Whether sending European spacecraft to distant frontiers, studying our home planet in greater detail than ever before, or designing new launch systems, ESA activities drive the development of new technologies.

These technologies can be protected as patents, which ESA makes available to entities in its Member States for research or commercial uses. But there is a long way to go before a patent becomes a product.

Eutelsat-172B, the first European telecommunications satellite to demonstrate electric propulsion. Lots of the selected ideas involved telecommunications antennas.
Eutelsat-172B, the first European telecommunications satellite to demonstrate electric propulsion. Lots of the selected ideas involved telecommunications antennas.

To support this journey, ESA’s Technology Transfer and Patent Office turned to the Discovery element of ESA’s Basic Activities. Through the Open Science Innovation Platform (OSIP), the Discovery element issued a call for ideas on innovative ways to use a collection of promising ESA patents for commercial purposes. Eight of these ideas will now be awarded funding to help boost the transfer of ESA technology and the competitiveness of the European space industry.

Bridging the R&D gap

ESA patents could include new technologies to make spacecraft power last as long as possible, or new radio equipment that allows satellites to send back large volumes of science data more efficiently.

But the technologies in these patents are often at a very early stage of development. Providing access to the intellectual property may not be enough: there is often a large R&D gap between an ESA patent and a profitable commercial application, which can make it tough for a company to justify an investment.

Enter ESA Discovery and this call for ideas: the OSIP call was set up to get new ideas off the ground and bridge the gap between patent and demonstrated application by bringing together innovative members of the European space community, promising ESA patents, ESA expertise and seed funding.

“The call went out to the European space sector to come up with innovative ways of using a collection of ESA patents,” says Mercedes Sanchez Alvarez, ESA Technology Transfer Officer. “We focused on patents that we believe have high potential for new applications, but which are not yet being widely used.”

“I was very impressed with the quality of the ideas we received from a range of large and small companies and universities. We then selected the ones that most creatively used the technology and had the highest commercial potential.”

Inventors on speed dial

OSIP has allowed allow the teams behind the funded projects to interact directly with the inventors of the related patents and with other experts at ESA. The chance to engage and bounce ideas around with the people closest to the technology and who can best explain how and why the technology was developed and used at ESA, is one of the Platform’s biggest advantages.

“Often, the inventors of ESA patents have a general idea of how they could be applied and can offer very useful insight to the external project teams,” says Mercedes. “But we saw also saw ideas that surprised even the inventors and which they thought were very innovative!”

“Now, we are looking forward to the second phase, where we will really dive into the commercial aspects of the projects. The funded ideas will help boost Europe’s competitive edge in the global technology market by opening up new business opportunities for innovative companies, or by helping them be more competitive in their existing activities. We would definitely like to run a similar call for ideas again in the future with another collection of patents.”

The patents involved in this call are primarily related to telecommunications, navigation and satellite power systems, which generally reflects the overall distribution of ESA patents. Read about the selected ideas here.

-ESA also photos