Unlocking Innovation & Sector Growth: Interview with Sam Adlen

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This interview was originally featured exclusively in our PROSPERO newsletter. In these conversations we share insights and expertise from our Catapult team members, exploring how their roles affect us as an organisation, their impact on the wider sector, and what drives them personally.

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As our Chief Strategy Officer, Sam Adlen was responsible for developing a strategy that best supports UK space sector growth, working with the world class academic base and supporting industry and the development of the next generation of high growth business. He sat down with us in 2022 to discuss his journey with the Catapult since our inception, and the space innovations he sees being key to space sector growth over the next 5 years.

We’re sharing his interview this week as Sam leaves the Catapult for an exciting new journey with Space Solar, celebrating his fantastic career and impact on the Catapult over the last 10 years.

Have you always been interested in space? Was a career in space what you were always working towards?

I first became really excited by space when I was an undergraduate, doing a physics degree at Oxford. I had always been interested in space, but I had the opportunity as an undergraduate to do a summer internship over with NASA at their Jet Propulsion Laboratory and that got me hooked. I worked on a Mars mission there when I was in my second year, and that led me to doing a PhD working on another Mars mission with NASA.  My career’s been very much the space industry ever since.

One of the first steps on my journey after university was with a company called VEGA. I had applied for a technical job, being a physicist, but when I arrived, they got me doing market analysis temporarily while the position I applied for was confirmed and I have never managed to get back. Since then, I’ve moved through multiple strategy roles and haven’t coded in anger or picked up a screwdriver (except for some questionable DIY) since. My two favourite things are space, and innovation and entrepreneurship, so being able to combine those two things at the Catapult has been fabulous.

You’ve been with the Catapult since our inception, how did you become part of the initial process?

Ahead of the Catapult actually coming into being, an industry consortium was pulled together to scope out what the Catapult was going to be (led by Paul Febvre – now our CTO). I was brought in by Innovate UK to lead on the development of the Catapult from the Innovate UK perspective, and here I am a decade later!

I started as Head of Business Innovation before moving to the position I’m in now – Chief Strategy Officer. My first focus was to build a team that combined business, strategy, and commercial skills with user centred design. One thing that has been challenge for the space sector is that there are a large number of incredibly talented technical people, but the commercial innovation has traditionally not been so strong.  The power of business thinking and user centred design thinking in scoping out new business propositions is really powerful and that’s something we put a great deal of focus on.

Do you have a proudest achievement from across the last 10 years?

I am very proud of the Business Innovation team and the support, and different thinking, they’ve been able to offer growing businesses in the sector. More recently, I’m really proud of the Space Energy Initiative. It’s such a fantastic example of how the Catapult can bring industry and government together to innovate to create a major new market – Space-Based Solar Power – that will alter our future in a really positive way.  The economic and innovation benefits on the journey will be huge.

We’re just about to enter a new financial year. As our Chief Strategy Officer, what do you see as being a key focus for the Catapult strategy over the next twelve months?

The space sector – both globally and in the UK – is at a turning point. The recognition of the importance of space as a vehicle for economic growth, for security, for sustainability and for international partnership has never been clearer. A lot has changed across the landscape over the last couple of years and we’re now seeing a real step change in the relationship between government and the space industry – from the National Space Strategy to the Innovation Strategy.

There is a need and opportunity to raise ambition and make some bold moves if UK industry is going to capitalise on the exciting future possibilities and deliver all the benefits that space can deliver to Earth. There are two major strands to the future opportunity in space, exploiting advances in LEO constellations, and establishing opportunities in the developing in-orbit economy.  Here at the Catapult, in the next year we will be:

  1. Embedding major initiatives toward Net Zero and COP26 outcomes.
  2. Accelerating the benefits of satellite connectivity in transforming the transport system.
  3. Supporting companies to deliver growth opportunities and resilience through new timing and positioning solutions.
  4. Securing major investment into UK initiatives for next generation systems and services in space, such as space based solar power.

We’ll continue to build on our work enabling UK business nationally, supporting new space hubs as they develop across the UK. This includes the rollout of key strategic facilities, giving businesses the capabilities they need to bring their new products and services to market.

