A growing requirement for smaller and relatively low-cost satellites has brought a host of startups into action in a frontier that, so far, has been the exclusive domain of government agencies and a select few impaneled private firms.
There are now 15 to 20 startups in the space technologies sector compared to just a handful a few years ago. These enterprises are working on a variety of solutions to make payloads and launches more economical, and to improve communications. Some are focused on advanced propulsion systems and full-stack tech platforms.
Despite the long gestation period of startups, cash infusions in space-tech ventures have increased almost 3x from 2016 to 2019, according to data from research group Tracxn. In the nine months this year, there have been five deals of around $4 million as against just one ($1.4 million) in 2016.
Most space-tech startups are in their early stages, inching towards a final product and engaging with global clients in advisory capacities. Many of the entrepreneurs behind these firms are young space enthusiasts, who were a part of ventures such as Team Indus and Isro’s student satellite initiative YouthSat. Some others are aerospace professionals. They are all driven by the same object of making space operations better and cheaper for countries and corporations.
“India is on a par with major powers in space tech, and the global attention has helped the domestic sector mature,” said Srinath Ravichandran, co-founder of Agnikul Cosmos, which was incubated at IIT-Madras.
Ravichandran counts a strong academic environment in IITs and IISCs and Isro’s openness to engage with private players as key drivers. Agnikul Cosmos uses 3D printing to make launch vehicles for low-orbit satellites. It closed a seed round in February this year and is currently in the middle of a fundraising round.
Kawa Space is another prominent startup in the sector. It builds critical infrastructure that makes space-enabled solutions accessible to everyone.
“Currently, organizations that want to deploy space enabled solutions to build test and launch satellites, and supporting ground stations and infrastructure required to operate them. This means they own and operate the asset in space on their own. Now, imagine if someone built all the infrastructure, services, associated plumbing and the software required to do what the likes of AWS did to computing, but for space,” said Kawa Space founder Kris Nair.
Kawa is backed by Speciale Invest, Paytm’s Vijay Shekhar Sharma, AngelList India, and others.
IISc-incubated Bellatrix Aerospace is one of the most well-funded ventures in the segment, having raised around $3 million from IDFCParampara, GrowX Ventures and Bollywood star Deepika Padukone’s KA Enterprises, among others.
“Fundraising is definitely harder than developing the technology,” said Yashas Karanam, COO, Bellatrix. But it was getting better, he added.
The startup is currently working with Isro to refine its product, a one-of-its-kind electrical propulsion system. It built the most critical parts inhouse to reduce imports. Karanam said the vendor ecosystem for space tech needed more depth to achieve greater degree of localization.
Speciale Invest, a deep tech-focused investment firm, which has backed Agnikul Cosmos, Kawa Space, and Astrogate Labs, believes mainstreaming of the sector is only a matter of time. “We have tracked over 30 companies working on space tech,” said Vishesh Rajaram, managing partner, Speciale Invest, noting almost a 70-80% fall in launch costs globally.
Though initial R&D costs at space startups may be high, average sale contracts, after proof of concept, run into millions of dollars, making them sound bets, he added.
Sanjay Nekkanti, the cofounder of Dhruva Space, said India always had smallscale private enterprises supporting the country’s space programs. “But what we didn’t have earlier in startups working on full-stack solutions in the sector,” he said. Dhruva Space provides application-agnostic space platform solutions for enterprises. It estimates that anywhere between 300 and 1,200 satellites will be sent into space annually over the next 10 years, with an average 700 small satellite launches every year from 2023 onwards.
According to Nitish Kumar Singh, co-founder of Astrogate Labs, more mainstream venture capitalists are now interested in space tech and access to grants and angel funds has also improved.
Bengaluru-based Astrogate is working to replace traditional radio frequency systems with optical laser-based ones, which don’t need spectrum licensing, for satellite communication needs. Its co-founders, Nitish Singh and Aditya Kedlaya, were a part of Team Indus, a finalist in Google Lunar XPrize challenge. Team Indus was backed by Nandan Nilekani, Ratan Tata and Flipkart founders Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal, among others.
“We hope the Space Activities Bill, once passed in Parliament, will enable more public-private engagement in the aerospace industry,” Singh said. The bill, expected to be passed soon, will promote and regulate space activities and encourages the participation of non-governmental agencies in India’s space activities. Bellatrix’s Karnam said a regulatory framework to send vehicles into space would give private Indian enterprises a boost, opening up opportunities for global joint ventures.
Farooq Adam, the co-founder of online-to-offline startup Fynd, who has backed Astrogate Labs in a personal capacity, is excited about the segment but stressed that it is in its early stages. “We are backing companies from an IP perspective right now, but we have to watch as they prove their business models,” Adam said.