Digital transformation is here to stay. We must therefore constantly foster dialogue to increase awareness for all that is and will become digital. Digitalisation brings not only opportunities, but also risks that need to be addressed and taken seriously. In my series “Dialogue Interviews” I discuss these topics with leaders in Switzerland, from our member organisations to digital shapers and the brightest minds in the fields of technology and innovation. 

In this edition, I talked to two interesting personalities from the Swiss space industry: Cyril Kubr, Deputy Managing Director at the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Centre (BIC) and Luc Piguet CEO and co-founder ClearSpace SA.

Nicolas: Cyril, you co-manage the European’s Space Agency’s Business Incubation Centre (BIC) in Switzerland. I don’t think many people would naturally associate Switzerland with space. Tell me, what does Switzerland have to do with the ESA?

Cyril: Switzerland is a founding member of ESA. Besides our contribution to solar wind sails for the first moon landing and atomic clocks, Switzerland has a lot to offer the modern space industry. At the beginning of this millennium, ESA opened its first BIC in Europe with the aim of making space technologies commercially usable on earth. At the same time, innovative technologies on earth should be applied into space.

NicolasWhat role does the Swiss BIC play for ESA?

Cyril: We started in Switzerland in 2016 and you could call us an ESA BIC 2.0. Unlike the BICs in other countries, we have a virtual setup. We are a geographically distributed incubator. During bi-monthly community events, startups can exchange ideas with each other. In addition, we offer more money to startups and we have a large and attractive partner network that offers our startups technical and business support. This is highly appreciated by the startups.

Nicolas: What makes the space industry so exciting and unique compared to many other startup ecosystems? What are key technologies and why are they important for the country?

Cyril: Thanks to new space, the space industry has become part of the global – and intergalactic – business world. Furthermore, space is a topic close to the heart of most people. Currently we are looking at cyber security, AI, robotics, new materials and advanced manufacturing as some of the technologies, amongst others, that could help Switzerland become an even bigger dot on the global space industry map. ESA BIC Switzerland wants to contribute to the creation of high-tech jobs in Switzerland and a place for Switzerland in further niches in space technology.

Nicolas: Thank you Cyril, very interesting. Luc, you are co-founder and CEO of a Swiss startup called ClearSpace, based in Lausanne. I’ve heard you have very ambitious objectives with your venture, can you tell us more about what makes your venture so unique?

Luc: We are addressing a critical pain point for the future of commercial and scientific space exploration: Space debris. Our goal is to provide a space tow truck service for agencies and satellite operators for the removal of failed satellites from orbit. Longer term, we see many other applications for the robotics systems and platforms we are developing.

Nicolas: As a general question, what makes Switzerland a good place, or not, for a space venture like ClearSpace?

Luc: In Switzerland we have a great pool of highly talented engineers covering machine learning, autonomous navigation, robotics and other core technologies. This combines powerfully with the sense of uncompromised quality, precision and practical approach of our Swiss vocational training system. We are uniquely positioned  to imagine and deliver on ambitious projects such as ours.

In addition, Switzerland has a culture of pioneering and entrepreneurship, a “can-do” attitude that has developed throughout our history. Switzerland is an incredibly influential country compared to its size. I believe that the main limitation to the role of Switzerland in the space industry is our imagination and ambition.

So yes, Switzerland is a great place for a venture like ClearSpace.

Nicolas: Elon Musk and Jeff Besoz are having a race to Mars and the universe, while Israel recently went to the Moon. Where would you place Switzerland and your venture in the worldwide race? Can we compete with the best and develop a prosperous economy around the space industry?

Luc: A couple of decades ago, space missions needed massive budgets from large space faring nations like the US, Russia or China. We have now entered the accessible space age, where a startup operating out of a garage can launch a constellation of small satellites for a few tens of millions to provide services globally.

The biggest fortunes focus on Mars-shots using revenues made through their incumbent businesses because they understand the value and potential of the space economy. And as space becomes more and more accessible the opportunities will keep growing. In this game institutional support through ESA or other financing mechanisms is critical to build a competitive position globally.

We believe that it is time for the Swiss space industry to engage in missions, reimagine the future and change the rules of play.