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A bunch of start-ups is turbo-charging India’s space economy, doing everything from building launch systems to providing satellite services

By: Manish Pant
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When Srinath Ravichandran, 36, and Moin S.P.M., 31, aren’t hitting the ball across the boundary in a game of backyard cricket, they are working on sending their Agnibaan series of low-cost rockets into space. Ravichandran, who has a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, first thought of the idea while networking with people from the commercial space domain in Los Angeles who had designed satellites but didn’t know how to put them into the earth’s orbit. “When I naively asked around as to why that was a problem, I was told that it was due to either the absence of the right kind of rockets or partners,” he tells Business Today. Finally, Ravichandran, who had previously worked as an electrical engineer and a finance person, and was tracking the development of Elon Musk’s SpaceX programme, quit his job and returned to India. Here, he co-founded Agnikul Cosmos with Moin—they had bonded over friendly cricket matches at the same ground in Chennai—in 2017 to be a part of what some commentators have termed the new space rage.

(L to R) Moin S.P.M., Srinath Ravichandran, founders, Agnikul Cosmos

Year of Founding: 2017

Product: Development of small-lift mobile launch systems such as Agnibaan to place 100-kg payloads into a 700-km orbit.

Funding: The company has raised $15 million in funding to date.

 

The duo is part of an ever-increasing tribe of new-age entrepreneurs who have consciously chosen to foray into the commercial space sector, a territory where not many in the country had dared to venture earlier. The final frontier is the new rage among several start-ups that are working on everything and anything to do with space, that is, from building launch systems and satellites to working on other related applications.

The commercial space industry holds the promise of emerging as the new sunrise sector, with the central government projecting it as contributing 1 per cent to the country’s $5-trillion economy target by 2024. Already, with 368 private firms, India’s space economy is the fifth-largest in the world after the US, the UK, Canada and Germany, says a report by SpaceTech Analytics. More than 75 start-ups are registered under the space technology category on the Startup India portal, according to government data. Moreover, several more start-ups registered under other categories on the same portal are also involved in the space domain.

Digantara Research & Technologies, founded by Anirudh N. Sharma, Rahul Rawat and Tanveer Ahmed, is looking at launching a constellation of satellites equipped with state-of-the-art payloads to scan and map the low-Earth environment. They also have plans to build the world’s largest catalogue of man-made objects in space, including those as small as 1 cm, for better operational and situational awareness in space. Sharma, 23, and Rawat, 22, became entrepreneurs in 2018 after they successfully developed a satellite structure for a foreign space agency and were paid about $1,000 for it. They were studying computer science engineering at Lovely Professional University (LPU), Phagwara, at the time. As active members of the university’s student satellite programme team, they had already contributed to building a nano satellite with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and participated in a couple of international conferences.

Sharma used to write cold emails to space agencies around the world seeking assistance. And that is how he got connected with the agency in question, which started working with them at the university level. “It was a great learning curve for us from 2018 to 2020, where we learnt a lot about business and fundraising. When you are building a company that intends to solve the problem of space junk, who do you think will agree to invest money in something like that? It’s a difficult proposition that we were offering,” says Sharma with a smile. “We withdrew the money meant to pay our college fee to fund our first contract as component manufacturers,” adds Rawat, laughing.

(L to R) Rahul Rawat, Tanveer Ahmed, Anirudh N. Sharma, Digantara Research & Technologies

Year of Founding: 2018

Product: Surveillance platform utilising a constellation of nanosatellites to provide predictive and situational awareness services.

Funding: $2.5 million from Kalaari Capital.

We withdrew the money meant to pay our college fee to fund our first contract as component manufacturers.

Rahul Rawat
co-founder
Digantara Research & Technologies

 


Potential for private participation

The potential for private entrepreneurs has been demonstrated in developed western economies due to the presence of an ecosystem where they have been a major contributor to the space sector. SpaceX and Blue Origin are lead examples in this regard. In comparison, India has started encouraging private participation only in the past two years. “What we are trying to do is to create an ecosystem or environment that will allow start-ups or even existing big business houses to come to the space sector and invest and create the business opportunity, which was previously absent,” says S. Somanath, Chairperson of ISRO, who is also Secretary, Department of Space. “There is business potential in various fields like launch vehicles, spacecraft and other applications to create a framework on which this concept can grow.”

