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Aiming high

Challenging traditional approaches to space

19 April 2018 , 13:07

Oxford Space Systems was looking for a bank that could support its vision to design advanced technology for the new space era.

Oxford Space Systems (OSS) develops and designs deployable antennas and structures for the global satellite industry. Its pioneering technology is revolutionising the new space industry. It has set 2 world records for the space sector by developing and deploying a new product on orbit faster than anyone else as well as winning the Barclays Start-up Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 (Barclays Annual Awards).

Our High Growth & Entrepreneurs Team helped to support its growth, while our tailored services are supporting its long-term vision of making a big impact on an exciting and ever-changing industry.

Read our Q&A with founder and CEO Mike below.

Why did you set up Oxford Space Systems?

I noticed that people building satellites for space were concentrating on the ‘bus’ (the central box-like structure of the spacecraft). The deployable structures – technology that brings a satellite to life – were largely forgotten. I looked at what the industry wanted to achieve and the challenges it faced and realised there was an opportunity to come up with a new generation of deployable structures.

One of the big challenges in the industry is stowage volume. Everything we need to take to space – things like solar arrays that give the satellites energy and antennas that communicate to the Earth – need to fit inside the rocket launcher. It also needs to survive extreme temperatures and deadly radiation levels. I wanted to develop robust, light but highly stowage-efficient materials that can survive the space environment. This would then provide the key to unlocking a new generation of cost-competitive deployables.

How do you do things differently?

We do use conventional materials, but we augment these with our own proprietary materials. We’ve developed a technique that makes carbon fibre incredibly flexible so you can roll it up like a tape measure. It has been done before – but not in the way we’re doing it and certainly not optimised for the space environment in the way we’ve managed to achieve at OSS. Another type of material we’re developing is for reflector antennas (the large antennas that beam TV signals and data from space). We’re developing a new kind of surface that allows us to achieve high performance that’s more stowage efficient and costs less.

We also use the art of origami. Origami is mathematically based and lends itself to the level of analysis and predictability demanded by the space industry. We work with a world expert in origami from a leading university, essentially commercialising some of his cutting-edge research into space deployable structures.

Does every satellite need a deployable structure?

Every satellite that we have ever launched has some form of deployable structure. Even the very first satellite that launched in 1957 had 4 little deployable antennas.

How has new space affected start-ups?

The UK government wants to treble the size of the UK space industry. It wants to take our market share from roughly £13 billion to over £40 billion by 2030. That growth has to come from somewhere and the large incumbent companies are never going to treble in size. Growth has to come from entrepreneurs, start-up and scale-up companies.

We have a huge, and I think unique space ecosystem here in the UK. We’re based at Harwell Campus Space Cluster which is the epicentre of new space in the UK.

I think new space is a very exciting but still high-risk venture for any new business. It’s going through quite an evolving period at the moment.

What challenges do you face?

One of the big frustrations of someone in my position is how to get hold of the money you need. Developing hardware – especially for space – isn’t exactly cheap.

A product doesn’t magically appear. You’ve got to pay a lot of talented people for a long period of time to design and create. You’ve then got to qualify that product before you’re market ready. Space is a really tough environment with some very demanding, testing regimes. It can literally cost tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, to develop new products for space. You need very patient investors with deeps pockets but the prize is certainly there if you get it right.

How did we become part of journey?

I was presenting at a satellite industry event and a member of the High Growth & Entrepreneurs team was in the audience and liked my story. We had a chat which ultimately led us to banking with Barclays and working with the high-growth team. I then won the Barclays Start-up Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 award (Barclays’ Annual Entrepreneur Awards) which was a complete surprise and really boosted our credibility.

How did we help your business?

Having a Relationship Manager that understands your business and has a good handle of what is going on means you save a load of time – they already know where you are as a business and they can pre-empt some of the problems and conversations you may have. For example, we needed to set up international banking very quickly in order to secure a contract from the US and Barclays made that happen.

What I think we’re getting from Barclays is an understanding of where we need to grow as a business and what kind of services we might need. I have to stay abreast of hundreds of things going on in the business and the last thing I want to worry about is if I’m banking with the right bank. It’s about trust. I know I can trust Barclays to deliver the banking service I need.

What are your plans for the future?

We want to become a recognised global name in satellite structures and maybe even a household name. We’re working on some very exciting ideas that aren’t in the public domain at the moment. We’re filing a whole range of patents so hopefully we’ll be in a position to discuss a genuinely disruptive way of what satellites on orbit actually looks like – I’ll just say the project has a working name of ‘OrigamiSat’.

I want to see Oxford Space Systems recognised as a national asset for the UK. We’re a British company developing British technology and working with British suppliers – I’d love to keep Oxford Space Systems British but dominating the global space sector. I’ve got lofty ambitions for the business so I need people that are able to accommodate that vision. I need a bank that has international presence, that has credibility and that supports what I want to achieve. I think I’ve found that with Barclays.