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Orbital Ecosystem - the changing relationship between large and small organisations in the space industry


The moment when Neil Armstrong planted his foot on the surface of the Moon inspired awe, pride and wonder around the world. 50 years on only 571 people have been into orbit; and since 1972 no one has ventured much farther into space than Edinburgh is from London. The great promise laid down by man’s first steps outside Apollo 11 have yet to come to pass.

Orbital Ecosystem - detailed graphical representation of large satellite orbiting Earth with Africa clearly visible

The next 50 years will look very different. Falling costs, new technologies, and a new generation of entrepreneurs promise a bold era of space development. It will almost certainly involve tourism for the rich and better communications networks for all. This is an environment where pacey innovation and agile thinking will accelerate outputs. It is going to become a huge opportunity for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) who can offer both. 

SMEs are a place where innovation takes place quickly. Larger companies can be incredibly innovative but they just are not able to work as fast as an SME. Smaller firms fail fast and fail forwards; everyone is on task all the time; governance is lighter; and because SMEs have different levels of responsibilities they can often take greater risks and therefore deliver greater rewards. I’ve seen SMEs move forward in weeks where large companies are still making complex investment decisions.

As a result, in the space industry – where that speed of innovation is a requirement for success – small companies have started to fill some of the voids because they can start and move quickly, whilst large companies can take a while to consider a strategic change of direction. 

So SMEs are expected to play a vital role in our ability to grow the UK share of the global space market by 2030 to the 10% target set by Government. But they cannot go it alone. The downside of relying solely on SMEs is they are usually working at smaller scale, so in terms of meeting that target their impact is limited and they can quickly get choked with too much work. Larger, more established businesses have the resources and facilities to enable new ideas to be tested and converted into products and services and to roll them out to customers once developed. They also usually have greater access to larger programmes that SMEs do not have the critical mass to get involved with alone, especially in the later, more enduring capability phases of space programmes. Larger companies also tend to boast a wider spread of expertise, offering new ways to engage different thinking from a range of perspectives into the innovation process.

The optimum solution is therefore a carefully balanced combination of organisations that reflects the benefits of companies at different ends of the scale. Building a community that blends the agility and rapid innovation of smaller businesses with the heft, experience and resources of enterprise firms means the best of both works for the UK space community. The launch of the Open Innovation – Space consortium last week, led by Airbus, QinetiQ, KBR, Leidos and Northrop Grumman, is a useful example in practice. Together the companies involved called on SMEs to join the initiative and help develop future satellite communication services, further increasing SME involvement in this burgeoning side of the UK space industry, whilst creating high value jobs and growth across the country.

This is a particularly shrewd move for a national space industry seeking to grow within the global marketplace. Between 80-90% of the space industry exists today in downstream services including satellite applications, broadcast services, geospatial observation, and location services. And this is where SMEs tend to operate because the cost of entry is considerably lower than in the upstream side of the sector where designing, building and launching infrastructure into orbit comes with lots of pound signs attached. So building a community designed to collaboratively harness potential in the majority of the marketplace makes sense and is set to deliver significant impact against the UK Government target.

The growth of possibilities for the global space industry could see the annual revenues double to $800bn by 2030, according to UBS. Still further in the future, space development could remake how humanity lives and works. Reaping the rewards will not come without a lot of hard graft and endeavour. Spreading that responsibility across businesses of all shapes and sizes is a must, which is why initiatives such as Open Innovation – Space will be so important for making sure the UK can play a significant part.