Protecting Space from debris with SAFE: the start-up that won #T-TeC 2022 is continuing to grow

17 October 2023

Whether we think about commercial satellites for telecommunications, Earth observation satellites or manned explorations missions, all human activities in space could be damaged by the thousands of uncontrolled pieces of artificial debris orbiting the planet. It is not by chance that space sustainability has been a hot topic for some time, leading to the development of increasingly innovative technologies.

This is precisely the starting point of the Ecosmic start-up, which last year was the winner of #T-TeC, the Telespazio Technology Contest, an Open Innovation competition organised every year by Telespazio jointly with Leonardo.

The start-up developed its own software, called SAFE, which uses specific algorithms to very accurately estimate the chances of collision in orbit, recommending the satellite manoeuvres that reduce fuel consumption and downtime to a minimum, thus supporting the long-term sustainability of space activities.

Benedetta Cattani is one of the founders of Ecosmic. She graduated after studying at the Politecnico di Milano (Italy) and Delft University of Technology (Netherlands). Benedetta’s thesis work included collaborating with ESA on a project dedicated to improving the methods used to avoid collisions in space. She worked for a year in ESA’s Clean Space department, which is dedicated to developing solutions to improve sustainability in orbit.

We have spoken to Benedetta about her experience in #T-TeC 2022, the economic growth of Ecosmic, which, as the contest winner, was involved in the BIF (Business Innovation Factory) accelerator programme organised by Leonardo a few months ago. 

After #T-TeC 2022, Ecosmic joined Leonardo’s BIF accelerator programme. What happened in this period?

At the time of the #T-TeC 2022 award ceremony, we had just set up the company and so many things have happened since then. To begin with, our team has increased considerably and we have gone from having one person full time to there being five of us. Now the offices of our start-up are in ESA BIC Noordwijk, the business incubator linked with ESA’s Research and Technology Centre, which supports us on the business and technology side. In the past few months, we have also successfully participated in GreenTech Europe, an accelerator programme aimed at supporting and promoting innovative start-ups led by women and linked to the sustainability sector.

#T-Tec was crucial for the expansion of Ecosmic, because it allowed us to sign our first contract with Telespazio, with the aim of developing a first complete and functional version of our product with the support of their engineers and operators. Our objective was to prove the value of our software, applying it directly to the data of satellites in orbit, and to start building the back-end needed for the integration of our software.

Now we are giving it all to complete this first project while laying the foundations for our next collaborations. For example, using a grant from the European Commission for the development of innovative technologies, we will be able to test our software in orbit in the coming months.

What support does BIF provide?

BIF helps us in a number of ways, which are all aimed at supporting our technological and business development. Through BIF, for example, we can attend seminars on various subjects that are very useful to newly established start-ups, such as how to organise a marketing and sales strategy, protect intellectual property or generate financial forecasts. We are also periodically in contact with sector experts, with whom we talk and discuss our specific needs in their field of expertise. In technical terms, we have been assigned a great Telespazio mentor, Ms Maria Cristina Lupi, and we have a technical project manager, with whom we discuss our project’s progress on a weekly basis.

What does the CEO of a start-up such as Ecosmic do?

As there are only five of us, roles are not as clearly defined as they are in large companies, so I really do a lot of things! At the moment, I am dealing mainly with fundraising and I support the product’s technical development. This means that I spend about half of my day dealing with matters related to business and operations, e.g. talking with possible investors and managing Ecosmic’s books, while the rest of the day is dedicated to developing and testing code.

Thanks to Ecosmic, my co-founders and I travel frequently to talk to customers or investors and present our product and vision at events and conferences. For example, in the next few weeks you will see us at the Space Tech Expo in Bremen or the NSE Forum in Rome.

Why did you and your team decide to take part in the Telespazio contest?

Ecosmic is a start-up that was born from the desire to protect space from space debris pollution. Most of the team’s members are space engineers who fully understand the devastating consequences that space collisions could have on the future use of terrestrial orbits, and who are very aware of how many of the services that we now take for granted depend on fully functioning satellites. When we saw that one of the themes of the Telespazio contest was space sustainability, we immediately decided to take part. 

Did you expect your project to be one of the favourites? Which do you think were SAFE’s strengths?

Telespazio has been looking for solutions for sustainability, and because we were very closely aligned with this theme, we believed we had a good chance of winning. As I said, our team is mainly made up of engineers with experience in space debris and we took part in #T-Tec with an already developed and validated software dedicated to preventing collisions in space. Our software improved the algorithms traditionally used in our sector and performed much, much better. Furthermore, we had already had the opportunity to present our project at events and conferences, so we did a good job of presenting it during the selection phase.

Do you have any advice for people wanting to participate in #T-TeC?

The most important thing, in my opinion, is to have very clear ideas on the project you want to present. All the winners of the past edition had a specific idea in mind, and they had investigated both technical feasibility and aspects related to the market.

This said, I don’t think that already having a fully developed product is necessary and I would like to encourage everyone to take part, even with an idea, because, after all, it’s only crazy until you do it!

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