Adam Dalton and Evan Darcy first met each other in science class when they were 13, bonding over their love for engineering. Four years later, in 2015, the two founded Robotify, a Dublin-based company that designs robotics simulation software. 

The start-up’s chief market is education, where primary and secondary school students use Robotify’s software to learn to code, but the company recently signed a contract with the European Space Agency (ESA), which wants to use the technology to make 3D models out of environmental data collected by ESA satellites.

Dalton thinks the nature of Irish business, and the way people work here, put this small nation in a particularly auspicious position to seize the growing opportunities in space. “We have a really good culture for promoting space technology and application [in Ireland],” he said. 

The young company is the latest to hop on the trend of Irish start-ups launching into the space industry, catalysed by the growing commercial opportunities that the final frontier presents. Fasten your seatbelts – we have lift-off.


“Space is becoming much more commercial and dynamic – in the past, it was driven by governments, but it has become geared towards the commercial market,” said Tony McDonald, ESA delegate for Ireland. “That’s what is driving start-up interest here, companies see more opportunities in space that are more commercially driven.”

In 2010, ESA had active contracts with about 40 companies throughout Ireland; now that number is around 90, according to McDonald. This trend has a lot to do with the long-term growth opportunities that derive from working with ESA, according to many CEOs. 

“If you can make a product that works in space, that product is going to receive a lot more attention.”

Jim Somers, Eblana Photonics

“ESA in recent years decided they don’t want to simply fund companies for project work that they might use, they want there to be an additional, commercial relevance that can build and grow these companies outside of ESA,” said Jim Somers, CEO of Eblana Photonics.

Eblana is a Dublin-based company that produces a unique laser technology used for transmitting data at high speeds. The bulk of the company’s market is with telecommunications, but Eblana’s lasers also play a crucial role in the GPS technology on satellites that allows apps like Google Maps and Waze to determine accurately how long it will take for an object to travel from one point on the Earth to another. This technology landed the company a contract with ESA.

Somers said his GPS space lasers only make up a small percentage of the company’s total revenue, but working with ESA and their high standards has had an immeasurable impact on the company. 

“It takes a long time to reach the performance criteria demanded by the space agency, but if you can make a product that works in space, that product is going to receive a lot more attention from your other sectors of business,” he said.

“We used those mechanisms and supports [from ESA] to help create our portfolio, and it brought Eblana eight or nine years ago from a loss-making company to a profit-making company.”

Somers believes that ESA’s ability to stimulate a company’s long-term growth, even after ESA is out of the picture, is the driving force behind the emergence of Irish start-ups in the space sector. 

“Small companies would typically be careful and cautious on what they spend unless it would give immediate commercial advantages,” he said. “The opportunity to go for something like an R&D grant, which for a technology or engineering company could be a big booster, is a risk that many companies may see as too steep.” 

ESA has taken a portion of that risk away, he said, by “monetarily encouraging companies to take chances where they wouldn’t have in the past”. This has proven to be a way to long-term commercial success. “We’ve seen a 25 per cent annual growth rate for the last few years since we got into space, both in headcount and profit,” Somers said. 

Enterprise Ireland (EI) has acted as a catalyst for Ireland’s space start-up take-off. The state agency has taken on a unique role in the Irish space sector, serving as the middle-man between ESA and Irish start-ups by helping the companies on the ground submit bids for ESA projects and meet the agency’s product standards.

Ten years ago, EI and the companies they worked with had about €10 million tied up through ESA contracts. Now, that number has almost doubled, according to McDonald, whose ESA delegate role is employed through EI. 

“We’ve been looking to invest in companies with the capacity to develop technology and innovate, and the capacity to commercialise that technology and scale the company accordingly,” he said. 

ESA allocates funding and project grants to each of its 22 member states proportional to how much that state’s government gives to ESA annually. 

The Irish government has been steadily contributing more to ESA each year of the past decade, McDonald said, expecting to see economic returns across industries beyond space. 

