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The sky is not the limit for UK's space tech start-ups

From time travel to space cots, recruiting with artificial intelligence and unique digital travel apps - whatever the sector, the opportunities are limitless for UK start-ups in the space technology sector.

Each year up to 10 new start-ups join the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Centre at Harwell (ESA BIC Harwell), to use space and satellite technology to develop products and services in both space and non-space sectors.

When they join, alongside £41,500 funding, incubatees can take advantage of intellectual property, technologies and expertise generated by ESA research, as well as to STFC’s world class expertise and technical facilities, and a dedicated STFC business champion. They also gain access to a variety of additional funding opportunities, including a network of regional, national and venture capital funding sources.

In fact, since opening in 2010 the ESA BIC Harwell has helped more than 66 start-up companies, more than 40 of which have already graduated from the centre and are now rocketing their way to commercial success as vibrant, growing businesses.

We take a look at just a handful of these alumni, for whom the sky was just the beginning, to see how far they’ve come since graduating from the BIC.


‘Cycling is fast, fun, healthy and free, but it’s not always straightforward getting from A to B. And according to British Cycling, just 2% of journeys in the UK are made by bike’


Blubel’s video, including their work at the ESA BIC Harwell.
(Credit: Blubel)


At the ESA BIC Harwell, Blubel has developed, and is already taking pre-orders for, a smart navigation device in a bicycle bell. It uses GPS technology to find the best cycling routes and intuitively guide cyclists, using a mix of sounds and lights, via a Bluetooth app. It also crowdsources data from its users, so that the cycling community can report potential hazards simply by ringing the bell. Each time a cyclist rings their Blubel when encountering obstacles on their journey, such as roadworks, a high number of pedestrians crossing or traffic, the app crowdsources this data to identify alternative, safer routes for the rest of the community. A built-in accelerometer even picks up sudden stops or uneven road surfaces. The data can also be shared with urban planners to develop safer cycling infrastructure and smarter cities. “Being at the ESA BIC Harwell gave us funding and the right technical support to make sure our product technology was fully developed.”, said Sasha Afanasieva, CEO and founder at Blubel.

Blubel has recently worked with the Nitrous and Transport for London to help keep London moving. One of only five other start-ups that were selected from hundreds of other applicants, they were generating ideas on ways to reduce congestion on London’s public transport network and roads, and lower pollution levels.


‘A mile could take five or 50 minutes, but travelling for a minute will always be the same.’


(Credit: Innovate UK)


Using satellite maps overlaid with public transport and road data, iGeolise developed its ‘Travel Time’ platform at the ESA BIC Harwell to create maps that are searchable by time rather than distance, such as from home to a place of work.

Major UK players including Rightmove, Zoopla and Jobsite are now using the platform on their websites, which can help their customers instantly identify, rank and sort potential locations based on journey time. It takes into account whether travel is by car, foot, bus, train or tram. It even factors in average walking speed, position of bus stops and stations, regularity of public transport, congestion at any given times of day and speed limits.

Peter Lilley, Co-founder and CEO at iGeolise, said: “At least 40% of all web searches are for geographical information, so we knew we had a really useful and revolutionary product. Our focus was on the commercialisation of our technology, so becoming an incubatee at STFC’s ESA BIC Harwell put us in the perfect position to access the specialist business expertise we needed to gain the exposure and contacts with the right audiences and markets, and this is critical to the success of our business.

The iGeolise software is now widely available across the world, from Thailand to the Netherlands, with expansion to North America planned for later this year. In addition, a newly launched website means that anyone can now try TravelTime search to design their own map.


Space Shuttle Endeavour helps to create a unique travel journal app, and find Pokémon!


(Credit: Esplorio)


Using data collected from the Space Shuttle Endeavour, web-based travel start up, Esplorio, worked on its unique smartphone travel app at the ESA BIC Harwell for people to record, relive and share their travels through their mobile phone, without the need to use any roaming data and very little battery power.

Since graduating from the ESA BIC in (date) and launching the app, people in more than 120 countries have already used the Esplorio iOS app to record visits to more than 24 million unique places from every corner of the planet, and have even used the app to find the best Pokémon in London! The Esplorio iOS app lets travellers automatically check in to their favourite places, map out routes via GPS, and upload photos into a digital travel journal that can integrate with any social media platform, but which is kept completely private unless the user decides to share it.

Topological space maps automatically detect which country things are in and data collected from the Endeavour help calculate the elevation of certain locations. Satellite imaging is used to overlay the trips on, incorporated with GPS and Galileo location sensing technology to help with tracking.

