Published April 23, 2021
This interview was conducted by Thierry LABRO and was published by paperjam.lu, on March 5, 2021 (paperjam.lu/article/dans-conquete-spatiale-nous-de).
After graduating from Télécom SudParis in 2007 and then 12 years at SES, Toulouse native Elodie Viau became Head of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications at the European Space Agency in September. She is also in charge of the 60 space start-up incubators around Europe. An exciting discussion!
Elodie Viau must be a bundle of energy. Up at the crack of dawn, the new Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications at the European Space Agency (ESA) reads everything and sends message after message to her team members, even before the sun is up. Europe has to move fast, she repeats. Not too fast. But fast.
What does the Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications at the European Space Agency do?
Elodie Viau. – “My department covers a wide range of things, from technology to services, products and applications. We deal with future equipment and technology, breakthrough innovations, and system infrastructures in public-private partnerships with commercial companies or institutions. In the telecoms sector, we really look at both the private market and the institutional sector of the 22 member states of the European Space Agency. Our job is to boost the development of the commercial sector in Europe.
For applications and services, in addition to the 200 people in my department, we have an incubation network across 60 locations in Europe, where we have offices with local task forces which are there to help companies, start-ups or others, even non-ESA members. We are responsible for the progress of their projects, guiding them, financing them - which is not the most important part - in addition to providing technical and entrepreneurial support and access to our network.
Innovation can happen at many different levels, be it in technology or space infrastructure, or in services and applications.
So do you have an influence on what developments are made? Surely it's also very important for start-ups to have access to very early-stage technologies. How do you deal with this duality?
It is important to understand that there are two levels: the first allows us to provide financing on certain themes in three strategic areas. The first is 5G-6G, the second is optical communication, and the third is space security. Even across these themes, we are in contact with the non-space sector. For example, we are supporting the automotive industry to develop solutions that use 5G for self-driving cars. The more autonomous the car, the more important it is to have a link with space, for safety reasons. If you're in a 5G environment and your car is autonomous, you cannot afford to lose connectivity between two geographic areas... You need a backup system from space. Or you need to have sensors that are installed on the road. And space is the most efficient way to make sure the car receives all the critical information in real time.
So, it's true, ESA does have an influence on the political and public landscape. We must be attentive to new technologies, new trends, and what we believe in. For example, for 5G-6G, I believe that mobility or logistics are close to maturity, while there are other areas that need attention, such as education or distance learning.
We need to keep some flexibility to adapt to the changing environment. With Covid, there have been a series of innovations that our teams have supported during this crisis. And we see that the next challenge will be the climate or the digital transformation of society.
As for the industry itself, we are here to help the market. Entrepreneurs come to us with their ideas. It's not just a one-way process, from ESA to the market. In 15 or 16 years, we have supported more than 1,000 start-ups, and these start-ups come with their crazy ideas, and that's what we want. They pitch these ideas to my team, so we can evaluate them, both from a business and a technology perspective. We become their aunt or uncle. We help them to grow and succeed. Success can be about money, the jobs they create, or even the impact they have on society. I have an example of a start-up that has many locations around the world. This is also a success, because it shows that, from Europe, we can build an innovative mindset. Sometimes they come up with things we would never have imagined!
How do you judge these new ideas? For example, the encryption of communication by light, developed by your former employer, SES, is very advanced.
I think you have to have good listening skills. You have to be able to really listen to people. Listening is a key skill. When you pay attention to what's going on in the world, you can really see these trends. This work on optics began four years ago, with Ibisa.
At first, we started at a technological level, and not with the aim of developing a service. In terms of the distribution of encrypted keys to make communication safe, we can observe more and more computer hacking, against very powerful computers. You start to wonder how to respond to the risk of hacking. Let’s create a solution! The answer to the problem is technology. They come to us with ideas about AI, about the cloud, or about 6G - although most of the time, people ask me: What’s 6G? That's the same as if you had asked someone what a computer was before the advent of computers!
The answer is not necessarily space-related! For the encryption key, I recently went to Post, with whom we are developing new services. We need to talk with each other, be connected.
Every morning, I spend two to three hours reading the news and send dozens of links to my team. It's my way of monitoring the market. Being curious.
This week, I was at a meeting with Air Liquide. What does telecom have to do with Air Liquide? If you don't engage with other fields, you'll never discover anything. We're now going to set up partnerships around data or the management of the Internet of Things, or health.
Did you know that 20% of their revenue comes from healthcare? I didn't know that.
It's not the same as in the United States with NASA, where many start-ups know that eventually, they may be able to get a contract with the American Space Agency. Are we in Europe able to assure these young entrepreneurs that at some point they might be able to sell their technologies to the ESA? Or to France? That we could be the buyer?
It’s essential for them to have a client. Not necessarily immediately. But yes! Here’s an example I like to use: ClearSpace. It was a start-up in Switzerland, in an incubator. Today, ESA has launched an open competition, which this start-up won. They are going to develop the solution to fight against debris in orbit. Obviously, this will not be the case for all start-ups.
[There is no need to reinvent the wheel, but what we will do is connect them with local partners, like Technoport. We are also trying to make it easier for these start-ups to access ESA funding. Then we put them in touch with industry experts in each country, depending on the start-up's profile].
For this, we also try to build bridges with the European Commission to interest other sectors of activity, such as private partners. In the United States, some markets are vertical, so it's easier.”