In May 2021, we raised our Series A of USD11M led by Mayfield India and with the support of Anand Mahindra and prominent Silicon Valley angels. We are now set for attempting our first launch by Q4 of 2022.
Chennai based AgniKul Cosmos Private Limited, became the first space start-up to sign a pact with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in December 2020 to tap into the space agency’s expertise as well as facilities to build its rocket. The company, launched by entrepreneurs Srinath Ravichandran and Moin SPM in 2017, has recently launched India’s first, single fully 3-D printed cryogenic rocket engine.
The India based startup incubated at IIT Madras and is now in the process of building the country’s first private small satellite rocket, Agnibaan, with a capability of carrying up to 100 kg of payload to low Earth orbits up to 700 km. According to the company, the vehicle comes with the capability for a plug-and-play engine configuration. This can be configured to match precisely with the mission’s needs.
Srinath Ravichandran, Co-founder & CEO, AgniKul Cosmos talks exclusively with Huma Siddiqui and shares more about his startup.
Following are excerpts
How is Agnikul using AI & 3D printing to become India’s next SpaceX? What is the first ever single piece 3d printed rocket engine firing?
Agnikul’s rocket engines are 100 per cent 3D printed and that too in one shot. So, what comes out of the printer can directly be assembled in the rocket without the need for any manual assembly. In some sense, this has basically automated the making of a rocket engine for Agnikul. This is important because autonomy in engine manufacturing will allow rapid assembly of launch vehicles which will ultimately enable rapid access to space. Our incredible team has designed this and tested this in India multiple times and we are now working on qualifying the engine for flight.
Impact on Product strategy: This goes on to prove a lot of things in our strategy checklist as a launch vehicle maker: rocket engines can be just single pieces of hardware, 3D printed hardware can be made to work at rocket engine temperatures repeatedly, reliable and repeatable test results in every firing is possible with single piece hardware.
Impact on Automating engine making: One thing that we have come to realize in printing entire rocket engines since September 2019 is that, in essence, this has “automated” the process of engine making for Agnikul. There is zero assembly involved in the creation of an engine.
Impact because of Zero assembly: There is a huge difference between even having a 2 piece engine (non-zero assembly) vs. having the entire engine as just a single piece of hardware (zero assembly). Having more than 2 pieces or more to put together to make a full engine could imply — involved assembly, tedious human intervention, potential for error prone manufacturing to name a few.
Could you give a brief overview on building India’s first private small satellite rocket?
We are incredibly honoured to have the opportunity to build India’s first private small satellite rocket and we are a 80 person team today with almost 75 per cent of the team working on various engineering streams and the others working in important operations roles. Our first engine tests happened around September 2018 and our first funding happened in early 2019 through Speciale Invest and was for an amount of USD500k. We continued making progress on engine testing and by early 2020 we closed our pre-series A round of USD3.25M led by Pi Ventures. The team continued its work on various subsystems and we also grew from a size of 30 people to around 60 people after our Pre Series A round and we were able to do the world’s first fully 3D printed engine firing by 2021 February. In this time frame we also became the first company in the country to sign an agreement with the Department of Space, under the IN-SPACe initiative. In May 2021, we raised our Series A of USD11M led by Mayfield India and with the support of Anand Mahindra and prominent Silicon Valley angels. We are now set for attempting our first launch by Q4 of 2022.
Explain about the inroads that Agnikul has made into the Indian space tech segment
We have successfully tested our in-house designed semi cryogenic rocket engines and have made significant progress on all areas of technology as it relates to vehicle subsystems. We are using new methods to realize our Inertial navigation systems as well. Also, have been fortunate to be the first company to sign agreements with the Department of Space under the in-space initiative.
Other than this we have been able to provide employment to over 80 people, here, in India to work on core engineering R&D. We believe this will help the push towards “Design in India” as opposed to only “Make in India”.
We have also been able to get access to the IIT Madras ecosystem. This has provided us significant support in terms of infrastructure access and technical knowhow.
What are your thoughts about the rising opportunity for space-tech start-up companies in India?
This is simply the best time to start a space tech startup in India. The government is supportive, investors are willing to invest in space tech ventures as there is clarity on how various business models work and there are companies of all maturities willing to support smaller companies. It doesn’t get better than this. I believe it is going to be the decade of Indian space startups rising and finding their place in the global arena given the changes locally happening.
What are upcoming developments & innovations?
Upcoming developments would include larger hardware tests – we are going to be testing our first stage engine Agnite very soon, and also the cluster of 7 engines – which will be a test of the entire first stage.
We are also working with ISRO and IN-SPACe to test our second stage engine at ISRO’s facilities. Avionics package testing is going ahead as well and we will be doing our “table top rocket” test soon. (A test where all the packages of the rocket are assembled exactly as it would be in the vehicle).
Simultaneously, we are building flight worthy hardware for all our subsystems and we are focusing on getting the first launch out of Indian soil.
Is the company actively participating in any ISRO programme?
No, we are not actively participating in any ISRO programme. We, however, have signed a MoU with IN-SPACe to test our rocket engines and avionics packages in ISRO’s facilities.
Are you looking for any tie up globally?
We have a fair share of customer interest from satellite makers outside the country. We work with them to customize our vehicles and tailor our vehicles to suit the needs of their launches. Most of the customers are from the European region or Japan. These customers include communication customers whose main focus is to enable fast connectivity across the globe. Also, we work very closely with planet imagery providers who launch satellites to take images of our planet at various frequencies of revisits, across various wavelengths of imaging (infra red, visible light etc.). And are working with partners who would like to test various subsystems in zero gravity such as satellite deployer makers and battery makers. Above all this we work with various players who are looking at various unconventional uses of space such as providing data storage in space or people who do zero gravity drug extraction in space.