Out-of-this-world ideas on offer

17 May 2011

Is your company on the hunt for out-of-this-world business concepts? ESA is placing information on its intellectual property rights online, aiming to promote the commercialisation of these patents in terrestrial contexts.

This new online guide, undertaken by ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme Office (TTPO), includes descriptions of the intellectual property rights in question, their innovations and advantages, and their potential market applications.

“In the first place, ESA files patent applications in order to safeguard its own programmes,” explains Luz Becker, Secretary of the Agency’s Patents Group.

“We need to keep Europe a strong player in space; we want to avoid that someone else claims inventions we have made and could potentially block their use by ESA and its contractors.


“In addition, if you are a start-up looking to attract venture capital, it’s much easier if you have access to intellectual property, either through your own patents or a licence.

“And patents make the licensing process legally watertight, demonstrating that we do indeed own the knowledge we are transferring.”

TTPO has a network of brokers looking for companies that might be interested in licensing ESA patents, with a view to getting discussions going.

Royalty-free licensing is available for space applications within ESA Member States, while licensing for space uses outside ESA Member States and licensing for non-space applications may be subject to licence fees and royalties. All licences may be subject to an administrative fee.

Terahertz scan spots weaponAccess the image

“What we are offering is typically still quite raw,” Luz added. “It might be a technical principle or something that works in space, but still needs further development for terrestrial applications.”

Of the patents that ESA has so far licensed for non-space applications to industry, one of the most successful has been a patent for a terahertz imaging system originated for deep space astronomy now used in systems for security checks.

Starting in the 1960s, some 576 declarations of inventions have been made, with today around 450 patent filings and patents valid in different countries.

ESA’s Patents Group - with members from ESA Directorates and ESA’s legal department - decides on behalf of the Director General whether a patent application is filed. The Secretariat of the Patents Group is provided by the Legal Department, which also administers ESA’s patent portfolio.

The patents range across a variety of fields, but the most active areas for new ideas have been onboard power conditioning and telecommunications.

Power conditioning includes converters, switching devices and specialised circuitry to keep a satellite’s electrical power supply flowing steadily and securely, no matter if its solar panels are in Sun or shadow.

Telecommunications includes everything from antennas to amplifiers to digital video broadcasting. A number of patents concern specialised ways to handle data flows, modulation and packet scheduling.

“Some of ESA’s highest profile patents have been those related to a modulation scheme for Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB-S2),” added Luz. “These have been declared essential to the DVB-S2 standard and introduced into its joint licensing programme.

“Another important patent in the area of telecommunication has been SkyPlex, a payload designed for digital multiplexing, which is being used on a number of telecommunication satellites.”

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