Kim writes freelance for a number of publications – below are some recent features from The Herald’s Business HQ magazine and The Scotsman’s Vision magazine.
Firing on all Cylinders
From monitoring crops in South America to preventing deforestation in Asia – space technology is a major export success story for Scotland.
Not only does the sector export satellites and associated software to the world’s space-exploring nations – the use of satellite data in a variety of industries from finance to construction is giving Scottish companies the edge in international markets.
Glasgow-based company Bird.i provides satellite imagery for business intelligence. Its client base is largely international, but it has a number of home grown customers, including Glasgow fintech Trade In Space.
Together they are developing new financial service products using data collected from satellites. With the Bird.i platform, Trade in Space can monitor and predict crop yields in South America.
“If you were to buy a single satellite image of the earth from space it would cost you between £500-5000,” Bird.i chief executive Corentin Guillo said.
“Our platform aggregates and processes the imagery so that companies can access them as a streaming service – we’re a bit like Netflix!”
Customers come from a variety of sectors, from hotel resorts looking for images for marketing purposes, to construction companies monitoring the build process and energy companies building infrastructure like windfarms.
“Trade in Space is using the information we aggregate to inform commodities traders,” Corentin explained.
“We’re about efficiency and timeliness – we remove a need to travel to monitor from the ground and we upload new images every day so companies can use them to inform important commercial decisions.”
Corentin chose to establish Bird.i in Glasgow, rather than Oxford where he was based, because of the talent pool available. With the city’s space hub and the neighbouring tech hub in Edinburgh, not to mention world class universities across the country, it made sense. The company’s strong growth would seem to indicate Glasgow was a good choice.
As well as informing commercial activities, earth observation from space also has huge implications for monitoring environmental impact.
A number of Scottish companies are exporting not just information but knowledge around the world, from implementing training in developing nations to use satellite images to protect against poaching, for example, to helping governments meet targets to prevent climate change.
Edinburgh-based Space Intelligence uses satellite data to help companies monitor their environmental impact. Customers in North America or continental Europe can monitor projects in Africa or Asia to prove they’re not causing deforestation, for example.
“Companies like Mars, Cargill and McDonalds have all got together under the Consumer Goods Forum to commit to zero deforestation in their supply chains by 2020. Of course whenever you make a big commitment like that you have some way of monitoring your impact and that’s where we feel we can come in,” chief executive Murray Collins said.
“We apply our own algorithms to big data from space to answer questions about environmental management.”
It’s not just in analysing the downstream data analytics where Scotland excels, the upstream sector is a world leader in the construction of satellites.
Glasgow-based companies Clydespace, Spire and Alba Orbital are specialists in building the hardware, while companies like Bright Ascension in Dundee build the software to operate these satellites.
Dr Mark McCrum, Technical Director of Bright Ascension explained the technology could easily translate to other industries.
“Anywhere there are remote systems, our software has potential – remote infrastructure in oil and gas for example, or robots or drones,” he said.
“There does seem to be a lot more awareness [of this technology] – there’s a lot going on in the Scottish space sector, it seems to be getting better organised. You don’t just have to work for NASA to work in space! It feels like it’s kicking off, it’s an interesting time for Scotland.”
It’s true the Scottish space industry is growing at a rapid pace – the Department for International Trade estimates it could be worth £4bn by 2030.
To support this growth, the Space Exports Campaign was launched last year and aims to enhance the position of Scottish and UK companies in the international market.
The offer to exporters includes space trade missions to priority markets like the USA and India, shares detailed information about new markets and allows access to a network of overseas market specialists.
In 2016/17, UK space exports were worth £5.5bn, and the industry currently generates more than 37% of income from abroad. In the same year, the UK space industry supported 41,900 jobs – with nearly a fifth based in Scotland.
“The Scottish space sector is dynamic and ever growing, and Scotland alone is home to more than 130 space businesses, generating a combined income of £140m,” said Dylan Thomas, Deputy Director of Technology, Entrepreneurship and Advanced Manufacturing at the Department for International Trade.
