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The Space Race Is On: Business & Innovation Magazine talks to Gemma Wilson, Harwell Space Cluster Manager

The Business Magazine article image for: The Space Race Is On: Business & Innovation Magazine talks to Gemma Wilson, Harwell Space Cluster Manager
15 November 2022

With investment in space tech start-ups showing little sign of abating, the UK now has a thriving space industry, and at the heart of the sector lies Harwell Space Cluster near Didcot in Oxfordshire.

Nicky Godding, Editor at Business & Innovation Magazine talks to Gemma Wilson, Harwell Space Cluster Manager in our November issue space sector feature.

| Harwell’s sense of space encourages collaboration across the sector

It has become the UK’s space gateway supporting the space sector and is currently home to around 100 organisations employing more than 1,400 people who work in this growing industry.

Established multi-national businesses, such as Airbus, Thales Alenia Space and Lockheed Martin, work alongside space sector start-ups and scale-ups, all located alongside major publicly-funded organisations including the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and its space hub for research and innovation RAL Space, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Satellite Applications Catapult.

Gemma Wilson took over as Harwell Space Cluster’s manager this summer. Having worked for more than six years as a regional growth manager for the Satellite Applications Catapult, she has the experience and a vast network of colleagues around the country who the Space Cluster can call on to support the companies based at Harwell.

Gemma’s new role will see her work with colleagues to widen awareness of Harwell Campus’ unique facilities and capabilities by encouraging people to visit and see the opportunities available for entrepreneurs to set up, scale-up or collaborate with others to make their business ideas a reality.

Widening awareness of Harwell’s unique facilities and capabilities “We want to encourage companies to use our facilities and expertise and take advantage of the national and international networks we have access to, as well as the network of scientists, technicians and experts from across the globe who either work here permanently, or visit regularly, to help them make the most of opportunities here,” said Gemma.

Harwell SpaceAlongside the Space Cluster at Harwell are a thriving Energy Technology Cluster and Health Technology Cluster. And a new Quantum Cluster is currently being established.

Cross sector collaboration is key to opening new opportunities More than a third of organisations at Harwell collaborate with organisations from another cluster on the Campus.

“Cross sector collaboration is important on campus and with other clusters around the UK,” said Gemma. “All the cluster managers, including me, want to do more joint events to offer companies and entrepreneurs in other sectors the opportunity to meet together – formally and informally.

“Space is an enabler, and the technology and data can be part of integrated solutions to solve challenges here on earth.”

The value of space-based technology is increasingly being recognised by farmers, agronomists, food manufacturers and retailers – and policymakers who want to enhance production and profitability, but not at the expense of nature and the environment.

For instance, remote sensing satellites are increasingly being relied on for the monitoring of soil, rain, drought, insect infestation and crop development. All of which can help reduce the risk of food shortages and famines.

“We want Harwell to represent the true and full picture of the UK space sector, and to help international visitors tap into other local clusters of space capabilities as well as into other sectors which can benefit from space, Harwell really is your Gateway to the UK space sector,” added Gemma.

A unique network of space clusters across the UK There are approximately 17 space clusters across the UK, each one with unique capabilities. From Cornwall, home to the world’s most capable satellite ground station, which also has plans for a horizontal rocket launch site, to the West of England’s Space Cluster, which includes the Universities of Bristol and Bath engaged in space research.

The North West Space Cluster at STFC’s Sci-tech Daresbury site has strong links to cyber security and advanced materials, while Sutherland in Scotland is planning to be the first spaceport in the UK.

A decade of fast growth bodes well for the future The UK’s space sector has grown fast.

In the years 2019-2020, UK space-related organisations produced £16.5 billion in income.

Over the past decade (2012 – 2021), 145 unique investors in 38 companies invested nearly £6 billion across 90 investment deals with UK space organisations.

And if the UK is to capitalise on the last decade of growth, the dynamic activity and expertise at Harwell needs to be more widely leveraged.

Gemma said: “We want to ensure that local, national and international visitors better understand what we do, and what we have here, because by doing that we can better shine a light on all the other space activity currently happening across the UK.

“And we want all those who want to bring their commercial space ideas to life to know that Harwell is where small companies are supported to gather the information and knowledge they need and meet the right experts to help them grow their business.”

Harwell Space Cluster started by nurturing young space companies working alongside a number of space primes, academia and public sector organisations. Now some of these SMEs, such as Astroscale – which is pioneering solutions to tackling the growing problem of space debris, and Oxford Space Systems – which builds lightweight satellite structures and was a start-up of the ESA Business Incubator managed by STFC – have successfully expanded through leveraging the capabilities of the Cluster ecosystem at Harwell.

The power of bringing people together It’s all about bringing people together, says Gemma.

“I enjoy working at Harwell because the people here are so inspiring and collaborative. From the scientists at RAL Space and other organisations, to Harwell Campus Joint Venture Partners who share their strategic plans for the site with us so we understand the opportunities for companies as they seek to scale up.”

Gemma understands the mindset of start-ups having worked in one and managing the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Centre (ESA BIC) in the UK “I completed a degree in business and worked at a start-up as one of the first employees. I loved the di­fferent ways of thinking and working which sparked innovation in a small company, and when I moved to the Science and Technologies Facilities Council and became a project manager working with academics then working for the ESA BIC, I brought this experience to my new role.”

This understanding of the power of collaboration extends to her fellow managers in the Energy Tech and Health Tech Clusters at Harwell and the Health Tech, Digital and Space Cluster at Daresbury. All Cluster managers share an office at their respective sites and have weekly team meetings, as well as attending each other’s cluster stakeholders meetings to enhance cross fertilisation of activities between the sectors they represent.

“We enjoy sharing knowledge and looking at potential crossovers with companies in the di­fferent clusters, taking the opportunity to introduce companies to each other,” said Gemma.

“Then we often step back but are always ready to support their journey to help their ideas fly.”

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Barbara Ghinelli, Director of Innovation Clusters and Campus at UKRI-STFC, said:

“Space is our flagship cluster which inspired the development of the other clusters in Health, Energy, Digital and Quantum across the STFC Campuses. Our clusters collectively have stimulated exceptional growth for the UK, attracting and supporting hundreds of new organisations to/on our campuses and across the UK as well as enabling strong business to business collaborations and with the public sector and academics.”

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Read the full space sector feature inside the latest November issue 










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