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How to get UK space SMEs beyond the final investment frontier

The UK has 2000 space SMEs but few have managed to scale. With the right incentives and regulatory environment the industry can go interstellar, says Andrew Turner

Shipping in the 1700s, cars in the 1800s and aviation in the 1900s – throughout history London has been the global hub for financing era-defining technology. I believe the City can do the same for space now.

The global space industry might be worth $1trn by 2030 fuelled by fast-paced geopolitical and commercial drivers. Interest, ideas and opportunity are growing as quickly as during the 1960s Lunar race; intellect, energy, passion and clear-sightedness are in surfeit. London has a rich seam of venture capital, private equity, sovereign wealth and climate funds with £1trn of dry powder ripe for deployment into a sector that could and should be a new engine of UK GDP. 

The UK’s industrious universities, eager entrepreneurs and some 2000 space SMEs are generating new space technologies all the time but few have scaled beyond Series B. Confidence is low and distribution of capital is slow, so IP-flight is the easiest path to growth. But London is a beacon where ambition, cash and expertise at every latitude and longitude are seeking a UK lead. 

But why should we care? City deal-flow can manage without space, can’t it? But few realise how dependent on space society has become. Traffic lights, dialysis machines, ATMs, petrol stations, transactions – all rely on satellites. A day without space would cost £1bn – which is so large it’s an uncovered risk.

Most dreamily reflect on astronauts and thunderous rockets when thinking of space. Impressive, inspiring and exciting, but they are almost a rounding error in the overall enterprise. Downstream data is where the opportunity lies – the space sector as a whole is not high-risk. In fact, space is closer to the risk profile of motorway services, light manufacturing or shipping. Adjusting perception is at the heart of accelerating our fast, flat and fabulous space SMEs. 

Government has ‘equity’ in all this – it must deploy investor-friendly policies to retain technology onshore with the IP, tax and job benefits our nation so determinedly seeks. This necessitates a sharper national space strategy with clearer aims, way points, resource allocations and a plan to realise them beyond the hyperbole and Whitehall glossies. Space spending should be aggregated to grow a £10bn fund, doubled with debt guarantees and quadrupled with investor match funding; £40bn would catalyse onshore growth. We need tax policies that will attract, recruit and retain the space workforce along with slim, effective legislation, agile regulation, arbitration, financing and insurance. And finally we must capitalise on Britain’s role as a global convenor, building on His Majety’s Astra Carta, to catalyse and lift the emerging space nations. 

Space could be a driver of GDP, but it needs to be engineered and fought for. A clearer national purpose, focussed tax policies, better understanding of risk and leadership will unlock those benefits.

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