This autumn, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Education (SERI) will open an ESA Business Incubation Centre (ESA BIC) in Switzerland. In addition to technical expertise and business-development support, ESA BIC Switzerland will also provide start-ups with up to EUR 500,000 in funding, which makes this a very interesting programme for young Swiss companies. The programme aims to support innovation in the space industry and the transfer of space technology to other fields.
Following an intensive competition phase that produced three viable options, the ESA and SERI selected an ETH Zurich-led consortium to be charged with setting up and operating ESA BIC Switzerland. With the winning proposal from ETH Zurich, the ESA and SERI can fully meet the goals they set for ESA BIC Switzerland. The solution offered by the ETH Zurich’s consortium stood out because it fulfils the three key criteria for the programme to support start-ups especially well.
Firstly, because IFJ Startup Support, established in 1989, and its ‘Venture Kick’ programme will be an integral part of the consortium. IFJ is an experienced partner in start-up scouting and selection. Its inclusion in the consortium will therefore ensure that the start-ups selected by ESA BIC Switzerland will be of a high quality. Also on board is Impact Hub – a global network with 80 sites worldwide and hubs in Zurich, Geneva and Bern through which start-ups can establish themselves and find opportunities for collaboration, thereby meeting the need for a Swiss-wide solution with an international outlook. And finally, the consortium has established partnerships with notable businesses from aerospace and other industries. Together with investors and other financing partners from the private sector, this fulfils the criteria of ensuring a ‘public-private partnership’ which will cover 60% of the programme’s start-up funding through private funds.
The project’s next milestone will be the opening of the ESA Business Incubation Centre on 10 November. A jury comprising representatives from the ESA, ETH Zurich and other partners will select the first start-ups to receive funding from ESA BIC Switzerland in November. These start-ups will present themselves on the ESA BIC Switzerland’s opening day, at which ESA Director General Johann-Dietrich Wörner will be present.
Demanding high-quality programme with international support
One of SERI’s main goals in ESA BIC Switzerland is to create a programme to support start-ups with a link to space technologies that is demanding, attractive and has global appeal, while fulfilling its supportive role as a government agency. The programme is initially scheduled to run for five years and will support up to ten start-ups each year.
“Similar programmes in other countries are usually largely financed by institutional public funds. The ESA BIC Switzerland is different”, explained Johann Richard, project manager and programme director for technology, telecommunication and navigation at the SERI Space Office. “The consortium has managed to mobilise national and international partners from the private sector. As a result we are able to limit the ESA’s funding contribution to the start-ups to less than half and finance the rest from private funds. Over the course of the two years in the programme the start-ups receive substantial financial support and benefit from the business and technical expertise of specialists from various fields of industry.”
The Swiss model for the ESA Business Incubation Centre also represents a new approach for the ESA. It emphasises the competitive nature of the bid and selection of the operator, and shows the extremely high quality of the submissions. “The ESA was spoilt for choice as it was presented with three outstanding bids with widely differing approaches”, said Frank Salzgeber, head of the ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme Office. “In the end we were persuaded by the concept with the best scalability for Switzerland as a whole, an appropriate financing model and close cooperation between the different partners for scouting and selection and incubation and support.”
Fresh impulses for space-based applications
AP-Swiss, an ESA-SERI platform that has existed since 2012 will also form an integral part of ESA BIC Switzerland. The platform is intended to bring together businesses with commercial offerings in the field of space-related applications beyond the framework of start-ups. In future start-ups and established businesses should be able to benefit from these synergies by drawing on data or infrastructure in the field of space-based earth observation, telecommunication and navigation.
As Norbert Hübner, head of ESA feasibility studies in this field explains, “This integrated approach takes business networking and the processes and tools to develop space-based applications and services to a whole new level. This in turn creates a virtual ecosystem which can provide the relevant ESA programmes, and of course Switzerland, with fresh impulses that extend far beyond the aerospace industry.”
Switzerland and the ESA
To date the European Space Agency ESA has developed over 70 satellites and is currently conducting 18 missions, including Rosetta and MarsExpress. The new European satellite navigation system, Galileo, and various environmental monitoring satellites, the launchers Ariane and Vega were developed under ESA leadership. Switzerland’s annual contribution to the ESA amounts to around EUR 140 million. The ESA’s total budget for 2016 is EUR 5.3 billion. Thanks to this contribution, Swiss research institutions and the aerospace industry can benefit from and further develop its excellent scientific and technological expertise and gain competitive access to international projects and markets.
Switzerland has successfully co-presided the ESA Council at ministerial level with Luxembourg since 2012. This co-presidency will continue until the next ministerial meeting, which will take place in Lucerne in December of this year.