While certain industries are quickly cottoning on to the business benefits of incorporating satellite data, others are more conservative.
Peter Young, former chief executive of Telespazio VEGA and now non-executive director at Global Surface Intelligence, said there is a fair amount of education still required.
“We’re at a tipping point,” he said.
“We don’t need these companies to set up departments, because that requires quite a high level of knowledge and there are commercial companies in Scotland offering that service. Insurance and assurance businesses are very interested in knowing more and as it becomes more common, the belief will be there that the data is credible. It’s a hugely exciting time for Scotland.”
The next big sectors to adopt space technology, he predicts, will be construction, oil and gas and aqua culture.
“We could detect algae blooms which may threaten fish farms – that kind of information would be extremely valuable,” he said.
“It’s funny, you say ‘space’ to someone and they imagine moon missions.
“There’s a lot of education still to be done as to what satellites can do and the value they can bring.”
Robin Sampson from Trade in Space is convinced his model is the future for many fintechs.
“More and more satellite data is being fused into all digital products and services, and to automate business processes, rather than just being used to inform decision making,” he said.
“This is a new and fundamentally more valuable way to use the global insights that looking at the earth from space gives us. More than ever before we can see the impact that the commercialisation of satellite data is having on the world. We’re uniquely placed in Scotland, in that we have a community highly skilled in everything from data analysis to rocket manufacturing.”
Keiko Nomura – PhD student – Edinburgh University
“I was at a space conference in Milan and the panel was entirely white males – so the hashtag “manel” started trending.”
Keiko grew up in Tokyo, where it was particularly unusual for women to pursue a career in science.
She moved to Edinburgh to learn how to use data to solve environmental problems.
“I had been working on a UN development programme for Asia Pacific to reduce deforestation – it was a very difficult job,” she said.
“I worked on the project for five years and I started thinking, ‘Maybe we’re not doing this right’. I realised the data was still not there to convince people on the right approach. I wanted to learn how to get that kind of data, that would create very strong evidence to lead decision makers’ process to totally reduce deforestation.”
Keiko chose Edinburgh because it was a hub for experts in this industry, particularly in the area of remote sensing and imaging.
“I have two supervisors for my PhD, Dr Ed Mitchard and Dr Genevieve Patenaude – so I suppose it’s a 50/50 gender balance! I went to a conference in Milan three weeks ago for the European Space Agency – it was huge, about 4000 attendees – and the panel was all white men. There were so many women in the room – could they not find a single woman to be part of the panel? The hashtag ‘manel’ started trending as a result – and it was mostly men calling it out. I think women are becoming more visible in science. Edinburgh is particularly inspiring for me, I hope to stay for a year after my PhD.”
Keiko’s goal is to find cost-effective and politically feasible points of intervention to protect and manage forests better. In doing so, she is also interested in improving the sustainability of agricultural crops.
“I have to be very self-disciplined,” she explained.
“My first year was very structured at the university, but after that you’re supposed to be more independent. I did a lot of research in the field and got in touch with a lot of people I wanted to learn from.”
Networks like Women in Geospatial have been important to Keiko and she recommends other women scientists be aware of quoting, inviting and supporting each other at every opportunity.
“If you look around, there are so many women in this industry, it’s a good time to be here,” she said.
“My research has given me so much power. I can say “This is what’s driving deforestation, here’s the data” and I can hopefully lead the change.”
Nicola Walker – Junior Engineer – Skyrora
“A certain newspaper dropped a photo of me for their story in favour of a guy – and he wasn’t even a scientist
23 year-old Nicola studied physics and astrophysics and applied for jobs all over Europe – she was pleasantly surprised to find out she had a lot of opportunities in Scotland.
“I just knew I wanted to do something spacey,” she joked. “I looked up ‘Scotland space companies’ and found a very strong satellite business hub in Glasgow – but electrical engineering is not what I know, I’m still trying to learn the software side. I looked into launch services and that’s how I found Skyrora.”
Nicola joined the Edinburgh-based launch provider as a junior engineer – and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.
“It’s a small company so I do a bit of everything!” she said.
