Sir Martin Sweeting OBE FRS is a man with big ambitions. Nearly 30 years ago, armed with just £100 and a team of four, he set up Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL), which designs, builds, launches and operates small satellites in orbit. Since its inception, Guildford-based SSTL has become the world’s leading small satellite company, with applications ranging from scientific research to communications to disaster monitoring. Sweeting talked to Eleanor Harris about his inspiration for the company, the importance of space to the UK economy and his plans to take business to the Moon
Sir Martin Sweeting OBE FRS is group executive chairman of SSTL and director of the Surrey Space Centre. He was born in London in 1951 and has a PhD in electronic engineering and communications. Sweeting pioneered the concept of small, low-cost and highly-capable satellites, and in 1981 he built and launched the UK’s first research microsatellite at the University of Surrey, using commercial off-the-shelf components. This was followed by a second satellite which launched in 1984.
In 1985 Sweeting formed SSTL as a spinout company from the University of Surrey. Today, SSTL employs 400 staff across four sites, has total export orders of £600 million, achieved turnover of £92 million for 2011, and has launched 36 satellites to date, including the international Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC). In 1995, Sweeting was awarded an OBE for his pioneering work in small satellites, in 2000 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 2002 he was knighted for his services to the small satellite industry.
What was your inspiration for SSTL?
It goes way, way back – when I was five or six, I was fascinated by communications, I would make telephones out of two cans and a bit of string. I then joined the army cadet force and became interested in amateur radio – this was in the 1960s, when the idea of being able to build radios and talk to people around the world was fascinating. At the same time, I watched the Moon landings and saw the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and those things all came together. As an undergraduate, when I probably should have been doing more work on my degree, I was playing with radios and tracking satellites. A few years after I finished my PhD, microcomputers came onto the consumer market and it struck me that you could actually build a small satellite using microelectronics in a university lab. At the time, that was considered pretty wacky to say the least, but I brought together a small group from the university and we begged and borrowed money and components from industry and over the next two years built our first satellite. I still don’t know quite why but NASA agreed to give it a piggy back ride on one of their rockets, and, much to everybody’s surprise, it worked. NASA took up a second satellite that we built in just six months, and it’s still transmitting today, amazingly.
Can you tell me about the growth and success of SSTL?
After those two satellites, most people told me to go and get a proper job, but I formed SSTL in 1985 with just four people and £100. There wasn’t any government funding and the first 15 years were really difficult, trying to find every possible way to make the money go as far as possible. During the 1990s we worked with Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Chile and Singapore on experimental training satellites. It was a good business for us and the company grew slowly but gradually. But in the early 2000s we were able to very rapidly improve the performance of the satellites, by introducing the improvements in computers and cameras in the commercial marketplace. We could take pictures of the Earth with sufficient resolution to provide real operational solutions, such as disaster monitoring – we were one of the first organisations to provide images of Hurricane Katrina to the UN and the UN was using them to decide where to focus its relief efforts – but we also found that you could use these satellites for commercial purposes, such as agriculture, so we moved from being a research business into an operational business and our people grew. We formed a small subsidiary, DMCii, which turns the pictures from the satellites into things that the customer wants. We’re producing spacecraft that have real commercial applications, that are the size of a cupboard compared to the size of a London bus, and for a tenth of the price, and that’s changing the whole way that space can be used.
How does the company continue to grow?
In February we won a second contract with Galileo, Europe’s satellite navigation system, so with our German partners we’re building all 22 satellites for that – when you think where we started, that’s pretty staggering. And we’re currently building satellites for Kazakhstan, Russia and Canada, and all of this is export, which is really great. Over our lifetime we have been independent of government funding, but there have been two key times when the government did support us with very small, but very key, bits of funding. One was in 2000, when Lord Sainsbury invested around £10m which allowed us to build the first of the disaster monitoring constellations, and the return on that investment has been colossal – we’ve had £150m in orders. And just before Christmas, the government agreed to invest £21m for us to launch a new radar remote sensing programme – we’ve changed the way optical imaging is done from space, we now want to do the same for radar. Another key point is that in 2009 the university sold a 99% shareholding in the company to EADS Astrium, so we would be able to expand. We’ve set up a small subsidiary in the US, to see if we can access that market, and our original research group at the university has grown to around 100 people, and that academic-commercial synergy continues to be critical to us to keep our innovation.
How important is it for the UK to stay at the forefront of satellite and space technology? And how do you see SSTL’s contribution to that?
It’s critical for the UK for several reasons. First of all, we’re now totally dependent on space, so if we’re not playing in the game then we’re totally dependent on the strategies of other countries. We should be part of the game because we want to influence the future. Secondly, it’s one of the few industries which has continued to grow, at about 9% per annum, throughout the recession. It’s a very highly skilled industry, it contributes several billion to the UK economy and it’s continuing to grow and it stimulates young scientists and engineers to think – sometimes they come in and work in this area and then go out to other areas and that provides yeast into the rest of the economy. It’s critical in terms of our national expertise, as well as our national capability and infrastructure. I think what we’ve done at SSTL is to quite fundamentally change the economics of space. We’ve done for space what the PC did for computing, and that is to make it more accessible, more useful, better value for money. We’ve removed the perception of a terribly exotic gold-plated James Bond environment which is only accessible by governments and superpowers.
How will you be pushing the boundaries in the future?
Looking a few years ahead, there are a couple of things I’m keen to see if we can make happen. One is that I believe eventually, whether it’s in 20 or 50 years’ time, we will have sustained human habitation on the Moon, brought closer with the discovery of substantial quantities of water on the Moon, and I think that presents us with a business opportunity and I think the UK really should be part of this. A bit like the Gold Rush in the 1880s, the people who really made the money were those who built the railways, provided the hotels and the entertainment. If we’re going to have human habitation on the Moon you’re going to need GPS, and then you’re going to need Vodafone, and what we could do is provide the infrastructure and business around the Moon.
How would you account for your success?
When I started I did this because I was interested in it and I wasn’t afraid of failing. And I have to say I never set out to make money. I thought this was something which was fascinating and useful, and later on I thought it is going to change the economics of space and we can make a really interesting business out of it. And necessity is the mother of invention: because there wasn’t ready money available you had to think of every way in which you could get some money or make it go as far as possible to solve a problem – that essentially created what we’ve got now. There’s a certain element of bloodymindedness: if people tell you you can’t do things, you say “why not?” And if you don’t have the imagination – or foolishness, it’s a thin line between the two – nothing happens. Opportunities present themselves to people and I’m the sort of person who would tend to be optimistic and say “that’s interesting, let’s try it”. If I believe in something and see there’s a logical argument to it then I’m quite prepared to take significant risks.
Looking at your achievements – which include an OBE, knighthood, Fellow of the Royal Society – how does it feel to have been awarded these, and what would you consider your greatest achievement?
Like the money side I didn’t do it to achieve these. It turned out that the business has given the UK something quite unique around the world in this field and that it is useful, so to get the recognition, yes, I get satisfaction from it, and it has significantly helped the business because it allows me to speak with a greater authority, if you like, but I didn’t set out for it to happen. The thing that gives me most satisfaction is seeing the company grow, doing really interesting, new things, which have significantly changed the way people think about space around the world. And we’ve got 400 people who hopefully really enjoy working here, and that’s probably the most rewarding of it. It’s very much a non-hierarchical company, everybody can talk to everybody else and that’s something I would die in a ditch trying to maintain as the company gets bigger. Maintaining that ethos gives me the most satisfaction, a combination of that and when we get the latest set of pictures from our satellites. When I see really stunning pictures of the Earth emerge from space, I think “Wow”, I still get a buzz.