ESA Investing in Space Spinoffs through New Venture Fund
PARIS — The 18-nation European Space Agency () is broadening its effort to encourage space technology spinoffs through investment in a venture capital fund, the multiplication of ESA-hosted business innovation centers and a more aggressive search for technologies that can be adapted by nonspace businesses.
The effort includes financial aid to small companies in applying for and protecting patents developed from ESA work.
ESA’s Technology Transfer Program Office, based at the agency’s European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, Netherlands, expects to successfully transfer 16 or 17 specific technologies per year to the private sector, and has set itself strict criteria for judging success, according to Frank M. Salzgeber, who runs the office.
In an interview, Salzgeber said ESA counts only those technology transfers that have generated measurable revenues for the receiving company of at least 40,000 euros ($56,000), an ostensibly modest sum but one that gives an indication that the effort is paying off in companies that are often in startup mode, with only a few employees.
Salzgeber said the 64 companies with which the office has worked in the past four years have a 90 percent survival rate, which is higher than the average for startup companies. These are companies that have taken part in ESA’s Business Incubation Center program, which offers financial aid for patent applications, technical expertise and office space for a limited time.
The most recent incubation center to open is in Harwell, England, and the first tenant there is Electrospinning Co., a biomedical research startup. The Harwell center hopes to provide support for up to 10 startup companies per year.
Electrospinning is named after a process that uses a silicon nozzle developed for space applications to produce an electrical charge in the production of nanofibers used to repair damaged organs.
The Harwell facility is operated by Britain’s Science and Technology Facilities Council.
Salzgeber said two more incubation centers are set to open in the coming months, the first in Redu, Belgium. The five currently operational are expected to support 50 startups per year, he said.
The technology transfer office’s budget is some 4.5 million euros per year for a 10-member staff. Its job is not just to welcome companies that have found an ESA-related technology to commercialize, but also to seek out technologies that may be lying dormant at ESA or at ESA contractors.
“Space companies are great at what they do, but often they don’t know other markets,” Salzgeber said. “They are familiar with making small numbers of components and they are not used to markets that produce a given piece of hardware 50,000 times for, say, the medical market.”
The technology transfer office is charged with combing through ESA contracts — most of which are with industry — for undiscovered gems that may be the basis for a new business.
To broaden its reach, ESA has taken the unusual step of making a small equity investment — equivalent to 5 percent — in the Open Sky Technologies Fund, run by Triangle Venture Capital Group, which specializes in early stage investment in companies employing spinoff technologies.
Salzgeber said ESA is reviewing whether its technology transfer services might evolve to include loans to startup companies and other mechanisms so that the office might ultimately be financially self-sustaining. Currently it offers grants to selected startups of up to 50,000 euros, but as a rule ESA, as an intergovernmental organization, is not in the business of generating revenue from its investments.
Integral to the technology transfer effort is identifying which technologies — at ESA or at an ESA contractor — are deserving of patent protection.
Luz Becker, head of intellectual property rights in ESA’s legal affairs department, said the agency seeks patent protection for 15 to 20 inventions per year.
In an interview, Becker said that depending on the nature of the invention, ESA first makes a filing under the Patent Cooperation Treaty, which protects the work for 30 months in most nations that are viewed as patent threats for European companies. It costs between 5,000 and 15,000 euros for each patent filed under the treaty, depending on its complexity, Becker said.
Once that phase is completed, the agency decides whether the invention is worth patenting, and where. U.S. patents are generally more thoroughly researched than those in other nations, making a U.S. filing more likely to get the attention of investors. A filing at the European Patent Office needs to be validated in each European nation in which ESA believes a patent is warranted.
“It depends on what is covered,” Becker said. “If the patent involves solar panels on satellites, we know there are only a few nations interested in that. But if it involves data compression, that is of course of much broader interest.”
Each national or regional patent costs between 5,000 and 30,000 euros — one reason why startup companies often need financial help.