UK: Airbus deal shows how universities can prosper

The potential riches that can be gained by universities spinning off successful science units into commercial operations have been made clear by a deal involving Britain's University of Surrey and Airbus-maker EADS Astrium. The company has acquired the university's Surrey Satellite Technology Limited for an estimated £50 million (US$99 million). The spin-off designs and manufactures small and micro-satellites.

Surrey's Professor Sir Martin Sweeting, Executive Chairman of SSTL, said the deal would strengthen SSTL which would continue its pioneering work: "SSTL operates in a highly competitive global market. If we are to continue changing the economics of space and provide the innovative solutions our customers demand we must expand and maintain our R&D investment."

University Vice-Chancellor Professor Christopher Snowden welcomed the benefits his institution would receive from the takeover: "On completion, this will represent one of the largest cash spin-outs from any UK university," Snowden said, noting that south-east England's Surrey would retain a small stake in SSTL, promising that the university would continue working on space research.

Astrium is a Dutch company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Airbus consortium EADS, which is dedicated to manufacturing civil and defence space systems and services. It has been the prime contractor for Ariane 5, the Columbus space laboratory and the automated transfer vehicle for the International Space Station, among other high profile projects. It will hold an 80% stake in SSTL which will remain a British company, albeit part of a major European commercial group.

It has also participated in Europe's Ariane space programme, as well as developing satellites for China and N igeria, among other countries. It has also developed demonstration satellites for the European Union's major space telecommunications network Galileo.