“On the first day I had my own project and I really enjoyed that – to be able to do the research right from the start. I learn so much on the job because it’s a start-up – it’s just a case of asking and being flexible. Some days are more admin-focused than others, but there is a lot of research which I like. I like knowing how everything works on a more detailed scale.”
Nicola had originally been torn between studying history and physics – and decided on the latter because she believed it would lead to more job opportunities.
“I thought about how much data we’ve gathered through astronomy and thought maybe we could learn something amazing from a launch. It’s insane that physics can explain those every day things you don’t even notice. It’s just really cool to think I could help put something into space.”
Nicola attends a number of events and conferences with her role and it’s here that she notices the bias from the public when it comes to women scientists.
“Whenever they have a question, they will always turn to the guy for answers,” she said.
“I remember we were standing by a rocket and someone asked how it worked, my male colleague had to say, “Ask Nicola, she’s the engineer”. The person was quite shocked!” I also did a story with a newspaper which will remain nameless. They didn’t use a photo of me, they chose a picture with a man instead and he wasn’t even a scientist!”
Within the industry it seems it’s a different story, Nicola said Skyrora in particular is trying to encourage more females into the industry.
“It’s cool to talk to girls and young kids about my job and how they could do something similar,” she said.
Sarah Middlemiss – Space Programme Manager – Ecometrica
“If you’d told me I’d ended up working in space, I’d have told you to go home!”
Sarah’s degree in Management and Philosophy might not be what you’d expect in a Space Programme Manager – but then, nothing about her career was predictable.
“I left uni and decided to save the world!” she joked. “I worked in the third sector in international development for two years and didn’t feel I was making any progress. The chairman of Ecometrica took me for lunch as a kind of favour because he knew a lot of people in the industry – he ended up offering me an internship.
“It was a case of right place right time, as when I finished the internship they were just starting the space aspect of their work – environmental impact mapping – and I was able to ride that wave. If you’d told me I’d ended up working in space, I’d have told you to go home! I was just very lucky with the timing.”
As unexpected as it was, the uses for satellite mapping meant she could still help to save the world.
“There is such huge growth in the space sector in Scotland and I’m learning on the job, I’m going to lots of conferences and events. I started in business development, trying to drum up interest in the mapping Ecometrica does, particularly in the academic sector. They don’t suffer fools gladly, so it was good training,” she said.
Her current role involves managing stakeholder relationships and space projects, she works closely with the European and the UK Space Agencies.
“There’s a lot of travel, which is amazing. I was in Mexico last year, working with the forestry sector, but there had been a lot of flooding so there was a disaster response team in a rural area and it was great to go there and meet them. I’m learning Spanish – and I’m back in Mexico in a few weeks, which I’m really looking forward to.”
Sarah is keen to point out you don’t need to be a scientist to work in the space sector.
“I think there’s a place for the softer skills, you have to be a self-starter, you’re working in a small company so you have to take the initiative,” she said.
“My job didn’t exist – I wouldn’t have found it – it’s more about finding companies that you identify with. The best advice I got was ‘Well, what are you good at? Find a job that supports that’. Ecometrica has big plans for growth and I think the next ten years are going to be really exciting.”
The Only Way is Up
Edinburgh’s aim to become the ‘Data Capital of Europe’ is allowing analysts to capture commercial opportunities offered by hi-tech satellite mapping
By Kim McAllister
Iain Woodhouse’s team is mapping the floods in Southern Malawi using satellite data. The last time the area flooded, 170 people died – so Iain’s hoping the information they can give the government will help them save lives.
The chief executive of Edinburgh-based Carbomap is in Nairobi with environmental consultants LTS. They’re training the government forestry departments from Mozambique and Zambia how to use radar satellite data to map their forests and therefore better control deforestation.
“They’re nearly there, we’re coming to the end of the project,” he explained.
“Mozambique should be doing operational national forest mapping using satellite radar by the end of the year.”
Carbomap is one of a number of companies spinning out from the various research areas in the School of GeoSciences at Edinburgh University.
It’s an ecosystem that’s developing rapidly.
