Sep 30, 2013

Shoestring start-up aims for infinity and beyond

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A Scottish space technology start-up firm financed on “credit cards and pub gigs” is in line for two major European awards for its work on Earth observation and GPS technology.

Steve Lee, an Edinburgh University-trained astrophysicist, started Stevenson Astrosat on a shoestring to fulfil a lifelong passion for “inventing things and building them in my own company”. He told the Sunday Herald that being shortlisted for the European Space Agency’s Copernicus and Galileo awards – the winners will be announced in Munich in November – was an important step in the company’s ability to attract investment and international recognition.

The Musselburgh-based firm won the Copernicus environmental challenge award last year for ThermCERT, a thermal and carbon efficiency reporting tool which uses space-derived data to increase the quality of thermal output measurements.

Lee said he still gigs as a pub guitarist “as a hobby”, despite the firm achieving a substantial six-figure sum in its first year, which it expects to double next year.

He said that Scotland’s thriving and “highly collaborative” cluster of space companies, which also includes Glasgow-based ClydeSpace, Star-Dundee and the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, was riding a boom in privately-funded investment in space and satellite technology, after reduced spending by national agencies brought new sources of funding into the market. “We’re finally starting to get attention, to find investment and find customers, and are ready to start eating into other parts of space industry. I expect Astrosat to start touching on [turnover of] seven figures next year.”

Astrosat specialises in Earth observation and satellite communications technology, the latter particularly focused in the Arctic. The firm, which has had what it calls “phenomenal support” from Scottish Enterprise, is working with manufacturers and technologists in Latvia, a centre of the Soviet space programme now left with a residue of specialised expertise.

Lee said: “We exported from the beginning because that’s the nature of space, no such thing as borders. We built our foundations in the Baltic states and by the time we came back to Scotland we found that everyone had heard of us, which allowed us to start working with partners.

“We have now got three divisions and are winning innovation prizes … We’ve come up with scores of ideas, which have led to our securing funding for incubation. We dream of being a cross-industry company, and also a kind of research and development centre for the industry in Scotland working with other good friends outside the company.

“A lot of our business is supporting classic Scottish technology – not only are we designing ships that are spinning around the world, we’re also supporting tidal and wave technology.”

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