ESA continues to break down barriers and create more opportunities for small companies to get involved in space. Start-up companies and small enterprises offer agile and bespoke development adding value to Europe’s future space economy.

One of the greatest concerns for a startup entering the space domain is securing its first contract. However, by 2020 about 1800 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) working with ESA and for EU space projects together achieved an annual turnover of €3.9 billion with a total of 33 000 employees.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) bring innovative ideas and efficiency. ESA recognises the value of disruptive technology, specialist skills and dynamic working practices. As a result, these enterprises are gaining ground in ESA programmes. This gives them the credibility they need to succeed. In turn, this enriches the European space industry by growing expertise in the workforce and making it more competitive.

In 2016, the Agency and its Member States adopted a new and dedicated SME Policy. This was set up to facilitate the inclusion and sustainable involvement of SMEs in the Agency’s activities and support their introduction into the industrial supply chain. This is accompanied by various measures within the various programme directorates of the Agency to give SMEs specific opportunities within ESA.

ESA's Industry Space Days
ESA’s Industry Space Days

On 28–29 September, Europe’s space industry will gather at ESA’s tenth Industry Space Days event at ESTEC, its Technical Centre in Noordwijk in The Netherlands. Large System Integrators and midcaps to start-ups and SMEs, will join the forum to exchange ideas, find potential partners, and explore opportunities with ESA.

Over the last five years more than 1380 SMEs have worked on ESA programmes representing more than 27% of companies contracted by the Agency.  SMEs were involved in about 33% of all the contracts placed and have received almost 10% of the corresponding commitments.

SMEs on key ESA missions

One such SME is UK-based European Engineering & Consultancy Ltd (EECL) founded by Dr Ben Kieniewicz. It provides high technological electronic and wireless solutions to the aerospace markets.

Having grown from a one-man company in 2016 to a team of seven, EECL looks set for further growth. Its international customer base covers France, Israel, Switzerland, Spain, Germany and Ireland; only 10% of its business is in the UK.

Dr Kieniewicz spoke about working with ESA: “Our first ESA contract proved a game changer. Off the back of our first contract to provide a moon payload on Lunar Pathfinder, we gained further work outside of ESA which required us to invest in a space-qualified cleanroom assembly and test area. Business is good.” 

EECL recently signed a contract to work alongside Airbus and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) on ESA’s HydroGNSS reflectometry climate change mission.

Lunar Pathfinder
Lunar Pathfinder

EECL is currently involved in ESA’s Lunar Pathfinder mission to deliver a novel GNSS receiver. Its low-noise amplifier module will amplify the weak signals received from Earth’s telecommunications and navigation services, helping to enable future exploration. 

“Having a project that is sending hardware we built ourselves to the Moon is really very special,” Dr Kieniewicz said. “We have provided significant design effort to the SpacePNT receiver module as well as manufacturing, assembly and environmental test campaigns. Out of the success of this project we can make the transition into a much more capable business.”

A further positive outcome of winning ESA work and growing its business is that EECL linked up with Kingston University to employ two aerospace graduates, giving them invaluable hands-on experience and increasing the expertise of the next generation of space engineers.

Developing a New Space ecosystem

Space for Europe
Space for Europe

ESA is enabling and accelerating space business as part of its long-term plans for Europe in space described in its Agenda 2025. In November 2022, the Agency will make proposals at the ESA Council Meeting at Ministerial Level (CM22) intended to encourage innovative technology development and commercialisation in the European space sector.

This involves plans to support the competitiveness of European New Space ventures in the global space markets. ESA plans to provide external support to business development which may include technical consultancy and advice, access to technical facilities, in-orbit demonstration and validation opportunities, as well as support to access private investments within its proposed ScaleUp programme.

This type of support is complementary to ESA’s traditional R&D procurement implemented through classic ESA programmes and missions. It is intended to boost new business for ESA Business Incubation Centres, foster disruptive innovation within PhilabNet, promote technology transfer and patenting.

ESA’s goal is to enable industry to take more risks, introduce more innovation and come to the market faster to ensure breakeven for private investors, and build a stronger European space economy.

ESA also photos