Indian space startups: Readying for a takeoff

Opportunities are opening up for space startups in India and abroad as the market for small satellites has grown exponentially. Market leader ISRO too has opened its doors for private participation

April 26, 2019

In February 2-19, IIT Madras-incubated aerospace startup Agnikul Cosmos raised US$400,000 in seed funding

Over the past several years, India has provided high-quality and cost effective space sciences solutions worldwide

The EU has been keen to work with Indian startups in this “booming” sector through offline and online joint platforms

SatSure signed a MoU with Antrix to offer technology solutions, which tap into space data to create large data analytic products

In February 2019, IIT Madras incubated aerospace startup Agnikul Cosmos raised US$400,000 in seed funding from a deep tech focussed early stage investor. This did not just signal investor interest in this sector but showed that private space startups in India are coming of age. Established by two aerospace enthusiasts in December 2017, Agnikul Cosmos is in the process of manufacturing orbital launch rockets for smaller 100 kg payloads at lower orbits. These satellites are being increasingly used to address new applications like storing data in space, protein crystallisation etc., unlike larger satellites used for remote sensing and communication.

Their investor, the India based Speciale Incept Advisors, was “impressed” by Agnikul’s propulsion technologies and their 3D printing technology. Agnikul meanwhile plans to use the funding to conduct small tech demonstrations of their rocket expected to be ready by 2020-21. It is a “great time” for private startups to enter the space sector, said Srinath Ravichandran, co-founder, Agnikul.

With space technologies undergoing a transformation, a new business model has been evolving. Indian space startups are not shying away from entering this space to explore their opportunities. Besides building satellites, Indian companies are tapping into satellite-based services.

The private space startup sector is indeed hotting up. Take the case of Mumbai headquartered Exseed Space, a satellite manufacturing firm launched its microsatellite (a Cubesat) via Elon Musk’s Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket in December last year. Exseed Sat1, one among 66 satellites from 17 nations placed in orbit will be used by radio amateurs.

Moreover, a number of space startups like Agnikul have emerged in the last couple of years with big dreams to revolutionise the sector. There’s Dhruva Space, one of the early space startups to venture into this area back in 2012, focussed on manufacturing small satellites; Astrome Technologies, situated in Indian Institute of Science, making its own Internet satellites; and Bellatrix Aerospace developing orbital launch vehicles (rockets) and electric propulsion systems for satellites.

ISRO Calls for Private Participation

Last year, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) opened its doors for private participation triggering a spurt in space startups. “We want private industry to take over part of our workload by 2020, which includes development of small rockets, PSLV and satellites,” K Sivan, chairman, ISRO told a press conference in August last year.

Currently, 85-90 per cent of PSLV rockets and 50 per cent of satellites are coming from private players. Aiming to create one of the biggest manufacturing bases in space sector by partnering with private sector, Antrix, ISRO’s commercial arm has plans for 50 launches of Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) with a combined potential business value of US$0.21bn-US$0.29bn.

Moreover, in 2019, India, which is known for providing low cost rocket launches, plans to launch 32 missions including a mission to the moon. But, what is significant is that ISRO plans to offload some aspects of these production cycles to private players.

The Race for Small Satellites

Another factor driving growth in the private space sector is the trend in the space industry to launch a constellation of smaller satellites, which can be used for applications such as internet access, navigation and weather monitoring, communication, tracking ships, surveillance etc. And, private companies are taking a couple of weeks to build these small satellites at a cheaper cost. This is largely due to the easy availability of space electronics today.

According to ExceedSat1 website, a satellite of Exseed Sat-1’s complexity would have weighed 100 kilograms and cost about $100 million ten years ago. But today, their satellite which is the size of a shoebox, weighs just under a kilogram costing under $500,000. The weight has come down since the electronics have shrunk and have begun to work on just a whisker of power making it easier to build satellites faster.

Sanjay Nekkanti, co-founder, Dhruva Space, Hyderabad echoes this point. “Increasingly,  space electronic components can be picked off the shelf making it easy to build satellites in a couple of weeks,” he says.

Therefore, the market for rockets that launch smaller satellites at lower orbits has grown. In fact, a global race is on by private companies to hurl hundreds of small satellites into space. Nearly 60 % of satellites planned are from private players (against 40 % in the early 2000s). 2,600 nano and microsatellites are expected to be launched by 2023, quotes SpaceWorks, a US satellite researcher. And, Indian space startups are pitching for this market in India and abroad.

Advantage for Indian Space Startups

India’s startups have the advantage of offering cost-effective solutions in “record time”. Agnikul incorporates technologies such as 3D printing to build small precision rockets in less than a week. Indian firms also have another advantage – a large affordable talent pool of aerospace engineers. India with its 50-year-old history of space building has built a solid reputation in space technologies and has a strong supplier network system.

“India has the best in space technologies, it has expertise and experience in all segments of space technology,” points out Sanjay Nekkanti of Dhruva Space.

In fact, Elżbieta Ewa Bieńkowska, EU Commissioner for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs told Economic Times, “Our European startups in the space sector producing satellites for economic purposes of agriculture and ecology use Indian launchers because India has a lot of smaller launchers which are very competitive in price.” EU is keen to work with Indian startups in this “booming” sector and set up joint platforms both offline and online and engage in coaching, training and staff exchanges to foster the startup ecosystem.

Emergence of New Global Opportunities

The opportunities are not just within India. With space technologies undergoing a transformation, a new business model has been evolving. Besides building satellites, Indian companies are tapping into satellite based services. For example, SatSure signed a MoU with Antrix to offer technology solutions, which tap into space data to create large data analytics products for different sectors like agriculture, banking, financial services, social infrastructure, energy and telecommunications.

Dhruva Space is also marketing satellite launches to connect with their locally built ground sensors for different business purposes with Indian and foreign companies. The world is opening up for private space startups, and according to a Morgan Stanley report, the global space industry currently valued at around US$ 350 billion is expected to be US$ 1.9-trillion industry by 2040. And, Indian space startups are not shying away from entering this space to tap into the limitless opportunities out there.  

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