A French space odyssey

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Look up. Skillful engineers and data scientists in France are joining forces for the NewSpace revolution.

As the space industry is going through a strong innovation cycle, eyes are turned towards the Moon and Mars. But the Earth inhabitants will benefit from it, too. For instance, the SpaceX company plans to deploy a satellite constellation providing Internet access worldwide. The project called Starlink illustrates the current boom in the small satellite market. Indeed, our planet could launch more than 10,000 small units in the next decade.

La French Tech is in the front row of this NewSpace revolution, as illustrated by world-famous Starbust Accelerator opening a hub in Paris a few months ago – they intend to host thirty space-related startups. Entrepreneurs in France are developing disruptive equipment and smart solutions. Take ThrustMe. A spinoff from the Polytechnique engineering school and the CNRS research center, this deep tech startup creates space propulsion systems based on cold gas and electricity to thrust the small, next-generation satellites. The company based in the Paris suburbs was cofounded by a Norwegian researcher and her Ukrainian partner. It has raised €5m ($5.7m) since 2017.

Thanks to our propulsion systems you can change orbits, reduce the risk of collision with other units and extend the lifetime of the satellite

CEO Ane Aanesland

As PhD in plasma physics from the Arctic University of Norway, she praises the skills of local engineers, from France and abroad, who are “three times less expensive than in Silicon Valley”.

ThrustMe is competing with many startups globally, including one which is located just a few kilometers away: Exotrail. Created in 2015, the now 25-people company has developed an electric thruster technology dedicated to small satellites. It has raised €6m ($6.8m) from VCs and public bodies.

Our thrust load is three to five times higher than that of competing solutions. Smallsats fitted with our propulsion can therefore make the same maneuver in much less time

David Henri, the CEO and cofounder

DATA IS THE NEW OIL

Much talent will be needed to send satellites in a more cost-effective way, as well as to make the most of spatial data. Indeed, pictures taken from satellites can be used to monitor agricultural fields or check the occupancy rate of parking lots in supermarkets – an early indicator of consumption levels.

Storage tanks in Kashima, Japan as seen from satellite imagery (Copernicus Sentinel Data, 2019)

French startup Kayrros has chosen to exploit satellite imagery in order to track tankers and storage facilities and to predict the supply and demand for oil & gas, with the help of machine learning. Its customers, mostly energy and trading companies, together cover more than half of the traded oil in the world. The startup can detect warning signals on LNG supply disruptions before they occur. Kayrros has raised €32m ($36m) and opened offices in London, New York, Houston and Singapore. Antoine Rostand, the president and founder, shares his huge ambition. “After starting with the oil sector, we will extend our analyses to everything that is physical. Everything that is measurable”.

Key Figures
  • 72 startups have been hosted by the Airbus BizLab accelerator over the past 4 years
  • 8 startups joined in March the European Space Agency incubator in Toulouse: SnapPlanet, Zephyr Exalto, LK Spatialist, Nively, Upalgo, O’Sol, Waynote and Proessa Sport.