We released our current Five Year Plan in 2018. As we’re coming to the end of that period how would you reflect on what we’ve achieved so far?

The sector has evolved enormously over the last few years and the Catapult has played a big role alongside other players in the UK space sector to catalyse that change.  We have moved from a situation four years ago when UKSpace put out a call for big ideas and there were very few to an abundance today.  We have made huge strides in the acceptance of the importance of space in government and there is a recognition that doing more in space can deliver huge benefits.  More and more of the major challenges we are facing will have a solution that includes space.

Considering our key areas of Energizing the Market, Enabling Business, and Empowering Technology.

With respect to ‘Energising the Market’, we’ve seen some fantastic applications developed which will have huge impacts on society; Pill Cams, tackling the failure of tailings damns, and the work we’ve done with the IPP CommonSensing project around climate resilience.  Major new opportunities like sustainable finance have been established, alongside the opportunities for connectivity in transport which can really move the needle in terms of uptake of satellite services.

From an ’Enabling Business’ perspective, I think we’ve had some real success in regional growth work alongside UKSA. We have started to see new UK businesses really scale-up and that needs to continue if we are to have a mature innovation ecosystem. We’ve also made great progress in stimulating supply chains in areas like launch, and in-orbit services.

And then in terms of  ‘Empowering Technology’ we’ve seen some great successes.  It is a fantastic achievement to be anchoring OneWeb into the UK. We’ve seen our 5G testbed at the Westcott Space Cluster go from strength-to-strength, supporting everything from the health industry, to agriculture, and transport.  The foundations for new opportunities such as microgravity applications and space based solar power have been set and the fabric is there for significant industry growth moving forward.

To drive real growth, we now need a shift in focus from edge case user applications that demonstrate the value of space toward applications that really drive major uptake of space.

You touched briefly on the National Space Strategy earlier. The strategy breaks down the interventions into a ten-point plan. Thinking ahead, what relationship do you see between the Catapult Strategy and this Ten-Point Plan?

The National Space Strategy has been a really positive change for the space industry.  Anchoring the strategy in BEIS uniquely positions the UK to bring the benefits of space to other sectors and to bring other sectors toward space.  it’s been incredibly refreshing to see everyone coming together to help deliver the plan. Everyone – from BEIS, the UK Space Agency, and UKRI (UK Research and Innovation), to industry and academia – are galvanized to deliver what is in the strategy.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the government allocates budgets and where their real priorities are. Our strategy aligns to the ten-point plan very well, and we’ll be doing everything we can to support the government and others to ensure that the strategy is successful and positions the UK in the best possible way for the future.

Looking even further into the future, what changes do you think we’ll see in the next five-ten years? Both across the space sector as a whole, but also here at the Catapult.

Starship is going to change the game immeasurably. The numbers that have been touted are $2 million to get 150 tonnes into Low Earth Orbit. It won’t start there, but that’s the direction its going. In the not-too-distant future we’ll be able to launch more into space in a year than has ever been launched in the whole of history – that will fundamentally change our relationship with space, and the speed of which new infrastructure and services in space can become a reality.

Today many other sectors are benefitting from space services.  The move over the next decade will be toward other sectors being active in space.  For the UK, our advantage comes if we can reimagine this future space sector faster than the rest of the world and bring in the power of the city and institutional investors to finance the creation of the economic zone, and long-term economic benefits, that are developing in space. The sector I see forming in the future is not a narrow, self-defining space sector, but one where major sectors such as manufacturing, robotics, health, energy, construction, and transport are all coming together to develop services in, and from, space. That’s the big change that we all need to be pushing towards. There are some incredibly exciting times ahead.

Finally, in terms of the Catapult, I think in the next five to ten years as bigger opportunities develop we’ll be increasingly focusing on driving big structural changes in the use of space and satellite data rather than smaller scale applications. We’ll be driving toward broad missions looking at how we can make the Earth more sustainable, more connected, more autonomous, and then how we can look beyond Earth.  Across these missions we’ll have key themes such as our journey to Net Zero, levelling up, and regional growth.

Thanks to everyone’s efforts, the UK space sector is in a very positive place.  If we can all work together and help each other to be bold and purposeful the benefits and growth that can be delivered are huge.