Now, who would know that better than former ISRO employees and now Skyroot Aerospace Co-founders, Pawan Kumar Chandana, 31, and Naga Bharat Daka, 32, who have been in the news for their Vikram series of launch vehicles. Chandana, a graduate in mechanical engineering from IIT Kharagpur, and Daka, a graduate in electronics from IIT Madras, who were batchmates at the space agency’s Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) in Thiruvananthapuram, took a leap of faith when they decided to launch their own company in 2018. Incidentally, VSSC also happens to be ISRO’s prime facility for the design and development of launch vehicle technology.

“Things moved faster than we had expected. The government opened the sector during the pandemic period in 2020, and we became one of the early players in the field. In a landmark development, we also became the first start-up to sign an MoU with ISRO in 2021, when it came forward to help us build our rockets by providing access to their test and launch facilities and other expertise,” says Chandana. They have already contracted some clients. “Our customers are satellite operators active in the areas of telecommunications, space broadband or earth observation, where we will be providing them with transportation services to their desired orbit,” says his partner Daka.

Ever since its inception, India’s space programme has been funded by the government. From the time it was founded in 1969, ISRO has developed a network of more than 400 vendors specialising in technology development, manufacturing and supply of components. Some of the prominent vendors include names like Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), Larsen & Toubro, Godrej & Boyce, Alpha Design Technologies and Centum Electronics. The push for start-ups in the space sector is part of the vision to expand private sector participation in high technology by enabling the growth of companies that are capable of developing end-to-end solutions.

Some of the most important developments happened in 2020 when the government announced the opening of the commercial space sector to non-government private entities (NGPEs), marking the change from a supply-based model to a demand-based model. This was soon followed by the creation of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), the single window nodal agency for authorising, promoting and regulating private players. Thereafter, draft policies on remote sensing and satellite communications were also released.

(L to R) Naga Bharat Daka, Pawan Kumar Chandana, Skyroot Aerospace

Year of Founding: 2018

Product: Small-lift, expendable Vikram series of launch vehicles designed to carry small satellites into Earth’s orbit.

Funding: The company has raised $17 million in funding to date.

 

“The first point is that we want to make available our knowledge and facilities for use by start-ups. Secondly, as space is a regulated environment, we have that system coming in through the establishment of IN-SPACe, the regulatory body under the Department of Space (DOS). So, once these two come together, then there is a framework on which they can operate,” says Somanath.

It is also proposed that ISRO’s commercial arm, NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), will function as the aggregator of user requirements and obtain commitments. The PSU, which is under the administrative control of the DOS, will take ownership of operational launch vehicles, commercial launches, satellites and services.

“We are putting in place all the mechanisms by which IN-SPACe will facilitate—through ISRO or sometimes through NSIL—launch services and technology transfer to start-ups or anyone in the private sector. We will also facilitate the transfer of technology that ISRO has on a shared or exclusive basis. The way towards creating a level playing field is by giving access to young companies to technologies and infrastructure developed over decades,” says Pawan Goenka, Chairperson, IN-SPACe. The former managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra—one of the country’s largest automakers—was specially handpicked to enhance private participation.

Globally, the commercial space sector is worth $360 billion. At $7 billion, India’s share of the global business currently works out to around 2 per cent. By boosting private participation in the commercial space sector, the country hopes to substantially increase it to $50 billion or 10 per cent by the decade’s end.

Gunjan Thakuria (in pic above), Naresh Palaiya, Himangshu Das, Nikit Shrungarpawar, Tathya Earth

Year of Founding: 2019

Product: Deep learning algorithms based on remote sensing technology to identify important trends in the global economy.

Funding: It raised an undisclosed amount through a seed funding round held in February 2020.

 


Fundraising challenge

Start-ups also need investments to sustain their business model. More so in a technology-intensive area such as space exploration. Although funding clocked a whopping 200 per cent growth in 2021 in year-on-year comparison, more will be needed. A total of $67.2 million was raised across 11 rounds, up from $22.5 million in 2020 across nine rounds, according to data from Tracxn, which identifies innovative start-ups from across the world for potential investors.

