Humble origins drives OHB support for Europe’s space startup scene
BREMEN, Germany — Today’s OHB might be Europe’s third-largest space sector corporation, harvesting prestigious government contracts, but the Bremen-headquartered firm still remembers its modest beginnings.
Thirty-five years ago, OHB was a family-run business with the staff of five run from a garage workshop, building and repairing hydraulic and electric systems for the German navy.
The firm’s growth and expansion has been spectacular as it steadily climbed from subsystems to full-fledged satellites, including Europe’s Galileo naviation satellites. It’s the company’s history that makes today’s management fond of the emerging startup companies struggling to break into the increasingly competitive and fast evolving sector.
In a sense, OHB sees itself as a godmother of European startups and wants to extend its hand to the space hopefuls of today.
At the Space Tech Expo in Bremen, SpaceNews met with Fritz Merkle, a member of OHB’s Executive Board, to discuss the challenges of the NewSpace era.
Q.: In your keynote speech, you spoke about challenges that the European sector is facing. What are they and how is OHB responding to them?
A.: Space is changing. For 40 years it has been about pioneering engineering, pioneering technology, doing what was considered impossible. That is changing these days. We still have the technological pioneering element with new, bold ideas such as missions to the neighboring planets or even neighboring galaxies. But the real pioneering today is happening in the entrepreneurial world.
Space is no loner about the few hundred people involved in space programs, building space shuttles and Ariane 5 rockets. It’s no longer about doing business with taxpayers’ money. Now we have entrepreneurs who start with their own money or with venture capital.
Europe is following in the footsteps of the United States, where private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are dominating the development.
Europe has to find its way. The challenge is that in Europe we are much more fragmented as a space community. The European Space Agency has 22 member states. Each nation has its political interests and favorite industries. It’s much more difficult to coordinate our activities.
At OHB, we believe that we understand the changes that are happening today. We started as a startup, a family-run business, 35 years ago. The company’s spirit was very similar to what we are seeing in today’s startups. We may have developed into a company that does governmental contracts but in our genes is still this entrepreneurial approach and we are very keen on what we are seeing happening today.
Q.: European startups frequently complain about the difficulties raising capital, the reluctance of investors to accept risk. Do you see the attitude changing?
A.: I believe it’s changing because it is a need. In OHB, we prepare ourselves to show courage, which was the initial ingredient of OHB. You need to have courage to go into not perhaps adventures, but the courage to invest into programs, which may at the end become profitable.
We need to be prepared to accept that startups fail. Investors often say if there are not 80 percent of startups going bankrupt within one or three years, the challenge was not sufficient.
Q.: How is OHB getting involved with the startup community?
A.: We look very much into the startup scene. We support the DLR’s INNOSpace Masters competition and if we see a startup, which would fit into our company, we would invest into it.
We have even started our own startup programs. We have just recently launched an in-company competition, a permanently running program, where we invite employees to propose new business ideas linked to space. If they are good, we then give those employees a chance to, for a limited period, run a startup company that is linked to OHB.
Quite recently, we started a company in Luxembourg called OHB Blue Horizon, which focuses on water and how to source it in space. Water is essential for everything mankind will do in the future in space — for the mission to Mars, for long duration missions to the space station, for living on the moon. Water is essential and it cannot just be brought in on a weekly basis from Earth. It has to be found on these celestial bodies. It has to be processed. It may be recycled.
But such a technology might also have an impact on Earth. There are so many areas on Earth, deserts for example, where this type of technology, developed for space, may on a much more affordable level be used in order to make life easier and to prevent migration out of certain regions.
Q.: Where does OHB see itself going in the future?
A.: As a company that is mainly a satellite manufacturer, it is really important for us to have a clearly defined future. We want to see Galileo become a permanent European infrastructure that has a clearly defined path for the next generations. The plans are already there. We are preparing ourselves to be the right future partner for the European Union.
We are in the telecommunications area, Earth observation and radar technology. We are strongly looking into this infrastructure build-up that continues to happen in Europe. Space has really become an integral part of our lives.
But we are also focusing on scientific activities and programs. We are cooperating with ESA on the Plato (PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars)
mission. We observe very carefully what is going on at the International Space Station and what will happen post-ISS. We hope to participate in the Deep Space Gateway and we very much hope Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spaceplane will be developed and used for European missions. We would also like to see Europe decide on a future asteroid mission. In the long term, such technology would be needed for protection from asteroids and it can be used in parallel for asteroid mining. Technologies developed for asteroid mining could in turn be developed into spin-offs for other areas of space. We support all such ideas including manufacturing in space.
Q.: You said that EU-funded programs such as Galileo are paramount for OHB’s future. Your main partner on Galileo is UK-based SSTL. How does OHB view the issue of the UK’s departure from the European Union?
A.: We work very closely with SSTL on the Galileo program. Even now, batch three of the Full Operational Capability Galileo payloads will be based on their technology and we have a very positive cooperation. We hope that the EU and UK will find a way in the space arena for the UK to remain involved not only in ESA activities but also in EU-funded programs such as Galileo. We hope that they will find a way for the cooperation to continue in the same spirit that we have seen so far.