground service for satellite operators and owners. The likes of Amazon, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and everybody else looking to the stars need ground facilities, and the capital costs in creating these are steep. Fitzpatrick and his team turned the facility near Mitchelstown into a vital support for these growing businesses. The centre is also working on converting the 32-metre antenna on its roof to provide radio astronomy, increasing the centre’s offering to scientific researchers.

As a pioneer in Ireland’s space sector, Fitzpatrick was brought along by Kelly to represent Irish businesses at that Brussels event in 2013.

“It was one of the biggest buzzes in my career. We ended up at dinner table talking and we got to talk for quite a while with Buzz. He’s fantastic. He’s such a cranky old hound but he’s a legend,” Fitzpatrick says.

“He was talking to us about the landing on the moon and taking off again. He said the hairiest moment in his career was counting down (to landing the lunar module), because he had to mentally count down how much fuel he could use and whether to abort the moon landing. It was down to a couple of seconds of fuel left. You don’t have the same seat-of-the-pants stuff going on now. Back then they were test pilots. They were having a bash and they cut it right to the bone.”

The NSC is part of a growing collection of Irish businesses taking off in a sector not associated with this part of the world. Traditional players usually come from nations with large defence industries. In Ireland, the more conventional tech sector planted the seeds with the likes of Fitzpatrick.

“In the beginning, there wasn’t much going on; it was the very start of the commercialisation of space. It’s beginning to build a head of steam at the moment,” he says. “We got a lot of support from Enterprise Ireland and if you look at what’s happening now with the government’s space strategy, it’s fascinating. A lot of the stuff is already being worked on but it’s formalised into a plan, giving a complete focus.”

The National Space Strategy reported that 67 Irish companies and organisations worked with the European Space Agency last year. The sector is said to have employed 2,000 people in 2014, and the total is expected to exceed 4,500 by next year. Companies such as Enbio and Pilot Photonics in Co Dublin, mBryonics in Co Galway and Arralis in Co Limerick are making progress in different areas of the space sector.

Fitzpatrick sees the wave of innovation as a new boom period for the industry. He feels there is broader interest in the area now, spurred by the work taking place on the International Space Station, the launch of more deep space probes and discoveries from the Kepler space telescope.

“If you look through the Cold War and the end of the Cold War, you had amazing investment in space because of the competition between the East and the West. A lot of the really big things happened in that era,” Fitzpatrick says.

“After that we had the space station. Mir (the Russian space station that operated from 1986 to 2001) really showed us that you could live in space. There was a very interesting period when we took what we learned in the beginning, and all the mistakes that were made and the difficulties, and went back to the engineering platforms and started innovating and developing.”

Sarah Bourke, chief executive of SkyTek: ‘It’s not a short game. It takes time to build up credibility’ Pic: Fergal Phillips

The work that Mir inspired – bringing exploration closer to home through the International Space Station (ISS) – presents a platform to make greater leaps to the cosmos, Fitzpatrick believes.

“We’re coming back now in a much better, space-ready way to actually go into space properly, which is very exciting,” he says. “It’s such a big thing that we’re going to be headed to Mars.”

The government’s space strategy makes Fitzpatrick more confident about the opportunities for the NSC and the sector as a whole. Its goals include doubling space-related revenue and employment in space companies, attracting new talent and raising the industry’s profile.

“The exciting position we’re in now is on the back of what the government has been pushing for ten years. It’s now beginning to create a space industry, which is very exciting,” he says. “In the space strategy that the government has laid out, a lot of their focus in the next ten to 15 years is going to be on downstream services, using space data. It’s going to be fascinating. Every aspect of our lives is going to be enhanced and developed using space infrastructure.”

However, there is one big drawback to working in the space sector: everything takes longer than in the terrestrial sphere.

“One thing I miss in this industry is the immediate sale. There are a lot industries where if you go to the market with a product you immediately get a response from the consumer. This is much more like big infrastructure where if we sign a contract, we will probably put in the ground station in two years’ time for a satellite that’s launching in three years’ time, that goes into operation in four years’ time. The lead times are very long. It’s just the nature of the beast, it’s big-money, high-tech, long-term types of budgets,” says Fitzpatrick.

Sarah Bourke, chief executive of software firm SkyTek, says this aspect is something all businesses considering entering the space sector need to take on board. The Dublin-based company created what is essentially the operating system for the International Space Station. Bourke is all too familiar with what it takes to make something work in space.

“It’s not a short game. It takes time to build up credibility. You get to work on the highest levels of technologies but it’s difficult to start, it’s onerous and has a steep learning curve,” she says, adding that once you can operate in the space industry, it’s easy to move into other sectors.

SkyTek got its break through a small European Space Agency (ESA) contract, kept winning contracts, then got the space station gig, which put it on the map. That, along with other work, has enabled the firm to bring its technology back down to Earth. It has entered into a strategic partnership with insurance giant Aon for marine observation.

“We’re tracking vessels worldwide to help insurance companies understand where the risks are. We’re looking at where there are lots of vessels and lots of cargo accumulating,” Bourke says. “The next year is about that partnership, commercialising the system, bringing that space technology to the insurance community.”

Success stories such as those of the National Space Centre and SkyTek are what Tony McDonald, programme manager at Enterprise Ireland, is trying to make the norm.

“Ireland doesn’t have what we’d call a traditional space sector,” he says. “But what we do have are very innovative companies that can develop technologies, adapt them for space, and then transfer them out of space for other markets.”

There are about 70 Irish companies working with the ESA and McDonald would like to see that increase to more than 100 in the next two years.

“We’d love to see an expansion in the number of companies working in space. We’re already seeing Irish companies working on significant projects. It would be good to see more [becoming]deeply involved in space technology development and then commercialising those technologies.”

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