Rising Above the Tide: How Space Startups in Spain Pioneer with Cutting Edge Tech  by@monimissioncontrol

Rising Above the Tide: How Space Startups in Spain Pioneer with Cutting Edge Tech

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Monica Hernandez Hacker Noon profile picture

Monica Hernandez

Spacefaring & quantum futures. Research conducted & personal views expressed are my own.

I take special care to survey the degrees of startup and small to medium-sized business-led innovation in the space industry. This vitality serves as a proxy for the depth and breadth of the country’s broader space ecosystem. Spain presents us with a paradox. Despite a historic, robust, and well-developed space industry that employs thousands of skilled professionals, which has often cross-pollinated with the defense and aeronautics sectors, the country is not well-known for its flourishing space startup ecosystem. And yet, a new wave of formidable entrepreneurs prove the soundness of their R&D and business models like the deep ocean waves that gain momentum and swell valiantly above the tide. There are dozens of space startups across Spain that pioneer approaches to commercial markets and niche applications. 

This renaissance in startup-driven innovation in Spain and across the world will only increase over the coming years. As key veteran industry players continue to receive the most attention from space agencies, public institutions, investment funds, and the public, there’s a laser-focused entrepreneurial tide with no time to lose that rises hungrily for smart business. It grows stealthily towards the decentralized commercialization of a global space economy. Delays in embracing and capitalizing on the rising tide, though, will stunt growth where it matters the most: the younger generations.

Bells and whistles: Some historical highlights and numbers 

Spain is a founding member of the European Space Agency - ESA since 1975. For several years, it continues to rank as one of its largest contributors and supporter of optional space exploration missions and Earth observation programs, including but not limited to the Galileo system, the International Space Station - ISS, and space surveillance and tracking program. It is also home to the Madrid-based European Space Astronomy Centre since 2004. ESAC is the operational and archival hub for ESA's astronomy and planetary science missions. It was also built on one of ESA's 1978 original satellite tracking stations, the VILSPA (Villafranca) site. The launching of the first Spanish-sounding rockets date to the 1960s. 

Spain has also been a frequent and longstanding collaborator with other major spacefaring countries and agencies. It collaborated with NASA's predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics - NACA in the early 1950s. The Maspalomas tracking Station, built in collaboration with NASA in Grand Canaria in 1961, supported all of the major U.S. first human spaceflight programs: Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. It aided the first U.S. space station Skylab and the Soviet-U.S. Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). 

The Centro para el Desarrollo Tecnológico Industrial - CDTI (Center for Development of Industrial Technology), operates under the Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación - (Ministry of Science and Innovation), and serves as ESA's delegation in Spain. According to their 2011 study, Spain's space industry witnessed rapid and consistent growth during 1986-2003, with an average rise surpassing 60% during the study. The Spanish Space Strategic Plan 2007 - 2011 further solidified its national industrial and scientific base. The top ten companies attracted the most investment and working professionals during this time. The launch of its flagship Earth Observation and reconnaissance mission was inaugurated by the satellites PAZ (Peace) in 2018 and SEOSat-Ingenio (Ingenuity) in 2020. Only PAZ remains in operation. The SEOSat-Ingenio was lost during the Arianespace Vega VV17 launch alongside France's TARANIS satellite, a stark reminder of the complexities of space missions. 

Under the leadership of former ESA-astronaut Pedro Duque as Minister of Science, Spain increased their contributions to ESA in 2019 for 2020 - 2026 by 587 million euros. The 2019 National Aerospace Security Strategy has a 360-degree framework for Spain's aerospace and defense infrastructure and capabilities, which builds on its 2017 National Security Strategy for airspace and outer space security. The company Airbus has been recently awarded the leadership role of a 380 million contract for the new Land Surface Temperature Monitoring (LSTM) mission that is part of the European Union's Earth observation Copernicus program.

With a long and important historic participation in the origins of major spaceflight programs, Spain has also consistently sought to develop home-grown industry knowledge, expertise, and commercial programs. A dozen Spanish universities currently offer degrees in aerospace engineering. Therefore, to better understand the paradoxical landscape of industrial maturity in tandem with a stealth startup ecosystem, I connected with two space startup CEOs and Co-Founders in Spain. They focus in distinct ways on the growing market of nanosatellites (≤ 10kg), including the CubeSats, which are typically under this weight range but have already surpassed it under the 12U and 27U (~24-54kg) configurations.