McDonald explained that Enterprise Ireland does not work for ESA, it works for the Irish economy, which is why the potential for long-term economic growth in more than one industry is imperative for investment. 

Downstream technology

Many of those investment opportunities have emerged due to the overall expansion of the space industry into “downstream technology” in the past decade. 

The downstream space sector, a term that describes the area of space operations that takes place on the ground, is the largest and most commercial of the three space sectors. 

Midstream, the sector involving the communication and transfer of data from space to Earth through satellites, is the second-largest, followed by the upstream sector, which handles the hardware and physics of launching and maintaining rockets and satellites. 

The downstream sector is where Irish companies have seen the greatest success, according to Mark McCarville, founder and CEO of Mindseed, a Dublin-based business development and consultancy firm that works primarily with space companies.

“The ground segment market is about 30 times bigger than the others combined,” McCarville said. “We work mostly in the ground segment because there is much more business. Getting in on the entry-level with the ground segment is much easier to execute for these companies.”

Space consulting makes up about 80 per cent of Mindseed’s business.

“Our goal is to help companies find their place in the space market,” he said. “We don’t want to make a toaster out of a top hat, we try to get through to the company’s business model and see how space is consistent with their plans without forcing it.”

The size of the downstream market, which has, in turn, paved the way for firms like Mindseed to exist, is thanks to companies like Robotify that have successfully taken advantage of their technology to help consolidate information and data from space.

“As a result of ESA, we’ve been able to develop strong underlying simulation technology that has a focus on space but really fits well into our expertise with browser simulation and 3D modelling,” said Robotify CEO Adam Dalton. 

Robotify’s contract with ESA involves the agency working with the edtech company on a product called Simbotify. The product provides robotic simulations for businesses in the agriculture, oil and natural resources, large infrastructure, freight and remote testing sectors using real-time satellite imagery from the Sentinel 1 and 2 satellites that orbit Earth.

Robotify co-founders Adam Dalton and Evan Darcy test their robotic 3D simulation technology. Photo: Robotify

Irish space companies don’t work exclusively in downstream technology, though. 

Galway-based photonics company mBryonics makes its money in the midstream sector, helping with the communication and transfer of data from space to Earth. 

MBryonics manufactures a cutting-edge mixture of hardware and software used on satellites that transmits and processes data using light and laser technology at unprecedented speed and capacity. 

“Satellites typically use the radio frequency spectrum to send and receive data, but because the amount of data satellites need to process is increasing every year by a factor of 10, new tech is needed to enhance and process data more efficiently,” said mBryonics CEO John Mackey. “This is where photonics come in.”

Although the midstream sector is smaller than the downstream sector, Mackey believes midstream technology will see rapid growth in the next few years. 

“Photonics is the next microchip,” he said. “The microchip came in the ’80s and it shrunk computers, which changed the whole electronics industry. The next wave is photonics for space, it will shake up the way we do things, and I think a lot more companies will be getting in on it.”

Some Irish companies have even made their name with upstream technology, albeit very few. 

Plasma Bound is one of the few. Founded in 2017, the Dublin company develops an adhesive technology known as controlled polymer ablation (CPA), which bonds composite materials to metal with high strength and extreme heat resistance. Like most Irish companies involved in space, Plasma Bound’s primary market is elsewhere, doing most of its work in automotives and personal electronics. However, about 20 per cent of its business is with ESA, which uses its technology for the construction and repair of satellites, rockets, and solar panels.

“Today, if you take the normal process of bonding materials for space, you would use a lot of sanding and sandblasting to smooth surfaces beforehand,” said Plasma Bound’s commercial director and co-founder, Xavier Montibert.

Sandblasting is imprecise, lengthy, and inefficient, Montibert said, adding that Plasma bound’s technology can perform the same job several times quicker and with “efficiency and perfection.”

Montibert said the company – only four years old – still has tremendous growth ahead of it, as does Ireland’s role in the entire space industry.

“I absolutely see many other companies doing what we are doing in 10 years,” he said. “When you look at how innovative companies are in Ireland, how could you think otherwise.”