Three years ago the European Space Agency launched the Sentinel satellites to monitor land and ocean through radar.
The data they provide are freely available, but the expertise required to translate this into usable intelligence is considerable.
This is where Edinburgh University shines, according to Dr Murray Collins. He’s the Chancellor’s Fellow in Data Driven Innovation and theme Lead for Space and Satellite at the university’s new innovation hub The Bayes Centre.
“At the university we are very well-placed to capitalise on the opportunities these data provide,” he said.
“We have the combination of scientific and programming skills to create algorithms to process and analyse these data, in the context of information about forests and agriculture, for example.
“The palm oil industry represents a huge commercial opportunity – companies need to prove they are not causing deforestation to comply with global targets signed by companies like Mars and Nestlé. Edinburgh companies like Carbomap, GSI and Ecometrica help them adapt their practices and demonstrate their compliance.”
The final piece of the puzzle is investment – and that’s where the City Deal comes in.
Announced in August 2018 at the university jointly by the First Minister and Prime Minister, the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Deal is a £1.3 billion fund to drive growth across the area.
Half of this fund – £661 million – is dedicated to data driven innovation.
This means that 100,000 people can be trained in data skills over the next decade and 400 data-enabled startups can be created over the same period – space and satellite is a huge part of this plan.
The Executive Director of the Data Driven Innovation Programme is Jarmo Eskelinen.
“The city is punching well above its weight in many domains, but we have a tendency not to brag about it,” he said.
“If we don’t shout, we won’t be noticed. We want to be the Data Capital of Europe so we have to provide something valuable. Knowledge sharing activity will be at the heart of the programme.
“The promise we made to the government, in exchange for £660m to build the assets, is that we will significantly increase innovation, put £100m of the university’s own money in and at least double that from the private sector. We intend to blow it out of the water! We’ve already reached our target for the year and we’re only half way through.”
Against a backdrop of Brexit uncertainty, data is the sure bet in terms of economic growth.
As satellites, traditionally owned by governments, move increasingly into private ownership, the volume and standard of data is growing rapidly.
The next generation dataset due to arrive will be from GEDI, a satellite which was launched in December and will start providing data in middle to late 2019.
Dr Steve Hancock, lecturer in 3D Environmental Data Capture at Edinburgh University, has spent years working in the team which developed GEDI’s data software.
“GEDI uses LIDAR, optimised for measuring forest structures,” he explained.
“Fuse this with existing data and the information available about the types and health of forests, for example, is extremely comprehensive.”
As new as this ecosystem is, the economic gains for Scotland could be enormous – the sector is potentially worth £2.5 billion.
The challenge, as it screams ahead in its technology, is taking companies and governments along for the ride.
Ecometrica, another Edinburgh-based satellite data mapping company, saw its turnover increase 112% last year.
“There’s a shift to seeing information as an operational cost, a productive factor,” explained Sarah Middlemiss, Space Programme Manager.
“Raw data isn’t required; it’s lost on most people, especially those making decisions at a high level. What’s needed today are the insights and the actual information brought out of that data in easy-to-digest interfaces and reports.
“Senior managers need to make decisions and take action, so their questions are more like “Is my supply chain at risk, are we complying with this particular regulation, what do we actually need to do here?”
These real world issues are being tackled at the Bayes Centre in Edinburgh’s Potterow. It is the first of five innovation centres operating under the DDI Programme and was full within two months of opening in October last year.
Director Michael Rovatsos explained there is a real mix of private companies and university researchers working together to change how we live.
“One of the collaborations is Orbital Microsystems, a US company looking to launch 40 new satellites,” he said.
“These will update information for airlines every 15 minutes, rather than the twice daily updates currently available. This will mean they can recalculate flight routes almost in real time, saving fuel, benefitting the environment and perhaps even leading to cheaper tickets for passengers.”
What’s encouraging is the importance of ethics within this satellite data ecosystem.
“We want to excel in doing data right,” Jarmo concluded.
“We want to strike the balance with privacy and ethics.