Shaking up the status-quo of electric micro-propulsion

Daniel Perez Grande is the CEO and Co-Founder of the new startup ienai SPACE in Madrid. Originally from the city and with a doctorate in plasma physics and nuclear fusion, Daniel’s passion for space propulsion can be traced early in his professional career as an aeronautical engineer. Propulsion is, in fact, the cornerstone of ienai SPACE whom he co-founded with Sara Correyero and Mick Wijnen in 2019.

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Daniel Perez Grande. Madrid. March 2021.

The company focuses on designing, developing, and analyzing on-board electric micro-propulsion systems for nanosatellites based on ionic liquid electrospray technology. Rresearch about electrospray propulsion dates to the 1960s. In comparison to other technologies, electrospray technology has documented one of the highest electric propulsion efficiencies in the lower power ranges. Ionic liquid ion sources further reduce the typical efficiency-loss that results from the ionization process in the plasma thrusters, which translates to the need for less propellant, or power, on-board.

ienai SPACE. Presentation. October 2019.

On the rationale for this selection, Daniel explained it in even more detail during our conversation earlier in the month:

Electrosprays were designed and developed in the 1960s for low power (≤ 100 watts). This type of on-board electric propulsion wasn’t a feasible approach for early-industry satellites that required power capacity in the kilowatt range due to their weight. Now, with the advent of increasingly smaller nanosatellites, what was once a disadvantage is now an asset. The ionic liquids are also extremely interesting due to their properties. They already have inherent efficiencies right from the outset, and there’s no additional need to expend energy ionizing atoms or molecules. Unlike other liquids in space, ionic liquids don’t evaporate in vacuum environments. This enables the storage of the propellant in liquid form for in-orbit use….So, we have high-efficiency ionic liquid propellants where the kinetic energy output to propel the spacecraft is around 60% of the electrical power input; that's a factor 2 or 3 vs. competing technologies in the same power range, which is also the reason why most companies never mention efficiency... Other technologies just don't have good numbers in this aspect.

As the only electric micro-propulsion space company in Spain, ienai’s approach coined ATHENA (Adaptable Thruster based on Electrospray for Nanosatellites) emphasizes modular systems and agile processes with advanced manufacturing. A variable, bespoke micro-propulsion system where clients can mix and match modules on-demand and aided by their proprietary user-oriented software ienai GO. Going beyond the limitations of architectural configurations and technologies, ienai GO can optimize and breakdown costs and recommendations for specific mission needs in LEO, such as shifting orbits after deployment from a satellite rideshare program. In the near future, the company foresees integrating the calculation and mission analysis of nanosatellites for cislunar maneuvers, lunar, asteroid, and deep space in ienai GO. This operational and technological framework of service on-demand and nano-fabrication methods is typical in the conversations about Industry 4.0.

The company is currently composed of a team of 10 full-time professionals based in Madrid and Mexico. According to their market research, there’s less adoption of on-board propulsion in small scale-satellite missions. This lowers the ease of satellite maneuverability, functionality, and it increases mission costs.

Daniel points out the following:

It is surprising to see that only about 6% of the nanosatellites launched to space carry onboard propulsion because there is a state of maturity and widespread adoption of the nanosatellite market across academic and commercial sectors, especially to LEO, as well as the increased availability of propulsion systems. The innovation that we bring to the industry is a conceptual shift. Most companies offer a discrete portfolio of propulsion systems and technologies. These portfolios reflect how most companies approach the design and construction: ad-hoc and mission-specific. While there’s no single product that fits all, the challenge with nanosatellites missions, including CubeSats, is that there is already a standardization relevant for scale. Some companies have offered standardized propulsion systems, but that may or may not integrate successfully with nanosatellites. This is where we see the biggest need in the ecosystem. Even though CubeSats are standardized, perhaps propulsion systems should not be. We believe that these critical subsystems, in particular, should be tailored for each mission and client. 

The company bootstrapped since from its foundation with 100% of personal capital. The team purchased lab equipment and worked with vendors for smaller constructions to keep costs down. In a short period of time, it has successfully entered a couple of equity-free accelerator programs, including the European Space Agency Business Incubation Centres - ESABIC. The team has also secured several small professional services contracts with universities, companies, and the ESA. Additionally, ienai has received financing from national and local government sources. The company is well set up for approaching specialized investment funds and business angel associations interested in deep tech.

Daniel and his team are active active networkers in the local startup scene. The NASA SpaceAppsChallenge in October 2019, for example, was supported and organized by ienai SPACE in tandem with other partners.

NASA SpaceAppsChallenge, Madrid. October 2019. Supported and organized by ienai SPACE with other partners.

Daniel offered insightful analysis on the challenges of navigating the Spanish ecosystem as a new space startup.

Spain is a well-known player in the traditional space industry. Europe as a whole has been extremely pioneering in the development of the commercialization of the space industry. But the space industry has always been structured and financed in Spain and with ESA in such a way to work with the usual prime contractors. When you’re a smaller player facing institutions in Spain that are used to working with companies such as Airbus, there’s less of an understanding of how to work with you… At the company, we’re all passionate about space…
We’re also aware of about 30 startups gaining traction in the new space community in Spain. But what is still underestimated across the ecosystem is the startups' ability to drive innovation and execute successfully. We have experienced this firsthand when asked why do this if there hasn’t there been an electric micro-propulsion space company in Spain before. In contrast to this reticence from traditional sectors, there are Spanish startups that currently specialize in every part of that supply chain and operate with an agile-mindset and laser-like focus. We’re reaching a tipping point where a constellation project with 30 satellites has been already conceptualized and led by OpenCosmos. Half of the companies involved are startups. The potential for this growing ecosystem of startups in Spain is to be able to rally support, expertise, and resources to launch sound infrastructure projects that make sense in a short period of time.

Setting a different course with in-orbit transportation services

Yanina Hallak is CEO and Co-Founder of the startup UARX Space. Incorporated in 2020, UARX is based in the city of Nigrán in the northwestern autonomous community of Galicia. Yanina co-founded UARX on stealth mode in 2016 with her business partner and husband, Andrés Villa. Both Yanina and Andrés are originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

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Yanina Hallak. Nigrán. March 2021.

With the company motto, #YourRideinSpace, UARX focuses on the design and development of in-orbit transportation services beyond Low Earth Orbit - LEO. Three core flagship projects showcase UARX’s business vision. The modular and scalable spacecraft Orbit Solutions to Simplify Injection and Exploration - OSSIE will service nanosatellites for changes in orbit and constellation deployment and distribution. It contemplates the capability to work with chemical or electric propulsion. They are the only company in Spain focused on this type of in-space smart spacecraft approach to assist CubeSats and nanosatellites on their way to their final destination. The Landing Opportunities for Lunar Activities - LOLA will transport up to 100kg of payloads to the lunar surface. The lander aims to serve a double duty to deliver and host onboard experiments. And finally, its most ambitious spacecraft, the Lunar Cargo Services - LUCAS, will offer larger payload services up to 1,000kg to Lunar orbits. It contemplates the usage of low thrust chemical and/or electrical propulsion technology. Right now, the company partners up with another one for the configuration of propulsion systems. It intends to integrate this propulsion vertical in-house to keep costs down.

UARX has also been offering diverse engineering and professional services tailored to the nanosatellite sector, including mission analysis and software development. In December 2020, UARX announced the signature of a Cooperation Agreement with the German Aerospace Center - DLR. This agreement relates to the development of spacecraft and landers for in-orbit services.

The team is also composed of 10 full-time professionals in Galicia and Argentina that regard in-space transportation as a growing business need in five to ten years. In our conversation, I asked Yanina about the inspiration for the creation of her company. Yanina is also currently undertaking her Ph.D in Aerospace Engineering at Universidade de Vigo. After decades of experience in the space industry in their native Argentina, Yanina and her husband undertook studies at California Polytechnic State University. Cal Poly is the historic epicenter of the development of the CubeSat standard

Yanina pointed out the following:

As my husband and I progressed in our aerospace work and career, we witnessed firsthand the development and maturity of the CubeSat market. It was once unthinkable for CubeSats, but scientists can now focus on targeted in-orbit demos. This goes beyond the launch and deployment to any orbit. The market now requires the positioning of CubeSats and smallsat constellations with particular distributions, orbit targets, and with specific inclinations. Although CubeSat propulsion has advanced greatly to conduct small orbital adjustments, we’re at the stage where it is still not advanced enough for longer in-space trajectories. We address the business and scientific need in the space industry for high standards, high redundancy, reliability, agility, and shortened timespans.
What distinguishes us from competitors is our philosophy of doing as much as we can in-house to be cost-efficient and the way we work. We have been told NO many times. We continue to go for the Yes. Everyone is super passionate and committed to the company. It is the best that we have to offer. We work with both the traditional and old-school space mindset and faster timeframes. For example, we emphasize redundancy in our approach. We always design from the outset with backups in mind of every subsystem. This is crucial for the more expensive satellite missions meant to reach the Moon and deep space.

