Not many people are aware of Switzerland’s major contribution to space exploration. Swiss technology helped land the first man on the moon in the Apollo 11 mission, and the country is a founding member of the European Space Agency (ESA). Today Switzerland is a hub of space-industry research, with companies operating in both “in space” – or the large satellites, space vessels, and launch pads we traditionally think of – and “downstream,” which develops applications for using that technology and compiling the data to feed systems here on Earth.
At the Innovaud-EPFL Alumni webinar, the three entrepreneurs described the innovations coming out of Switzerland in each field, as well as the vital role space technology will play in driving the transition to a more sustainable economy. The speakers were: Grégoire Bourban, Deputy Head of Space Innovation Unit EPFL and co-founder of Space4Impact; Didier Manzoni, deputy CEO and General Manager Space of APCO Technologies; and Fabien Jordan, founder and CEO of Astrocast. Frédéric Dubois, key account manager at Innovaud, facilitated the webinar and panel discussion at the end.
A snapshot of Swiss businesses
Bourban kicked off the presentations by painting the landscape of the Swiss space industry. It employs some 2,500 people at over 100 companies, and has supplied technology for nearly all ESA missions – including the soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope. Swiss businesses are active in upstream operations, which consist mainly of rockets, satellites, and launchers, as well as downstream operations such as applications for weather forecasting, telecom systems, precision farming, and GPS. Bourban also mentioned the important work being done at Space Innovation and Space4Impact to foster the local ecosystem and leverage space technology to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Next, Manzoni described how his company, APCO Technologies, is supplying key parts for satellite control systems and launcher equipment, including the ESA’s Ariane launcher in French Guiana. The company was founded in Vaud canton 35 years ago and now has 400 employees worldwide, making it a stellar example of a successful space company that designs core infrastructure components. Jordan then presented Astrocast, an EPFL spin-off founded in 2014 to develop nanosatellite technology for the Internet of Things (IoT). Astrocast is Switzerland’s first satellite operator and the world’s leading IoT satellite company; its nanosatellites are no bigger than a shoebox and weigh just 5 kg. They are deployed to provide telecom network coverage to remote areas, making it easier to monitor crop conditions and weather patterns, conduct search-and-rescue operations, and inspect bridges, dams, and power plants, for example.
Making daily life easier and more sustainable
In the panel discussion that followed, Dubois pulled no punches. “Given the space industry’s reputation for being a heavy polluter, a sink for fiscal spending (on R&D that appears based on science fiction), and in some cases a geopolitical pawn,” he asked, “what concrete benefits does space research actually bring to citizens in their daily lives?” The participants were quick to respond. “Just about anything that has to do with security – whether climate security, navigation systems, disaster response, telecommunications, or military intervention – relies on a large network of satellite assets,” said Manzoni. Jordan provided further examples, explaining the critical role satellites play in observing weather patterns and predicting major events, measuring the effects of climate change, and monitoring heavy infrastructure to make sure it’s safe to use.
Bourban pointed out that because space research is funded mostly by public money, the industry needs to be accountable to citizens for how that money is used. That’s one of the aims of Space4Impact. “Many citizens don’t realize just how much space technology is embedded in the systems they use every day – when they look up a weather forecast, use their GPS, or withdraw cash from an ATM, for instance,” he said. “But that’s not all. On a more fundamental level, this technology is what’s allowing us to make progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). I’d even go as far as to say that without space assets, we probably won’t reach those goals.”
Dubois’ next question addressed the issue of old space (financed by public agencies) versus new space (financed by private investment). Manzoni explained that it’s important to view the two industries as complementary and symbiotic parts of the space tech ecosystem. He noted that Switzerland is lucky to have businesses in both fields – established companies like his to provide experience and stability, and startups like Astrocast to inject fresh ideas and new applications. “There’s another trend we’ve seen over the past 10–15 years that I’d say is an important element of new space – a major influx of private-sector capital,” said Jordan. “Venture capital firms have poured billions into space tech startups. This has the advantage of making the startups more agile and less dependent on government spending.”
“Switzerland stands to be a pioneer in the area of space debris removal with ClearSpace-1, the world’s first space-debris removal mission.”
Sustainability out in space, too
The final two questions related to the future: Dubois asked the participants where they saw the space industry in ten years, and how Switzerland – and Vaud in particular – is positioned to meet future challenges. Among the various trends the speakers discussed, almost all will require putting more and more satellites into orbit over the next ten years. This will be essential for leveraging the full benefits of space technology – but it also raises the tricky issue of space debris. “We need to make satellite operators more aware of their duty to steward space and not generate more pollution, which in some orbits can have disastrous consequences,” said Manzoni. “Switzerland stands to be a pioneer in this area with ClearSpace-1, for example, which is the world’s first space-debris removal mission.”
The issue of space debris also gets back to the broader topic of sustainability. “The sustainable use of space is clearly a trend that will gain traction in the next ten years,” says Jordan. “The SDGs are high on the agenda of Swiss policymakers and investors, and our country is ideally positioned to educate the venture capital community on space tech’s potential in this area – the gains to be had not just for businesses, but also for the environment and society as a whole.”
Watch the replay of the webinar below: