Dr Louise Butt, director of the Space South Central Enterprise Network, explores the important role space clusters play in the UK government’s strategy to grow the nation’s booming space industry.

Louise Butt, director Space South CentralGovernment funded via the UK Space Agency, the purpose of space clusters is to capture, connect and champion the academic and business space sector expertise within a defined geographic area.  Together, they form a locally led UK-wide space ecosystem, making it easier to identify, access and capitalise on specific capabilities and speed up growth.

The UK government announced plans to further develop regional space clusters in 2021 as part of its National Space Strategy, building on the success of initiatives like the Satellite Applications Catapult and Centres of Excellence.

There are now 15 space clusters across the UK: one each in Wales and Northern Ireland, two in Scotland and 11 across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Some space clusters are well-established, perhaps evolving from earlier industry-specific local networks; others are new and starting from scratch.  But they all have the same aims: to support regional growth, innovation and prosperity and, in doing so, help to meet the goals of the National Space Strategy.  They serve as a gateway for anyone looking to work with or invest in space-related organisations in their region or beyond and also act as the voice of their members.

As Jon Hulks, space ecosystem development manager, UK Space Agency, explained, “Space clusters are a vital component of the UK’s thriving national space ecosystem. The value they deliver to local space companies and universities – which includes providing strategic local leadership, addressing barriers to growth, and sharing tangible business advice and support – ensures local space economies can play to their strengths and, in doing so, unlock new market and partnership opportunities.

“The UK Space Agency has invested over £5.2m [$6.3m] in space cluster development so far, backing these clusters of excellence to collaborate, grow and thrive.”

Space South Central – the UK’s largest space cluster

I work at Space South Central, the largest regional UK space cluster in terms of the number of organisations and specialisms we represent.

Although only covering the English counties of Hampshire, Surrey and the Isle of Wight (about 2,200 square miles), our small region encapsulates just about everything the UK space industry has to offer.  It’s UK space, in one place.

Our cluster evolved from the former South Coast Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications.  We’ve built on that to create a thriving network, with us at the centre as a gateway to access and share the available knowledge and skills.  The cluster model gives us – and our members – a clear picture of the space industry on a local level. We know our capabilities and strengths, our companies from global primes to new start-ups, and our range of space-related academic expertise.

As we exist to support the wider National Space Strategy, we have close ties to the government and the UK Space Agency. This allows us to represent the voice of the space sector in our region at a national level and communicate new policies or funding opportunities to our members quickly and efficiently.

“The network of space clusters is a cornerstone of the UK’s approach to growing the sector,” Colin Baldwin, head of policy, UKspace Trade Association said. “They raise awareness of opportunities, reduce barriers to entering the sector and help companies network and collaborate – including with their world-class universities.”

What are the benefits of joining a space cluster for organisations?

For UK companies in an area with a space cluster, joining it really is a no-brainer. Space clusters offer organisations a sector-specific hub of advice, support and connections. We streamline access to advice, information and opportunities to help our businesses innovate and grow. Membership is free, members can engage as much or as little as they like and can benefit from things like:

  • Business support
  • Free industry networking events
  • Email newsletters and bulletins rounding up the latest industry news
  • The cluster’s local, national and international connections
  • Advice on bids, funding and investment opportunities

In-depth knowledge of the space sector in our region empowers us to tackle local barriers to growth.  For example, we developed and delivered SpaceCraft at the University of Surrey, which provides facilities, engineers and hands-on training to make it easier for organisations to upskill and develop new products and services.

Bringing together business and academia

Space South Central has three universities as founding partners, each with its own world-class space expertise: the University of Portsmouth, the University of Southampton and the University of Surrey.  Bringing together universities and industry helps accelerate innovation and growth for everyone involved.

While the universities already have long, established histories of working with businesses – and starting their own through spin-outs – joining forces and working together increases the opportunities for collaboration. They’re home to facilities and experts that businesses can use to develop and test their ideas, reducing the time it takes to get ideas and products to market.

Future-proofing space industry growth

The rapid pace of innovation in the global space industry means that the UK faces the same challenges as many other countries: how to nurture and train the space innovators of the future, upskill its current workforce, and attract talent when competing with other sectors.

Space clusters mean that skills gaps or recruitment challenges can be identified – and remedied – on a local level. Our community makes it easier for education providers and industry to collaborate to ensure appropriate training can be signposted or developed.

Regional networks with global reach

Part of our remit is to support and facilitate international collaborations, trade and investment.  Providing a central hub for a region’s space knowledge and expertise makes it easier for people within and outside it to connect. A start-up or small or medium-sized enterprise (SME) may not have the budget or staff resources needed to attend the big trade events or know how to reach an international audience. With our local industry knowledge, we can represent our members and network on their behalf, at home and abroad.

Could other countries benefit from adopting the UK’s space cluster model?

The space cluster model could work in other countries, particularly if space organisations are concentrated in different areas. Knowledge is power: local clusters joined by a central body or strategy bring space expertise together, so you know where the strengths and gaps are. They offer a point of contact for anyone – locally, nationally or internationally looking for specific skills, facilities, products or services.

However, I think an important factor is that we’re government-funded and part of a positive strategy to boost space industry growth and innovation. Our services are free for members and anyone wanting to connect with them. This impartiality builds trust and equality, as small organisations with limited budgets and resources potentially have the same opportunities to grow their business with Space South Central as the big players.

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