Essa Saulat, Co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer at Esplorio, said: “Being at the ESA BIC Harwell gave us the benefit of working near other companies in a similar field, as well as the knowledge made available to us. Being in such close proximity to people who know about things like grants and funding was invaluable and the added benefit of funding and office space provided to us through the ESA BIC Harwell was a real bonus. A lot of what we do is related to GPS and, when you’re surrounded by people who are experts in that field, having one 30 minute talk with someone can potentially save a month’s worth of research and work.”

Since launching the app, Esplorio have raised three further rounds of funding, been featured on the App Store, and have worked with major corporate partners, including British Airways and Williams Martini Racing.

Oxford Space Structures – SpaceCot

SpaceCot launches - Satellite technology revolutionises baby travel


(Credit: SpaceCot)


Using technology designed to unfurl space satellites at 30,000 miles above the earth, Oxford Space Structures developed the prototype for its revolutionary SpaceCot at the ESA BIC Harwell – a brand new design of travel cot that weighs less than 6 kilos, and can be folded up or down, with one hand, in three seconds.

Since graduating from the BIC, the company has gone from strength to strength with its recent product launch, and retailers throughout the UK, including Mothercare and Jojo Maman Bébé, are now stocking the revolutionary SpaceCot. The company will also be expanding into international markets this year, including France and Asia.

Inspired by patented technology designed for ESA’s Alphasat, Europe’s largest telecommunications satellite, the SpaceCot’s easy opening technology is based on a very simple folding mechanism that was used to unfold its 40 metre solar wings as it reached geostationary orbit, using the fewest components possible to maximise its strength and stability.

“Joining the ESA BIC Harwell meant that we had an unrivalled array of world leading science and research infrastructure at our fingertips, which was invaluable to developing the prototype.” said Fujia/Julian (add title). “With focus also on the commercialisation of the SpaceCot, being at STFC’s ESA BIC Harwell put us in the perfect position to access the specialist business expertise we needed to gain the exposure and contacts with the right people, and this is important to the success of any new business.”


‘80% of employee turnover is due to bad hiring’ – Harvard Business Review


(Credit: STFC)


The CEO of US mail order giant, Zappos, claims to have lost over $100m due to bad hiring, and UK firms lose at least £1bn annually, due to a fragmented recruitment industry. Industries today face an assortment of challenges, many of which are due to human biases that limit decision making. But the recruitment troubles faced today are too complicated for a single human to solve.

MeVitae is leveraging data-driven cognitive solutions to solve the world’s biggest employment challenges, from increasing workplace diversity to global mobility. Through the interaction of humans and machines working together, Mevitae has created a powerful amalgamation of data, neurology, cognition and pattern recognition that enables their software to automate, learn and make decisions that are personalised and tailored to a company’s needs.

Since leaving the ESA BIC Harwell, MeVitae has flourished into one of the top 50 disruptive game changers in Thames Valley, and has been named as one of the top 100 TechCity influential UK tech companies for defining the next generation of digital business across the UK.

Riham Satti, co-founder and CEO at MeVitae, said: “Joining the ESA BIC Harwell provided the time and space we needed to grow and develop our product to a level that is beneficial to employers or recruitment agencies. The support available and the benefit of being associated with the European Space Agency gave us real credibility which helped us enormously.”

Sue O’Hare, Manager of the ESA BIC Harwell, said: “Here we have just a snapshot of the successful start-ups that incubated here at the ESA BIC Harwell. Each is solid proof that, with the right business support and expertise, pioneering start-up companies can take space technologies into completely different industries, turning brilliant ideas into successful, profitable businesses. Anyone who is thinking that ESA BIC could be for them, or would just like to know more, is invited to get in touch.”

Join the ESA BIC Harwell!

Whatever your business vision, whichever sector you’re targeting and whatever the innovation you’re passionate about developing, we can help launch your start-up into a thriving, growing business.

Calls for proposals to join the ESA BIC Harwell take place throughout the year, the next deadline for applications closing on 28 April 2017.

Further information and advice about getting involved with the ESA BIC Harwell, and how it could benefit your company, can be found at the ESA BIC Harwell website.

About the ESA BIC Harwell

Managed and co-funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the ESA BIC Harwell’s sole mission is to enable small, budding businesses to translate their brilliant ideas on how they can use space technology and develop the ‘next big thing’ in both space and non-space fields.

ESA BICs form part of ESA Space Solutions - the largest space related entrepreneurship and technology transfer network in the world. By the end of 2017 there will be 140 start-ups supported at 19 BICs, across 35 European locations, ready to bring space back down to Earth.

Last updated: 13 September 2017


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