Partnering in India’s space leap: Space start-ups give flight to their dreams

Published: October 21, 2019 2:17:02 PM

It is an exciting time for the Indian private industry and startups for both domestic market and to integrate into the global supply chain of space and satellite industry.

The key advantage of the growing Space start up industry is those connected with ISRO and allied organisations, which have the entrepreneurial spirit – have sensed an opportunity to give flight to their dreams.

By Ratan Shrivastava

Historically, the Indian space industry ecosystem evolved in clusters around ISRO centres – Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) helped develop the industry for rockets; Bengaluru witnessed electronics and software related industry clusters that were mentored by UR Rao Satellite Centre (URSC).

However, the scale remained in the domain of MSME and that is where most of the industry remains even today, apart from some large corporates as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and MIDHANI in the public sector and L&T, Tata, Godrej and Alpha Design Technologies in the private sector.

There is an exponential increase in the requirements for rockets (varying capacities and fuel types); Satellites – communication, navigation and earth observation and not just large satellites but small and nanosatellites along with a rising demand for miniaturisation and constellations, this brings it closer to the realm of start-ups and it is feasible to enter this segment without large investment.

The applications segments with data analytics, image interpretation with deep learning and artificial intelligence has opened up a field of opportunities for the skill sets that go with the talent pool available in the country. These are in demand not only in the country but globally as satellites start sending us high-resolution images and data with diverse applications such as monitoring the health of plantations to disaster management.

It is an exciting time for the Indian private industry and startups for both domestic market and to integrate into the global supply chain of space and satellite industry, which has huge potential for growth as space applications become a part of our everyday lives from banking to broadband.

In the space launch vehicles and heavy satellite manufacturing domain, India is at the dawn of an era where there is scope for Public-Private partnerships, building on the solid foundation laid by ISRO.

In the services sector, there are opportunities in fin-tech, applications and bespoke space software, which the startups focused on niche segments can exploit.

The private industry in India has seen significant investments from venture capitalists (VC), local industry and tech companies, and the investors come from range as varied as film stars (Deepika Padukone) to FinTech (Vijay Shekhar Sharma).

Yet, there are several challenges that remain to be addressed – some of the significant one is of Sustainability; Scalability; Robust long term business plans and profitability to justify the VC valuations.

There are other challenges, that are beyond the scope of the entrepreneurs and need intervention of the policymakers – for instance, the Indian Space Law remains at the draft stage – the draft has yet to be taken up by our lawmakers for discussion and be passed by the Parliament.

Since India is now a signatory to international treaties as Wassenar Agreement, Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Australia Group – it is imperative to have the regulatory and legal framework in place.

The space industry ecosystem development has to move out of the shadows of ISRO; there are export control related challenges which have to be overcome if the local industry has to move out from being vendors in the workshare mode to full-fledged sub-assembly and assembly manufacturers who could transition to integration and validation of spacecraft.

The Indian Space Start Up, though in its nascent stage has been abuzz from rocket manufacturing (Skyroot/Bellatrix/Agnikul ) to satellite manufacturing, applications (Pixxel, Kawa Space) to even manufacturing in the conventional build to print segment.

The common thread that runs through the Indian Space startup industry is the link with ISRO. Most of the startups have been started by people who have been ISRO employees (Skyroot Aerospace – started by Pawan Chandana , who was Deputy Project Manager of SSLV Program at VSSC, Thiruvananthapuram/ Prateep Basu of SatSure/RV Perumal, ex LPSC (Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre), who is advising Agnikul ) as the skills required for this industry are niche and currently only in the domain of ISRO and its laboratories.

The work culture of ISRO is unique having been built and nurtured by doyens of the Space in India as Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan and UR Rao where the industry supplies the components but the core skills of design, development, testing, integration and validation are with ISRO.

The key advantage of the growing Space start up industry is those connected with ISRO and allied organisations, which have the entrepreneurial spirit – have sensed an opportunity to give flight to their dreams. In an event of their failure too, they will gain from their experience and skills which are globally relevant and can be transferred seamlessly.

What India requires, now is for the established Space industry players to support the innovative startups and to nurture them alongside, as India moves forward towards privatisation – starting from the launch vehicles (PSLV) and space crafts ( satellite manufacturing) and remote sensing, data and imagery interpretation and analysis. And to build an ecosystem that can leverage and take its rightful share in the global space industry – which is valued at $350 billion currently but has the potential to grow to $1 Trillion by 2040. (Data Source: Morgan Stanley)

(The author is Independent Consultant – Aerospace, Defence & Space & ex Advisor FICCI Space Division. Views expressed are personal.)

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