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image European Research News Centre > European Research Policy > On Earth as in the Heavens
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image image image Date published: 07/11/02
  image On Earth as in the Heavens
RTD info 35
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  Miniaturisation, innovative materials, robotics, optics, software engineering… Despite what some people think, space research is at the origin of many technological advances. It is a particular source of inspiration for high-tech SMEs seeking to convert innovative technology into commercial applications in fields as diverse as medicine, mechanical engineering, transport and textiles. This is why the European Space Agency (ESA) has teamed up with the European Commission to create Esinet, the European network of ‘space incubators’.
   
     
   

When he began his career as a researcher at Brunel University, to the west of London, Tony Arson probably never imagined that one day he would be running his own company. Today he heads Anson Medical, an SME and member of a group quoted on the Stock Exchange. It was while working on a space project in the field of microgravity that he realised that shape memory nickel-titanium alloys could have interesting applications in the medical sector. ‘Their principal property is the ability to return to their original shape following heat deformation, as well as their super elasticity,’ he explains. ‘Thanks to the support of companies specialising in technology transfer, such as JPR in the United Kingdom and D’Appolonia in Italy, we have been able to develop products which are ideal for less invasive surgery, such as orthodontic springs, clips/staples and artificial hips. More recently we have developed stint grafts for the treatment of aneurysm. This is now our flagship product.’

As a field of very advanced experimentation requiring innovative technological systems, space is a potential source of all kinds of applications. As early as 1991 the ESA launched its active technology transfer programme (TTP) charged with promoting space technologies in other industrial sectors. Today, more than 150 technologies with their origin in space have found the most diverse applications, generating a turnover estimated at €200 million. By 2004 this could have grown to a billion euros.

SME aptitude

The size and flexibility of SMEs means that they are often the best suited to capitalising on these innovations. Many technology consultancy and brokering companies are active on the ‘space transfer’ market and several of them are participating in the Aero-Space Link (Aslink) project. This is supported by the European Commission as part of its ‘Economic intelligence’ initiative which is specifically targeted at SMEs. Under the Aslink leadership, about 40 proposals involving more than 80 aerospace companies and 180 companies active in other sectors have been selected by various European research programmes.

Lostesc (Leveraging on Space Technologies to Enhance SME Competitiveness), another programme promoted jointly by the ESA and the Commission, has a similar objective. Coordinated by the French company Technofi, six consultancy firms – from Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal – have identified technologies likely to find applications outside the space industry with a view to promoting them in industrial circles and proposing them for finance as co-operative research under the Craft programme. About 30 projects were submitted in this way during the Fifth Framework Programme and six or seven will be submitted under its successor. The Artec Aerospace company of Toulouse, for example, has successfully drawn on a new technology for vibration absorption used during satellite launches to develop applications in shipbuilding (such as the Corsica-Continental ferry), high-speed train wheels, helicopters and Formula 1 rear-view mirrors.

Need for protection

In a field as specialised as space technology transfer, the creation of spin-offs or start-ups requires a specific infrastructure for technical assistance and managerial support. These are the needs which the ‘space incubators’ are designed to meet. The ESA has set up one of these incubators in the Netherlands, at the heart of its Estec research and technology centre in Noordwijk. There are almost 20 centres of this kind throughout Europe – in Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Finland, Bulgaria, and Ukraine – located in regions with a concentration of space-related activities. Since July 2001, these SME ‘guardians’ have worked together within the European Space Innovation Network (Esinet) exchange and co-operation network.

This initiative, which benefits from Union support, was launched by the ESA, the T4Tech Centre of Genoa (IT), the European Business Network (EBN), and Wallonia Space Logistics (WSL).

Why such a network? ‘Apart from the traditional managerial and infrastructure assistance, space incubators have a very specific vocation. Exploring and implementing the technological potential in this field requires a particularly specific expertise, in terms of intellectual property for example,’ explains Franco Malerba. A biophysicist and the first Italian to be launched into space, Franco Malerba is an active member of the Italian Space Agency and head of the new network’s Liaison Advisory Committee.

Galileo and GMES

‘Esinet meets a need for openness and cross-fertilisation which is felt by all these European incubating centres,’ stresses Florence Ghiron, director of WSL, an incubator set up in 2001 in Liège (BE). ‘We are working on technology niche markets where you have to go beyond the regional level before you can really do business,’ she explains.

Esinet is a very timely development as European space activity is set to develop a great deal with the opening of the Galileo and Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) sites. ‘New services and applications will be designed to exploit these future space systems in the field of positioning, navigation and environmental monitoring,’ stresses Florence Ghiron. ‘Many of these developments could be of direct interest to SMEs. We are also ready to welcome at our centres any terrestrial applications in terms of transfers generated by the implementation of these systems at European level. These large systems will certainly require increased exchanges.’

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To find out more:

http://www.jratech.co.uk
http://www.esa.int
http://www.artec-aerospace.fr
http://www.estec.esa.nl
http://www.t4tech.com

 

The ESA's Technology Transfer programme is promoting
the SpaceHouse concept in the construction sector.
This is an invitation to use the exceptional architectural
possibilities offered by the development - initially for space
applications - of carbon fibre reinforced plastics or CFRPs.
(c) ESA

The ESA's Technology Transfer programme is promoting the SpaceHouse concept in the construction sector. This is an invitation to use the exceptional architectural possibilities offered by the development - initially for space applications - of carbon fibre reinforced plastics or CFRPs.
(c) ESA

 


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