EU launches €1bn ‘game changer’ Cassini fund to support space start-ups

25 Jan 2022

EU commissioner for the internal market Thierry Breton. Image: European Parliament

The EU is looking to boost space innovation with a ‘game changer’ fund for start-ups.

EU commissioner for the internal market Thierry Breton has announced the start of the €1bn Cassini fund to boost start-ups in the space industry and develop new technologies.

Speaking at the 14th EU Space Conference today (25 January), Breton said the EU is a space power with the necessary expertise, industrial capacity, start-ups and assets to “weigh in on the global stage”, but added that space is becoming a “contested domain”.

Breton said one of his priorities for the year ahead is financing vibrant start-ups that have disruptive ideas and technologies, something Europe is not short of.

“Many of our start-ups cannot get sizeable equity investment in the EU once they need to scale up. They have no choice but to turn to non-EU investors. This is a major loss for Europe. The Cassini fund will be a game changer.”

The fund will deploy investment capacity of at least €1bn to support scaling start-ups. It will also be supported by a debt instrument from the European Investment Bank to ensure new companies get access to loans, particularly when they’re not accessible through traditional sources.

The Cassini initiative will also cater to future entrepreneurs by offering competitions and mentoring to help them develop products that meet customer needs, explore new business models and craft market plans. This includes a hackathon that was run last year.

The fund was first announced as part of the EU’s space strategy in January 2021. Breton said at the time that the aim was to invest in innovations, stimulate more VC funds to actively invest in space companies in Europe, and get other industries to invest in space technologies.

Irish space involvement

Many Irish start-ups have been making a leap in the EU’s space industry, with Irish companies racking up €11.5m in European Space Agency (ESA) contracts in 2020. Last April, Cork start-up Varadis also secured a €600,000 ESA contract for its radiation detection sensors and Nitrexo received €500,000 in ESA funding for its AI robot for space engineering students.

Several Irish teams contributed to the historic launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, which reached its destination today. A successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, it is the largest and most powerful space observatory ever built and is set to give scientists a new eye on the cosmos.

Irish start-up Réaltra developed a video system for the telescope’s launch vehicle, which was tested by Newry’s Resonate Testing, while Nammo Ireland provided structural supports. As well as these companies, researchers at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies were responsible for providing infrared technology to enable scientists to see further into space.

Growing space market

Breton stressed the need to consolidate existing assets in the space sector as competitors are moving fast. He described the Galileo satellite navigation system as the best in the world, with plans to accelerate the deployment of its second-generation satellites. He said the first of these new satellites are expected to launch in 2024.

A recent report by the EU Space Programme showed global navigation satellite system (GNSS) and earth observation (EO) markets are growing significantly, generating €200bn revenue in 2021 and set to reach €500bn over the next decade.

The report indicated that, from a supply perspective, Europe holds more than 41pc of the global EO downstream market and 25pc of the global GNSS downstream market.

Last December, the EU launched two more Galileo satellites into orbit, bringing the total number to 28, to enable more robust services and precise signals from the network. The expansion of Galileo is part of the EU’s plan to become a global leader in the space sector.

EU commissioner for the internal market Thierry Breton. Image: European Parliament via Flickr (CC BY 4.0)

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic