Innovation and collaboration rather than grass and sheep: 'If we can go to Mars, we should be able to create a Space Campus'
It should become the centre for space activity. A place where employees of ESTEC and other companies but also students and employees of the universities meet. Where new ideas are born and where new companies and thus high-quality employment is created. Reason for the Dutch government, the province and the municipality of Noordwijk to put money into NL Space Campus, the business park next to ESTEC.
Investing in the space sector is investing in a growth industry. Research shows that every euro put into this sector pays back fourfold. Over the past seven years, the sector has grown by 20% employment and now accounts for more than 10,000 full-time jobs, spread across more than 210 companies and institutions. The Dutch space sector has a production value of 1.9 billion euros and an added value of 1 billion euros, according to figures from the Noordwijk municipality.
The place where that space sector can grow in abundance is the site next to ESTEC that was bought by the Noordwijk municipality 15 years ago. The first excavators have now appeared on the until recently untouched field. In the coming years, various facilities are to be built here to ensure that Noordwijk will soon become a vibrant centre for the space sector. For instance, a square with all shell paths, called Activation Open Field, is currently being constructed where people can meet. The opening is scheduled for 28 September 2023.
Next year, the opening of the CometLab is planned. It will house communal facilities such as a test room for small antennas, for use by companies, students and ESTEC staff. A third project is the arrival of a so-called Basecamp where, besides office space, there will also be a large production area. Marc Sandelowsky, director of NL Space Campus, is cautiously optimistic. "The square will probably be opened after the summer, the CometLab has been tendered and can hopefully be there in 2024," he says. The European tender for the Basecamp is ongoing so there is also progress there."
The development of NL Space Campus, as the largely undeveloped site is officially called, has been a long time coming. In 2018, the so-called Regiodeal was concluded to give the development of the campus a push in the right direction. This Regiodeal stipulates that central government (€15 million for the International Meeting Facility at ESTEC), province (€8 million) and Noordwijk municipality (€3 million) will invest in the development of the space cluster. In addition, the municipality has made €809,000 available for 50% (the other half coming from the province) of the financing of the campus organisation in the years 2019-2023. To this end, the NL Space Campus Foundation was set up in 2018 to develop the business park. Marc Sandelowsky has been director of NL Space Campus for a few months now. "This commitment from the government helps with the development of the campus. Growing companies are often looking for vacant space while investors only step in when there are tenants. The government is now helping to break that chicken-and-egg situation." He is confident that there will soon be enough interest to use the new facilities. He points to similar campuses such as in Eindhoven, Twente and the BioSciencepark in Leiden. "There too, it took a while but now there is something. In a few years, we hope no one will remember this empty field. And if we can go to Mars, we should be able to create a Space Campus, right?"
One of those interested in a place on the currently empty field is Paul Straathof of HomeWizard. He would like more space for scale-ups such as his own company HomeWizard. Rob Postma, director of Airbus Netherlands, also views the development of the NL Space Campus with interest. He points out that in the coming years, the Netherlands is committed to LaserSatCom, or fast and safe communication by laser beams between satellites, aircraft and ground stations on Earth, among other things. "For Airbus, laser communication between satellites is not new, it has been happening for 15 years, but we are now focusing on the next step. Sending data between a ground station and a moving satellite or aircraft. Airbus delivers two new aircraft every day. To equip them all with a laser terminal, that's my dot on the horizon. Producing them would require a factory for terminals and antennas. Will that be in Noordwijk? If Airbus had been located in Zeeland, I would have asked the province of South Holland what they would be willing to pay for a move to the NL Space Campus. Of course, I have asked that question now too. I just don't have an answer yet."
The development of the NL Space Campus is being watched at ESA/ESTEC. Torben Henriksen, until recently acting director of technology and head of ESTEC: "A healthy ecosystem around ESTEC helps economic growth in the Netherlands and other ESA countries. It encourages space companies to come here which makes the sector grow. Don't forget that some 90% of space business already takes place in the province of South Holland. Universities of Delft, Leiden and the Rotterdam all lack space so a joint initiative could take place here just fine. That whole ecosystem in turn makes it more interesting for the Netherlands to increase its contribution to ESA/ESTEC."
Marc Sandelowsky who is busy consulting with knowledge institutions to plan graduation projects in the new facilities, for example, points out that the arrival of students and companies will also improve the labour market for ESA/ESTEC. "There is a whole generation of people retiring there. If you then have an ecosystem where there are already a lot of students in the space sector, it is also easy for ESTEC."
For now, the first real bricks have yet to be stacked in the coming period. It cannot go fast enough for many companies in the area. Johan Leijtens of Lens R&D is eagerly looking forward to the development of the business park. "When I started in Noordwijk 12 years ago, there wasn't even a decent car park. It needs to sparkle and fizzle but for now I say in The Hague fashion: Het bruis nie, het gis."
ATG director Massimilliano Mazza also grumbles about the long time he spends looking out from his office onto the field where he sees mostly sheep walking to keep the grass short. "The only thing of the campus that really works is the place for VR technology Avatar here in the building. That is a kind of blueprint for how the campus should work. The principle is that all parties who contribute to Avatar, in money or knowledge, can also use it. That way, you offer smart people and companies something extra from which they can benefit. They can use that blueprint like this at NL Space Campus. It's all moving too slowly. It's more like Italy here than the Netherlands."
Despite the scepticism, the entrepreneurs have many ideas. Paul Straathof of HomeWizard, for instance, is happy with the arrival of the CometLab. A nice facility, he believes. At the same time, he is critical. "A climate room is easily 30 to 40 grand so it's good if you can do that collectively. But why can't this be done in ESTEC? There, so many nice facilities are empty part of the time."
Johan Leijtens of Lens R&D notes that to get a living campus, the arrival of a manufacturing industry is important. "You can make software all over the world. Instead, you need facilities to make the hardware. A development like the CometLab is important. Smaller companies cannot invest in everything and it is very good to share equipment. So the best thing would be for techies at ESTEC to come there to do work as well. That interaction would be very interesting for the space industry."
Joost Carpay, deputy director of the Netherlands Space Office, points to Eindhoven where, besides companies, the business park also houses a supermarket, hairdresser and shoemaker. "With a hall for lectures, a canteen and coffee shop, ESTEC people will come. If start-ups find a place and there is also something for students, you will get your own dynamics that are not there now."
Director Sandelowsky would also like to see the "front door" of the space complex shifted from the gateway of ESTEC to the campus. "But with a CometLab and a Basecamp, that's really happening. It just takes time so now we have to make sure everything a company needs is there. The wheel is already turning, we just need to make it turn a bit faster now."
Benefit for Noordwijk
Noordwijk has invested heavily in the Space Campus. In the coming period, the municipality will lease out the land under the planned Basecamp and Activitation Open Field. That way, the municipality will eventually receive direct income from the arrival of the activity. But that is not the only benefit Noordwijk sees from the future Space Campus. According to Noordwijk, the campus will generate both jobs and activity. It strengthens the clustering of high-tech space companies and attracts investors and capital. Cooperation with universities in Leiden, Delft and Rotterdam should attract young talented people. In short, the attractiveness of Noordwijk and the region is greatly enhanced by the expansion of the Space Campus, according to Noordwijk.
Shortstay on campus
More companies and more students on the NL Space Campus. It would therefore be convenient if there were also a place where students, researchers or employees could stay for a while. ATG director Massimilliano Mazza would like to see short-stay accommodation on the NL Space Campus. "Many people come here to work for two to three months and then it is not nice ánd expensive to live in a hotel. It would be great if the Space Campus would have a building with small flats for people who want to stay here for one, two or three months. It is now just very difficult to help someone get a house right away and this is how you help them." Marc Sandelosky, director NL Space Campus, would also like to have a shortstay location. "It is now being discussed at city hall," he says.
In addition to the square, the CometLab and Basecamp, work is now underway on another facility namely the so-called Phi-Lab. It should become a place where researchers from universities in Leiden, Delft and Rotterdam, companies and perhaps ESA itself can have a workplace. That way, new inventions and ideas should be able to find a commercial application faster. In other countries, these labs already exist and the Dutch government has also indicated in its October parliamentary letter that it will reserve money for the arrival of this facility.
Space in the Bulb Region
This story is part of an eight-part series on the impact of the space complex in the Bulb Region and surrounding area. This series is powered by the South Holland Journalism Quality Impulse of the province of South Holland. In the first story about the Noordwijk ESTEC, we look back in history. In part 2, former employees look back on the early years in Noordwijk.