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How Earth Observation became Europe’s “Silicon Valley”

Copernicus Observer
01/12/2017

The Copernicus Programme with its full, free and open data policy is tapping into the core of the open data movement that is powering today’s tech breakthroughs, just like open source has been key to most of the innovation in the last decades.

 

With the success of the Copernicus Accelerator, and the second edition recently launched at the European Space Week in Tallinn, Europe is coaching its own generation of space start-ups that are merging the latest tech with the results of decades of Earth Observation research.

 

 

When thinking about the word start-up, the image that usually comes to one’s mind is a few people hunched over their laptops coding away the next billion-dollar company. And Silicon Valley, the tech cradle of the world for half a century, is probably where this scene is set. Europe, on the other hand, doesn’t have its iconic location for upstart companies. But it doesn’t need one. It has found another way to gather entrepreneurs around one pivotal technology – Earth Observation (EO) from space.

 

Most of those involved in the start-up world know its origin story, how famous tech leaders of today started off as nerds sitting in a garage back in the 80s. They were obsessed with computer technologies, something that only government and large research institutions were using at that time. Similarly, EO for a long time had mostly been the domain of governments and scientists, only those who could afford to launch EO satellites or to buy the expensive data. But the Copernicus Programme with its full, free and open data policy is a game-changer. It is tapping into the core of the open data movement that is powering the current tech breakthroughs, just like open source has been key to most of the innovations in the last decades.

 

However, both technical and business skills have to come together to transform a “cool idea” into a profitable business, or, as they say in the Valley, every Wozniak needs their Jobs and vice versa. To boost this part of the start-up ecosystem equation, the European Commission launched the Copernicus Accelerator, and its story begins in the late October of 2016, somewhere in Madrid, Spain.

 

 

The Copernicus Accelerator programme of the European Commission

 

 

The seventy-one participants, mentors and mentees, from nineteen different countries, gathered together in Madrid at the Circulo de Bellas Artes. They were about to start a year-long journey of entrepreneurship. The participating start-ups were the selected best from the Copernicus Masters, a yearly competition of ideas for services and products using Copernicus data. The array of applications these start-ups came up with brought a fresh look at what is possible with EO data. Among them, there was SnapPlanet, an “Instagram for Earth Observation” app; Live Glacier, an application providing near real-time information about glaciers for the tourism industry; farmAR, an Augmented Reality-enabled app for farmers to visualise their crop status; and SCAMPER, a tool for seaweed resource management using satellites; to mention just a few.

 

The two-day Copernicus Accelerator Bootcamp included sessions on the tech side of business, such as satellite data access, and the business side of tech, like pitching and business model canvassing. The mentees had a chance to discuss their specific issues during roundtables and mentor speed-dating, and also to get to know each other at the networking reception.

 

The Accelerator continued after the Bootcamp for an entire year, with monthly webinars, newsletters and ad-hoc emails and calls. The varied webinar topics included everything from building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and lean start-up, to hands-on training about Copernicus for developers and Geographic Information (GI) professionals. The Silicon Valley-style start-up practices and the results of years of Earth Observation research blended and created something new – a Copernican revolution of a kind.

 

 

On average the Copernicus Accelerator participants achieved 83% of the objectives that they jointly defined with their mentors during the Accelerator Bootcamp 2016

 

 

Andrea Galvagni, a mentee from the Copernicus Accelerator 2016-2017, is developing a platform to manage the threats that affect pipelines worldwide using satellites. This is how he described the experience:

 

Our experience throughout the course of the Copernicus Accelerator has been an eye-opener with respect to the highly diverse applications of satellite EO technologies. The past nine months have become a very solid foundation onto which we have been able to build, test and validate business models that we are certain will provide us with significant growth opportunities in the near and distant future.

 

And their mentor Paolo De Stefanis added:

 

We had a quite unusual mentor-mentee relationship with Andrea, as he was almost always one step ahead, anticipating the next move in our coaching plan. We have learned together that 'customer centricity' is the key to building up a sound business model and business plan, and most of our work together has been focused on finding end users and validating our assumptions.

 

 

"Europe must become the best place to start a space business!" Director for Space Policy, Copernicus and Defence Philippe Brunet’s closing remarks of the Copernicus Accelerator at the European Space Week 2017, Tallinn

 

 

Another intangible, yet very valuable side-effect that comes from such programmes is the relationships that people build. The bond that has been forged between the mentees and the mentors, and the mentees among themselves was unmistakable during the European Space Week 2017 in Tallinn, during which the first Accelerator concluded, and the second edition was launched. Fifty new participants embarked on their start-up journeys, while the alumni and the mentors talked about their experiences from the last year. Ideas were shared, new ventures were created on-the-spot, and a new generation of European new space start-ups was born.

 

 

Sometimes coffee breaks are the most productive parts of the experience

 

 

For Silicon Valley’s revolution the physical proximity was necessary. The technologies that were created then allow us to transcend this necessity and ignite revolutions anywhere in the world. Powered by an open data mindset, proactive and enabling policies of the EU, and a buoyant new space landscape, Europe is THE place for this revolution. Ready to join us? Read more about the Copernicus Accelerator here.


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