A fan of history trivia, it is interesting to me that UARX is located in Galicia. With a centuries-old Celtic heritage, Galicia’s Statute of Autonomy was ratified in 1981. The Galician language has been recognized since 1978. Yanina confirmed my initial surprise:

When people know where we’re located, they are taken aback. They ask us what we are doing here. In Spain, like in Argentina, everything gets concentrated in the bigger capital cities. Galicia is not only an autonomous community located in the country’s interior with a primarily fishing and seafood economy but paradoxically, like the in-space market for transportation services, it is also a bit disconnected from transportation services. The AVE High-Speed Train, for example, has not arrived yet. There are not frequent flights from the nearby airport. The other day we were totally surprised by potential business partners less than 30 minutes from where we live. Since we need to launch from a spaceport in another country, we need special containers for inter-country transport. We didn’t know they could supply those. However, this seafaring and the now spacefaring town has its advantages. The quality of life is incredibly high. Social security and medicine are some of the best in the country. This is attractive to us because when we form our team, we want people committed to the vision and mission. It is also attractive that numerous companies that have provided machinery and materials services to the automotive industry since the 1940s.

Yanina Hallack. Interview in Spanish. Local broadcast. February 2021.

UARX launched with personal funds and with support from the local government, the Xunta de Galicia. The company has also provided engineering consulting services. It’s aiming to be a commercial provider of in-space transportation service over the next five to ten years. They have not published specific milestone dates as a matter of business caution.

Everyone is bootstrapping as we’re gearing towards commercializing company products by this year and to secure more industry credibility. In Spain, there is availability for startup funding, but it’s difficult. Some of the mindset challenges relate to when space-driven business is not seen, understood, and recognized as important. When it is not seen as a generator of industry and healthy ecosystems. As an in-space startup, it is not easy to secure business and support with established space agencies such as the European Space Agency.

Conditions that are Conducive to Success

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Co-Founders Daniel and Yanina have embraced the call for the type of gutsy entrepreneurialism and leadership needed when the desire to create and innovate becomes a calling. Their companies, ienai Space and UARX Space have different stories and focus. However, they represent the growing wave of highly-skilled young, energetic professionals eager to solve some of the most challenging dilemmas in space exploration and transportation.

There is truth in the space industry of the aphorism a rising tide lifts all boats. A healthy country and global space economy cascade into a multitude of benefits. However, in countries with a historic and mature prowess in the aerospace sectors, like in Spain, there needs to be more concerted efforts across all sectors to engage and connect with new players beyond the traditional contractors and stakeholders. There are specialized startups that seek to rise above the tide and avoid getting lost in the upswing. It’s critical to align and adjust sails to allow them more opportunities for safe passage.

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The artist Anxo Vizcaíno is the creator of the series titled MOVOS - Moving Postcards from Outer Space (2017), featured at the top and featured throughout the article. Born and raised in Lugo, the oldest city in Galicia, Anxo has been working as an illustrator, graphic designer, and animator since 2005. Anxo beautifully illustrates the sense of courage and adventure in space exploration with an aesthetic preference for surrealism.

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Anxo’s perspectives about the role of space art are insightful.

Since I was a child, I am anxious about complex questions that I cannot answer. Today I find comfort in space exploration and, paradoxically, exploring my own mind. I believe that the mind and outer space are equally enigmatic and interconnected. My artistic work is a way of exploring this interconnected and mysterious relationship. I am very interested in understanding our place in relation to the vast universe. This may well be a way to understand my own existence.

About Spain, Anxo also adds the poignant observation:

In Spain, we often do not feel that our government is very interested in supporting our scientists and engineers in space research and development. It is a mistake to belittle space exploration. We will regret being late to the industry that is part of our inevitable future.

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