“It’s a tricky combination because frameworks break down when you’re using machine learning so we need to develop a tool-like approach so we can trust the systems. It’s a major area of development. If we want to create a lasting mark in the data world with our DDI programme, we’re betting on ethical data.”
Glasgow manufacturers, Edinburgh tech firms and local expertise give the Scottish space ecosystem all it needs to rocket forward, discovers Kim McAllister.
“More satellites are built in Glasgow than any other city in the world,” said Malcolm Macdonald, Space Lead at the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications.
Isn’t it interesting that the city famous for ship-building should now be leading the way with spaceships?
Where we once thought of space as putting a man on the moon, the industry is now much more focused on the data coming from satellites. Scotland is particularly well-placed to capitalise on this growing sector – with many agreeing a Great British Space Age is dawning.
Since the Space Industry Act was passed in March, it has led to millions of pounds worth of funding being made available to companies looking to expand in the industry. Perhaps most excitingly, £31.5 million has been set aside for the development of a spaceport in the most northerly tip of Sutherland. Highlands and Islands Enterprise has begun gauging interest in designing, building and operating the port.
This would be the only launch facility in Europe – and has the potential to complete the circle of services already offered by the Scottish space industry.
“Launch is the one thing we cannot do in Scotland,” Malcolm explained. “Getting the satellites into orbit is the missing piece of the puzzle – the spaceport would give us full end-to-end capacity.”
The capacity includes not just the building of satellites, but also the software development and processing of the data they provide. In fact, these downstream services form 90 per cent of the global market. Scotland’s universities are playing a key role in developing not only the talent, but the market.
At Edinburgh University, Dr Murray Collins is the Chancellors Fellow in Data Innovation: Space and Satellite analysis. Working through the Bayes Centre, Murray’s role is to develop new research and partnerships with industry and public sector to increase the uptake of data-driven innovation.
“Organisations that don’t embrace this technology generally will be left behind,” he said. “What’s really exciting right now in the space sector is the fact, at the same time as huge volumes of data have become freely available from satellites, the technology to process, analyse and distribute that data is developing rapidly.”
Murray’s work so far has focused on data analytics to detect deforestation and map landscapes, but increasingly companies are keen to use the data to monitor crop yields and pollution.
The environment is supportive – Edinburgh’s £1.3bn City Deal, of which Murray’s role is a part, aims to train 100,000 data scientists and foster 400 data-enabled start-up companies in the next 15 years, and funding is forthcoming from the UK Space Agency (UKSA).
Chris Lee, UKSA chief scientist, said Scotland has always focused on the development of technology and demonstrating utility. He said: “We’re seeing a change in the nature of what we mean by ‘space’. Scotland is developing a very strong ecosystem around applications. The opportunity for growth is there.”
Everyone I’ve spoken to in this rapidly developing industry agrees that the goal is for inclusive growth. A broad diversity of industries can benefit from satellite data and Scotland is uniquely placed to capitalise on this opportunity.
From the cutting edge satellites being built by businesses like Clyde Space and Alba Orbital in Glasgow to the big data processing happening in companies like Ecometrica, LTS and Astrosat in Edinburgh, the expertise and technology is impressive for a nation of five million.
UKSA’s ambition is to address 10 per cent of the global market by 2030 – that’s worth £40bn to the UK. Translate that to the economic opportunity for Scotland, where, according to the Space Sector Report 2017, one-fifth of the workforce resides, and we have the potential to attract £2.5bn.
There’s no doubt this is a time of transition for the space industry. We are in a perfect storm of freely available data, sophisticated software to translate it and the expertise to apply it – all while satellites are moving increasingly from public into private ownership.
Dr Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UKSA, told me Scotland has a strong heritage in the space sector. “Earlier this year we announced more than £30m of funding to support a spaceport in Sutherland which will build on the country’s global reputation for manufacturing small satellites,” he said.
“In addition, Scotland will benefit from a £2m government fund to help horizontal launch sites such as Glasgow and Prestwick grow their sub-orbital flight, satellite launch and spaceplane ambitions which could attract companies from all over the world to invest in the region.”
