The fascination of the great beyond
Space inspires us to dream. The aerospace industry has been experiencing radical changes in recent years. NewSpace creates exciting business models and introduces new opportunities. Syderal Swiss AG finds itself in the thick of this transformation. CEO Olivier Henin intends to build the largest hub in Switzerland with his aerospace centre – in an Alfred Müller AG building in Neuchâtel.
In July 2019, Syderal Swiss moved to its new headquarters in an office building owned by Alfred Müller AG located in Neuchâtel, where the company plans to build a space hub. Just what does that mean?
The idea for the space hub arose from the development of the market and its demands. These days, it is no longer possible to gather all the required professional expertise into one single company. That’s why we want to join forces and create a dynamic centre of competence for aerospace topics to facilitate synergies with regard to developments, exchange, resources and test facilities. Together with Orolia (Spectratime), a manufacturer of high-precision atomic clocks, I was looking for a place that would accommodate us. The idea of a space hub in Neuchâtel was intriguing, and the canton, with its rich industrial heritage, shares our desire to promote new economic sectors and is lending its support to the project.
Why did you choose Alfred Müller AG’s Puits-Godet building as your company’s new location?
We were looking for an opportunity to expand and profit from modern amenities, and we found this in the offices of Alfred Müller AG. We must manage our growth and be able to absorb other businesses. We were convinced by the quality of the building. It’s located near our old offices in Gals in an industrial area and offers flexibility: it fulfilled all our criteria.
How much interest is there from other companies?
At least two companies must be involved in the space hub in order for it to receive government support. At the moment there are three: Syderal Swiss, Orolia (Spectratime) and nanoTRONIC. All of them are electronics companies, primarily in the NewSpace sector. As soon as everyone is established in the hub, a competence centre will be created for 200 to 250 people – the largest in Switzerland in the electronics sector, probably even in Europe.
What exactly does Syderal do?
Syderal Swiss develops electronic equipment and software for satellites. We create solutions for increasing data processing capacities to make information available more quickly. The challenge of our field is that our equipment must stand up to highly adverse conditions. Something that works on earth may not work in space. We must guarantee that our electronics remain operational for 10 to 15 years.
What is Switzerland’s role in aerospace?
Switzerland is a founding member of the European Space Agency (ESA), with 22 member states. Beyond the Swiss reputation for quality, Swiss neutrality can also play an interesting role, especially in the future Clean Space project, which aims to remove debris from orbit. The mission has a high ecological significance. All actors are part of the consortium. Neutrality is of great interest here, because it is difficult to imagine China removing Russian or American satellites from space. In this sense the project has a sensitive, strategic side: space will become a geopolitical challenge.
You mentioned NewSpace: can you explain that in detail?
In the past 20 or 30 years, space travel was primarily a military and strategic affair. There is now a commercial interest as well. Space is on the cusp of an enormous development surge because of the need for ever faster communication on earth. NewSpace is part of this development – with products that are less expensive and have shorter lives. It is a global market which opens new opportunities for us. The cards have been shuffled and there are new positions to fill, which is why the concept of the space hub fits so well with this strategy.
Syderal was involved in more than 50 successful missions for customers such as NASA and Airbus. Which was the most exciting?
The InSight mission with the goal of reaching Mars. There are only two active terrestrial instruments on Mars, and one of them is ours – a seismograph that was developed in collaboration with the French aerospace agency. It measures underground activity on Mars and sends new scientific data on the interior life of the planet. Our instrument collects and transmits this data. It was exciting to follow the successful landing on Mars. Experiencing this live over a conference hook-up with the USA was truly magical. This success kicked off our series of 50 missions without disruption.
“From the first contact, we met with people who are very understanding and focused on finding solutions.”
What do you appreciate most about Alfred Müller AG, your landlord?
From the first contact, we met with people who are very understanding and focused on finding solutions. The discussions on building the offices were a genuine team effort. The management at Alfred Müller AG did everything they could so that our move was carried out under ideal conditions. They preferred to work with their own network of construction companies in order to ensure quality, but let us have a say regarding the tenders. They also offered us support with the costs. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to pay the costs for construction, especially for the cleanroom, in instalments. Their management of the project has been outstanding, and I am very happy with them.
Is a trip to space a personal dream for you?
I never had the dream of flying in space. But I did have dreams – which came true too early, unfortunately (laughs). So the advice I give is this: have crazy, impossible dreams. Try to make them come true in the course of your life. Be ambitious. Be crazy. One day, it may be completely normal to travel to the moon or to Mars.
“One day, it may be completely normal to travel to the moon or to Mars.”
The production facilities in the cleanroom pose a special challenge and a long-term investment. Cleanrooms are not easy to implement from a technical perspective – particle concentration must be controlled in order to minimise the infiltration, generation and deposition of particles. Parameters such as temperature and relative pressure are precisely controlled.
Syderal Swiss AG
Syderal Swiss develops and produces electronic equipment for aeronautics applications. The company was formed in 2003 from Alcatel Space Switzerland. Today, it employs 70 people in Switzerland and 20 in Poland (Gdańsk), of which 50 per cent work in engineering. Syderal Swiss trains its employees specifically for production in the aerospace sector.