Interview with OHB Hellas

This week we had the pleasure of talking to Mathieu Bernou, CTO and  deputy managing director of OHB Hellas.

OHB Hellas is a subsidiary company of the German multinational technology group OHB SE. Starting its operations in Greece in July 2018, it follows a tradition of successful organic deployments of OHB in Europe. OHB Hellas is a dedicated space system company with the ambition to support the development of space in Greece maximizing the local collaboration with industries, universities and research organizations. The company mainly focuses around the areas of Space system engineering and Digital Transformation & Innovation.

  • OHB Hellas is a subsidiary of the OHB Group focusing on EO services and products. Can you explain to us how OHB Hellas’ objectives fit in with OHB Group’s own objectives?

The light company structure and the entrepreneurial mindset allows OHB Hellas to operate as a pilot entity for the OHB group in high and advanced technologies in the space industry. This way the company can focus its efforts into innovative projects which are aligned with the group’s objectives. The main axis is to develop new technologies to complement the group portfolio by filling the identified gaps of critical dependencies. OHB Hellas started in the upstream area, with advanced manufacturing technologies and on-board data processing targeting AI/ML on-board satellites. Upon the Group’s decision in 2020 to create a dedicated division, named OHB Digital, with the objective to focus on space-related digital services and downstream applications, OHB Hellas is investigating the existing synergies between future on-board data processing techniques and ground service applications, e.g., time critical applications identified as promising so far are in the areas of situation awareness and security.

  • Why was it important for you to be based in Greece? What are your current objectives and goals there?

Greece has probably one of the longest relationship with studying Space of any country in the world. It is a little bit ironic that we are often naming space mission after Greek references while the country is generally having a very small contribution in them. Nevertheless, the culture of innovation and discovery is always present as Greek language and culture survived through many struggles. Greece is part of Europe and ESA and has the opportunity to increase its contribution to the international space effort. The interest shown by the Greek government in having a Greek National Space Program aligns with the vision of OHB Group to support the development of the space industry in Greece. Thus, OHB Hellas was created in order to show a real sign of our expressed intention. Our target is to continue our role as a dedicated space systems company in Greece.

We are living in a world where the digitalization of information can bring people physically far away virtually close to each other. There are several example of companies operating globally without local entities in other countries. Nonetheless, in our domain the need for physical interaction is still important for building good and close relationships. In this regard, it is important for OHB to be in Greece. The country occupies a very attractive geographical location in EU for space application. We are allocating a significant effort to exchanging with potential end-user to understand their needs and interests.  The south east part of Europe has the highest number of clean sky days per year in Europe. It is particularly interesting for space observation and optical communication systems. Being at one of the borders of Europe generates needs in situation awareness and monitoring of borders which a fertile ground for space and time critical applications. We also seek to involve local talents to expand our supply chain in both upstream and downstream areas with innovative ideas or new space approaches. Following existing success story in the group and local strengths, OHB Hellas aims at a self-sustaining business model. It generates an opportunity for the young motivated engineers to have a career in the space industry in Greece and to be, in parallel, part of one of the largest corporations in Europe’s space sector. This way the company hopes to achieve its goal of contributing to the return to the country of highly educated Greek scientists and engineers, who are currently working abroad.

  • What have been some of the biggest challenges you had to face?

Collaboration and building trust are key elements in our way to operate. We are exchanging ideas and building projects that take several years to be implemented. The exchanges with the already established actors (Companies / Universities / Research Organizations) within Greece was in some cases challenging, even though we share a common vision towards the development of the space industry in the country – an industry from which both the State and the Public can benefit not only in economic but in social aspects as well. Since the creation of OHB Hellas in 2018, it is the third change of decision maker for space topics on the government side impacting the progress of on-going efforts and projects. During Covid-19 priorities have shifted towards more affected sectors of the economic and social life such as healthcare. OHB has track record in establishing entities in a new country and there is always an integration period to pass. Local actors are expecting quick involvement in on-going major projects which is not realistic. Officials would like to see quick results without providing the necessary long term perspectives. The result for the industry and potential investors is “high risk and low gain” situation which is counterproductive for attracting significant investment.

OHB Hellas is a small space units in the space sector being part of a larger group, with the negative consequence of having to manage the usual difficulties of the SMEs while not being eligible to the dedicated support measures put in place by the public institutions.

The economic reality in Greece today makes it difficult to ‘sell’ space to the larger public opinion. Nevertheless, high added value sector like space offers one of the most promising solution to improve the economic situation and promote international collaborations. In space domain, Greece has the potential to focus on specific topics and do them well. On our side, from an industrial player perspective, we have an active role in proposing commercially viable ideas to the Greek Government. The economical return and impact in term of image would be significantly bigger than the investment.

What would you advise someone who wishes to start their own EO company?

An EO company needs to be established around a passionate, committed, qualified and diverse team.  Its members shall have a certain attraction and a common to be part of an exciting journey in the EO industry. Since Earth Observation covers a wide range of related services and products, an exhaustive study and knowledge of the whole Industry is essential. Understanding the value chain and the required competences for an EO industry are vital for a successful company launch and for its sustainability.

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Author: EARSC

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