Goenka feels that a lot more investment from both domestic and foreign investors will start coming with the growth in the number of successfully tested products: “For that to happen, frankly, we need more success stories. At the moment we only have a few. Within the next six months, several more companies will be able to claim demonstrable successes. And once that happens, a significant amount of investment will also come in.”

Also, with the lone exception of Agnikul’s Moin, all the other co-founders interviewed for this story are first-generation entrepreneurs. The former Qantas employee, whose father manages a leather business, also tried his hand at cosmetics manufacturing after quitting his airline job before finally joining hands with Srinath. “For me, it’s been a journey from selling air fresheners to aerospace,” remarks the aeronautical engineering graduate from Anna University, chuckling. Thus, besides sharing technology and expertise, the mechanism being evolved also has provisions for promotion and handholding to help the new entrants find their feet in the market.

Also, while there is a lot of activity in areas like launch vehicles or satellites, the number of entrants in applications is currently very limited. The development of applications based on space exploration activities is important for the sector’s growth. “The big money is not in rockets or satellites, but in space applications, which manifest themselves in varied domains like agriculture, medicine, Internet of Things (IoT) and geospatial. We are expecting many more new start-ups to enter those areas,” says Lt. Gen. Anil Kumar Bhatt, Director General, Indian Space Association (ISpA), a forum for private participants in the sector that was formed in 2021.

Here, a company like Tathya Earth stands out. The Navi Mumbai-based start-up was established in 2019 by IIT Madras technology graduate Gunjan Thakuria, 35, and three partners to offer predictive economic forecasts based on satellite imagery. The idea first occurred to them while working on a problem statement, when they came across research work by Stanford and Harvard scientists involving satellite images to analyse poverty levels and economic activities in data-poor regions of Sub-Saharan Africa. “The World Bank was also studying how their projects were impacting those societies. Since it was difficult to get field data, they were trying out novel approaches like satellite images to do that. That is when we realised how satellite images could be used to analyse economic activities,” explains Thakuria.

The company focusses on using alternative data sets obtained through satellite imaging and technology to study economic trends. The team at Tathya started off with the niche metals and mining space, one of the core pillars of the global economy. The company applies advanced algorithms on satellite images to map the entire supply chains, for instance, to predict how much steel is being produced at multiple steel mills or copper ore extracted from mines in different parts of the world. The company promoters are also looking at utilising their algorithms and platform in areas such as oil & gas, power and emissions. “As we ourselves subscribe to data sets from multiple market sources, we understand there are often problems with them. Moreover, they are often only available long after an event is over. So, we thought why not use satellite data to understand what is happening in near real time and not just rely on a company or government declared compass,” says Thakuria.

Within the next six months, several more companies will be able to claim demonstrable successes. And once that happens, a significant amount of investment will also come in.

Pawan Kumar Goenka
Chairperson
IN-SPACe

Given the sensitivity of this sector, the government is expected to maintain a close vigil on developments and, therefore, it will take a few more years before significant liberalisation of the sector could happen, say legal experts. “The key challenge that will need to be addressed going forward will be to provide adequate technical infrastructure to meet the growing requirements of the private sector, and make available domestic funding to avoid commercial exploitation by foreign players through foreign funding,” says Hemang Parekh, Partner at law firm DSK Legal.

Besides, to fast-track things, the Space Activity Bill to regulate and promote private participation in the sector must become law at the earliest. “That would help provide a clear policy guideline to private industry. Sending things to space is a highly technical matter involving issues such as national security and insurance. It is very important that approvals and other things happen very fast because time is money in this domain,” says Bhatt.

At the moment it appears that the chances of India becoming a prominent commercial space hub are fairly bright. The country enjoys a clear advantage in terms of possessing a vibrant, technologically advanced and cost-efficient space sector. If leveraged well, these can help propel growth in the commercial space sector way beyond the solar system. Metaphorically speaking, of course. 

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Story: Manish Pant
Producers: Arnav Das Sharma
Creative Producers: Raj Verma, Nilanjan Das
Videos: Mohsin Shaikh
UI Developers: Pankaj Negi