“There are multiple adjacent markets that will only be visible over time.”

Andrew O’Neill, Act Venture Capital

Private investments may also play a part in the sector’s growth. While venture capital funding only makes up about five to 10 per cent of the Irish space market, the increased commercialisation of space technology could lead that percentage to rise, according to Andrew O’Neill, principal at Act Venture Capital. 

“When we are looking to invest, we look for a deep understanding of the company’s current market and where it’s going, and what adjacent markets it will lean into over time,” he said. 

“With space tech growth, especially with all these new low-earth-orbit satellites and all the different elements they need – it’s such a new frontier. There are multiple adjacent markets that will only be visible over time.”

Act was one of the early investors in Eblana Photonics, as well as several other start-up space companies. “We have seen great growth in these segments, and these companies will continue to grow,” said O’Neill.

The global space sector is set to see continued rapid expansion into the next decade, according to many CEOs, due to the heightened application for climate-based research from satellites, the emergence of 5G broadband, and the expanding overlap between commercial and space technology.

“The whole climate element is massive – ESA has put significant funding in Earth conservation to determine the atmospheric and ground characteristics of Earth,” Mindseed’s McCarville said.

“You link that with the emergence of technologies like drones and high-altitude platforms, which are able to get lots of data about the atmosphere and the Earth, that’s going to be contributing lots of growth.”

McCarville also touched on the 5G aspect, saying that the next-generation mobile network will drive the launch of a “mega constellation, or fleet of satellites,” into space, which will cultivate unprecedented business for the small space companies Mindseed works with.

Enterprise Ireland’s McDonald felt that Irish space companies’ future growth doesn’t have to do with the growth of the space sector at all, but rather, the commercial sector. 

“Zero failure”

“In the past, space had a requirement for a very high level of reliability, we called this a ‘zero-failure’ expectation,” he said. Producing zero failure infrastructure and technology is costly, and many companies did not see the extra investment as worth it. Now, that’s changing. 

“What we are seeing is other sectors are moving towards a zero-failure expectation as well for the first time,” McDonald said. “Autonomous vehicles come to mind as an example, they require zero-failure technology, and that is an industry that is sure to expand in the next decade.”

This growing overlap paves the way for more companies to straddle the line between space and other commercial sectors using the same technology, he said. 

The expanding commercial market for space tech has even managed to bridge the gap between nations.

Historically, space companies have worked solely with the space organisation of the country in which they are based. This is because national space budgets are almost always part of defence budgets, so a company using defence money from one country to produce technology for another can pose a national security threat. 

The industry is slowly trending away from that divide, though. “At the European level, there has been this tying together of space and defence budgets, but Ireland is striving away from that, and rightfully so,” said mBryonics’ Mackey. “Politics are jelling, especially between the US and EU.”

Robotify works with NASA on an education programme out of Texas that allows kids to use Robotify’s simulation engine to drive rovers on mars. The partnership also runs robotics competitions for kids. “It’s a nice mix between space tech and education,” Dalton said.

The emergence of SpaceX, a private space company founded by Elon Musk, has opened the door even further for international space business. When the Crew Dragon capsule docked to the International Space Station on April, 24, safely transporting astronauts there for the second time, they relied on a crucial support system running software from Dublin-based company Skytek.

Eblana Photonics CEO Somers says Ireland’s business and innovation culture is a good fit for the space industry. “Irish companies in general are always looking to enhance the skill grouping that they have and to take advantage of true R&D work,” he said. “Ireland is filled with people with high, high-end skill sets. That vision – that strategy that is so strong among our people is being rewarded and will continue to be. We’re not cowboys, we know the industry, and we know what it takes to succeed.”

Mbryonics’ Mackey also sees brighter days ahead for Ireland’s space start-ups. 

“I absolutely think that we are at a moment in time where the space market here is going to significantly increase,” he said. “Ireland is going to get onto the world stage very soon, and it’s a very exciting thing.”