“All companies need an alien department”

Frank Salzgeber brings technical innovations from aerospace to Earth. In our interview the head of the European Space Agency’s Technology Transfer Programme Office reveals what companies can learn from aerospace and why inspiration from the outside is important.

 Interview Tino Scholz  Photos Judith Jockel

Mr. Salzgeber, what would happen if humans became too lazy for innovations?

When we stop exploring, we stop living and advancing ourselves.

Is it really that dramatic?

Yes, unfortunately. A tree that stops growing has started dying. Because we don’t want to experience that, we continue researching. Fortunately. I don’t wish to imagine my children growing up in a world that isn’t innovative. That’s why I raise them to have the courage to take risks.  

A trait that describes modern spaceflight very well. Is space exploration predestined for innovations that no one has ever thought of before?

That’s certainly true. Sometimes in aerospace issues arise for which there isn’t yet any technology. The conditions are extreme in space, so engineers must be very creative. By the same token, they must develop products that work perfectly. Naturally these also have justifications for use on Earth. Our approach at the European Space Agency, ESA, is to initiate this technology transfer. Companies should be availing themselves of innovations from space—opening the window to let in some fresh air. We must re-learn how to bring innovations from outside back inside and trigger creative processes.



Salzgeber is certain that we’ll soon be going to Mars—he demonstrates how.



Like for instance the electric screwdriver, a NASA innovation?

That’s a prime example. Whatever a rocket is transporting up shouldn’t be too heavy. It all costs a lot of money. There’s also no electrical socket. The solution for repair work was the cordless screwdriver. But no one at the time realized it would be such a success later, back on Earth. 


Although the idea is quite simple.

As is the case for the majority of successful transfers. Take the space probes that were developed to land on Mars or on Saturn’s moon, Titan. It’s a complex situation; the probes have their own unique shape. Like a potato chip does, too. Probes should remain intact when they enter the atmosphere, just as chips should when the bag is filled. One snack company wanted to accelerate the tempo for filling their bags, but all the chips ended up as crumbs. So they recycled the knowledge and software used to calculate how a space capsule enters the atmosphere. The fill tempo could be increased by 50 percent—the chips remained intact.  


You’re the head of ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme Office, which makes sure that aerospace knowledge makes it back to Earth. Are you world’s largest recycling machine?

We’re the most motley crew, the aliens of the ESA. We work with industries that have nothing to do with aerospace. I think that all companies need an alien department. One that shakes things up and makes things uncomfortable.



Why is that?

It’s important to break with old patterns of thinking. There’s one thing we must be clear about: evolution, in the business world, too, is brutal. In mechanical engineering you learn that a new system creates friction. This implies that when you do something new and there’s no friction, then you’re doing something wrong.


What’s the solution?

We ourselves are often the biggest obstacle to innovation. Engineers, scientists and researchers sometimes develop tunnel vision, which may also have to do with the demands of our fast-paced society. Sometimes you just have to stir things up once in a while, for instance transferring people to a different discipline after ten years to create new stimuli. A company that does this doesn’t have to worry about its future. The company that doesn’t do this blocks new influences and will soon be overtaken by reality.

Is this way of thinking about interdisciplinary transfer perhaps your department’s most important innovation?

In my mind, yes, it is. It’s important to ask yourself: How do I make an innovation into three successes, three products? Today we’re so very much tuned into efficiency, so why not also do this for the adaptation of aerospace technology?


Who makes these observations? Do you approach companies? Or is it the other way around?

Both. To attract smaller companies and start-ups for transfer projects, we organize competitions or take part in entrepreneurial events. We also have intermediaries in most countries who are responsible for technology transfers. They’re our expanded sales channel. They try to find out what’s needed in industry and at institutions. We compare the biggest problems and ask ourselves: What keeps us up at night?  


And then?

Then we take a look at our portfolio of what we might have solutions for and make contacts to supplier industries. The projects come afterwards. Our role is usually to bring two parties together. What you have to know is that transfer is one thing, the business model the other. Such a product ultimately demands to be sold. 

What needs to happen so that the things that have been created for space can also be used here on Earth? 

I don’t think there’s really much difference between the ground and space. Four hundred kilometers above, about where the International Space Station is located, isn’t very far. But four light-years are. Take the idea for a startup that uses the ISS Air Revitalization System. This takes the exhaled air from the astronauts in space and converts it into oxygen so that longer spaceflights are possible. The company uses this system on Earth to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. With it, the company supplies various industries that require highly concentrated carbon dioxide. Greenhouses, for instance, where the CO2 acts as fertilizer. Or it’s used as a gas in carbonated drinks. 

That’s perfectly logical.

We shouldn’t make things too complex, but instead should think like a child. Children ask a lot of often banal questions. That’s an attitude that we need: don’t prejudge anything. I always say: No fear, little respect. Companies should know that trying things out is important. That’s why I’m very impressed by Google with its Moonshot Department—even project failures are rewarded.


Why would you want to voluntarily fail?

Failure is associated with risk. And innovations almost always require risky approaches. I think we have a disadvantage here in Europe compared to the United States: We allow hardly any mistakes. At ESA, we support 140 new startups every year, the survival rate for which is more than 80 percent. I find that too high. We’re not taking enough risks. There must be a niche in every company where you’re allowed to make mistakes. You learn from them. If you’re clever, that is.

Where will the ESA’s cleverness bring us someday?

That brings us back to the beginning. Innovations ensure that we’re always advancing. Our technology transfer is making a contribution to this. Who knows, maybe it will lead to our children flying to the Moon and Mars someday. Remember, technology transfer isn’t a one-way street. Technology can also return to aerospace after being improved here on Earth. It’s very exciting to me. If you look at an image of the Milky Way, the Earth is just a tiny little dot. In my opinion, the universe needs more humanity. 

Are your bags already packed?

Unfortunately I think I’m too old for this era. But if I had the opportunity, I’d take it. Even this very day!

TÜV SÜD in Space

Read about the role TÜV SÜD plays on the ESA Mars Mission in our 150th anniversary publication.