Space Camp Mission 1 Investor Day featured in The Sunday Times26th August 2018
Peter Evans/@peterevans10 / August 26, 2018
Satellites lead the way as businesses see a bold future written in the stars
With its panoramic views of London, Level39 — close to the top of One Canada Square in Canary Wharf — was a fitting venue for a glitzy showcase on space. On show at the workspace for tech start-ups were six fledgling businesses that had just completed an accelerator programme run by Seraphim Capital, a venture capital fund focused on the development of cosmic technology.
Anyone expecting to see rockets or spacesuits would have been disappointed. Last month’s “space camp” had a more prosaic but vitally important focus: to find the businesses best able to collect and pass on the huge amounts of data sent down from satellites and drones circling the earth.
Information gathered from space is used to power industries from finance to agriculture, transport and construction. Space technology already accounts for a significant part of the UK economy. Turnover from the industry reached nearly £15bn last year, according to the trade organisation ADS, and about 40% of all the small satellites in orbit were built in this country. The global industry will be worth £400bn by 2030, according to a forecast from the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy.
Despite the big numbers, there is a problem: as demand increases for the data from the cameras, sensors and scanners on satellites, capturing and processing it becomes more difficult. “We are reaching the physical limits of what current computing technology can achieve,” said Rob Taylor, head of Reconfigure.io, one of the businesses at the space camp.
The Manchester company, which has brought in £700,000 of investment and is in talks to raise a further £1.5m, has developed a product that allows computers to process far more data, far more quickly than previously. It means information can be delivered and analysed at much greater speed.
“Moore’s law is dead, which is choking any business that analyses data at scale or speed,” said Taylor, referring to the observation by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, that the processing power of a microchip doubles roughly every two years. “The need for speed and the ease of achieving it are now critical.”
Seraphim Capital is trying to solve the problem. It claims to be the world’s first venture capital fund purely dedicated to space. It is interested in start-ups connected to any industry that benefits from satellite technology. The second space camp will open its doors next month.
It is not just small companies that stand to gain. Rolls-Royce, Airbus and the European Space Agency have partnered Seraphim. Experts say big names see it as a way to observe the development of new technologies before buying the best.
Seraphim’s first fund, worth £70m, is backed by the UK Space Agency, among others. It was created in 2016 to invest in companies that benefit the country’s economy, such as Spire, which operates a network of nanosatellites, and Iceye, which provides satellite imaging.
The venture capital firm is now raising a $250m (£195m) fund to back businesses around the world. “We want to fund the next Google Earth,” said Mark Boggett, Seraphim’s chief executive. “We think there are many of them. Every investor recognises that the quicker you can get into space, the better.”
There is a growing number of investment opportunities for Seraphim because venturing into the cosmic territory is far easier than it used to be. Building a satellite and sending it into orbit once took years and cost billions of pounds. It can now be done in about 18 months at a cost of just a few million pounds. There are more than 4,000 satellites circling Earth, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs.
There are also plans involving the rockets and launchpads of every child’s imagination. Last month the locations for Britain’s first commercial spaceports were announced, which could lead to a satellite being launched from home soil within the next three years. A British rocket carried the Prospero satellite into space in 1971 — but that was launched from Woomera, South Australia.
The first two spaceports are to be located on the north coast of Scotland in Sutherland and near Newquay, Cornwall. More sites are under consideration in Snowdonia and Glasgow Prestwick. The vertical-launch spaceport in Sutherland, developed with the help of Lockheed Martin, has been awarded £2.5m funding as part of the government’s Industrial Strategy and will be given access to the £50m UK Spaceflight Programme fund.
The site in Cornwall has agreed on a deal with Virgin Orbit to launch satellites, although they will piggyback on Boeing 747s rather than being launched on rockets. Under the partnership, the Virgin operation will send up small satellites with the aim of improving access to data.
The spaceport announcement followed an unexpected move towards the final frontier in Cornwall. In May, the financial services billionaire Peter Hargreaves announced a £24m investment in Goonhilly Earth Station on the southern tip of the country. The site is working with the European Space Agency to become the first private operator in the deep space communications network.
The countdown to even bigger rewards from space technology for the UK economy has well and truly begun.