As Brexit uncertainty affects us all, perhaps we should be broadening our horizons and aiming for the stars.
New firms are banding together as Brexit uncertainty threatens the ecosystem’s future, writes Kim McAllister from the Scottish Tech Startup Awards.
“This is a bunch of people who are hugely important to the future of Scotland’s economy,” Brian Corcoran, chief executive and co-founder of tech conference Turing Fest, tells me, while we are standing at the bar at Edinburgh’s Central Hall.
But you probably wouldn’t recognise many faces until you heard their employers’ names. Administrate, CareSourcer, FreeAgent, Snap40 – all international success stories following in unicorn Skyscanner’s footsteps.
The Snap40 team is celebrating after two big wins: the healthtech has just scooped StartUp of the Year and B2B Company of the Year, hardly surprising given their $8 million (more than £6m) investment announcement earlier this year. Fintech platform Nucleus Financial, recently floated on the Alternative Investment Market, has been crowned ScaleUp of the Year, while accounting software FreeAgent’s Ed Molyneux was named CEO of the Year.
Corcoran and his team behind Turing Fest are expanding the brand tonight with the inaugural Scottish Tech StartUp Awards. Much like the education-focused tech conference, this is different. No three-course meal, no after-dinner speeches and a more than casual dress code.
“Well, no, there is no dress code,” he had warned me in advance. “We want people to be comfortable. We’re trying to create something for those in the tech start-up ecosystem. We knew if it was £150 a ticket, only the management team would come, and this is not a corporate-style event. Some people have bought tickets for their entire 15-strong team – we completely sold out at 530 people. It’s a party.”
According to digital technologies trade association ScotlandIS, 11 per cent of the tech industry’s talent comes from non-UK, EU citizens, a figure Corcoran calls “very conservative”.
“I wouldn’t be applying for a mortgage, put it that way,” he said. “I’m Irish, my wife is Scottish-Brazilian and our daughter was born here in Edinburgh. I’ve lived here for eight years but after 29 March will I still have the right to live and work here?”
He is already seeing the effect of the uncertainty among colleagues. Some software engineers have left their posts and others haven’t taken up job offers.
“Imagine the impact on Scotland if we lost a fifth of our tech workforce,” he says. When I admit I don’t really want to, he insists. “Well, we have to because that’s what we’re facing, not to mention the three million UK citizens living in Europe who might not be able to stay.”
Given the war for tech talent – those with the necessary software development and engineering skills required by fast-growing companies – this is a major bump in the road. It’s estimated there are only 20 million developers in the world, the equivalent of the population of Romania. I ask if it’s wise to get so many of them in the one room tonight. “Well, I’d say the benefits outweigh the risks,” he laughs. “There will always be competition and different coders suit different stages of business development so it’s natural that there’s movement in the market. You’ll notice not many people are talking business tonight…”
It’s true – they are too busy gathering teams for the real life video games and drinking at the free bar to consider moonlighting. Until you’re working in the sector it’s difficult to appreciate the openness and collaboration. Corcoran keeps using the word “ecosystem” and it’s an approach mirrored by Entrepreneurial Scotland and others in the space.
As a young industry, it is setting its own rules. Many of those at the top of the game, for examples, John Peebles, chief executive of training management system Administrate, make themselves very accessible. He gives half an hour a week to anyone who wants to talk to him and encourages his peers to do the same. The gap between the engineering and creative talent is closing as investors, founders, tech teams and organisations like Turing Fest work to bring everyone together.
The fact that so many of them support these awards, and are reinvesting their own profits into new start-ups, like Skyscanner’s Gareth Williams’ recent investment in fast-growing family messaging service Kindaba, shows the genuine desire to foster talent and learn from each other – even if that means a bit of swapsies amongst the staff.
“I think I’m most excited about seeing these companies get the recognition they deserve,” Corcoran concludes. “This is the first Scottish Tech StartUp Awards and hopefully, in 2023, winners will look back and see that the previous nominees have gone on to huge success. There will be some kudos attached to it. But for now, I just want to see everyone in this room in the limelight.”