Sagar Doshi




United States





By Sagar Doshi

The Space Agency in Your Backyard

I like thinking about the future. I like things that feel like they could come out of the pages of a science fiction novel. Some of you know this about me. Some of you even share this interest. If you do, then you know that there are few futuristic sectors more interesting to a scifi nerd than the burgeoning space industry.

I have some news for you: right here in Oxfordshire lives the newest facility of the European Space Agency (ESA), and the first in the United Kingdom. I first learned of this from none other than our very own Dean Peter Tufano. I was having a phone call with him before the start of our programme, and he mentioned not only the existence of this facility, but also the fact that at least one Oxford Saïd alumna has taken advantage of its proximity for her startup. More on her later.

The branch of ESA in Oxfordshire is called ECSAT, which stands for the European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications. ECSAT’s mission sends it to work on a very wide variety of applications, from technology transfer to communications and broadband satellites to environmental science from earth observation. It’s headquartered at Harwell Campus, sometimes called the UK Space Gateway. If you want to understand anything about ECSAT, you must first understand Harwell.

Harwell Campus, Oxfordshire Source:

Harwell Campus, Oxfordshire

Harwell is a nearby business campus focused on the most cutting edge science and technology development. It’s like a shopping mall, except that instead of retail and fashion, it is computing, healthtech, space, environmental tech, and materials science that fill the workdays of the nearly 200 organisations here. There are a wide variety of events happening at Harwell at any given time, many of which are open to the public. Want to see a synchrotron particle accelerator? There’s a two-hour tour on the 5th of November. Want to attend free science talks with titles like “From Jack the Ripper to Malaria: Geographic Profiling in Biology” or “Stopping Bad Guys with Lasers”? You can book your place for either event online.

But many of you will want to hear more about the space organisations at Harwell. It’s not just ECSAT: there are also others, like Oxford Space Systems, which helps design materials for the rapidly democratising satellite industry. They specialise in physical satellite structures that emphasise simplicity and few moving parts in order to minimise breakage. Oxford Space Systems worked closely with ECSAT to get off the ground.

ECSAT also has opportunities in mind for those of you more interested in software than hardware. Copernicus is the aptly named programme for earth observation data, generally used for environment and climate applications. Much of its data is free and open to the public. Many of you could look at the specifics of those data and come up with a startup or social impact idea directly benefiting from this information. Take, for instance, the Danish organisation Ascend XYZ that used Copernicus data to build a cloud-based, browser-based solution to better monitor likely wildlife activity near airports and avoid accidents.

There are even opportunities for those of you not interested in the space industry itself. One big commitment of ECSAT is to expand the use of space technologies outside that sector. There are endless applications that have come from space tech to regular life. What if you were the innovator who brought the next such innovation to the masses? And it doesn’t even have to require the purchase of expensive patents and intellectual capital. ESA overall produces an enormous quantity of new inventions that it wishes to share for free with businesses at large. This is something that any new organisation in Europe can take advantage of. ESA even runs business incubation centres all over the continent.

Spacecot (unfurled) Source:

Spacecot (unfurled)

Remember the Oxford Saïd alumna mentioned earlier? Her name is Dr. Fujia Chen. After graduating a few years ago, she began a startup now called Spacecot. Spacecot learns from ESA technology used to physically unfurl one of its largest satellites in order to produce compact, expandable baby cribs. Dr. Chen is an exemplar for what we might be able to do if we lift our heads outside the whirlpool of our own school experience and look for opportunities in the institutions around us.

There’s quite a bit we can learn from the scientists, technologists, and innovators near us. It might take a little bit of effort to uncover some of the projects most accessible and interesting to you, but if you put that time in, you might well discover a new trove of data that’s perfect for your big idea.

If you find yourself interested in these sectors and needing some help, don’t forget to check out the Aerospace and Defence Oxford Business Network, which is focused precisely on this industry. MBA students George Thalheim and James Buchanan are your leads there. And do drop me a line as well: I’d love to hear more about what interests you.

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