THE A → OF INDIA’S SPACE JOURNEY

Space shuttle launch © NASA

Mainstream space fiction some years ago painted a utopian future of leisure trips to galaxies far-far away, afternoon tea with extra-terrestrials and humans on Mars. Until recently these ideas were only just figments of human imagination. However, the year 2021 has seen 2 billionaires making headlines with their respective launches to space. While it did leave some of us with mixed feelings of awe and jealousy, the possibility that space is becoming accessible to us mortal humans is simply riveting! Reading about it in the backdrop of flying cars and robot dogs isn’t just a work of fiction anymore.

Recent innovations and advancements in technology have enabled the space ecosystem to undergo a massive transformation. Heralding in this wave and promising to be a leader is India:

The Indian Space market is valued at $7Bn and is projected to reach $50Bn by 2025. This sector is no longer viewed as a gamble, rather a burgeoning opportunity for investors and enthusiasts alike. India has carved a niche for itself with its cost-efficient and effective projects. Coincidently — Chandrayaan 2 — India’s ambitious mission to the moon costs far lower than big-budget movies like Avengers: Endgame and Avatar!

India’s current position is a result of years of evolution riddled with challenges and restrictions:

  • A little less than half a century ago, the Indian space sector was mostly restricted to weather observations, remote sensing, mobile communications, and meteorology with a few notable anomalies.
  • India’s space programs were led and governed by ISRO. ISRO though centrally driven largely depended on the private sector for manufacturing components and technologies.
  • Private players only survived through ISRO/DRDO contracts. They weren’t allowed to utilize the extensive lab/R&D facilities at ISRO to fuel further innovation in this domain.

Only in the last decade has this sector seen a gradual but effective movement, as the government began opening the sector for an oligopoly market by allowing areas such as launch vehicles, satellite design, and provision of space-based services to be explored by private players.

A few initiatives that have supported this movement are:

  • NewSpace India Initiative — The ‘NewSpace India’ program has allowed deregulation which allows startups take on many more challenging projects by themselves rather than acting as support staff to ISRO.
  • Spacecom Policy 2020 — The policy allows domestic companies operating in the sector to benefit from the ongoing FDI relaxations by encouraging more private and foreign investments in this space and boosts the involvement of private players in the sector.
  • IN SPACe — The government has formulated The Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center under the Department of Space to guide and regulate the activities of the operations of the private sector. It will explore the needs and demands of the private players and explore ways to address these in consultation with ISRO.
  • Budget 20–21 — The ‘Make in India’ initiative propagated by the NDA government in 2014 along with the latest budget allocation of almost INR 14,000 crore has piqued the interest of investors.

These decisions were made by the government to beat the inevitable stagnation that would come with a centralized Space program; involving and co-creating along with the private players would also turbocharge innovation within the sector.

New-age companies operating within the Space sector seem to have risen to the occasion. Start-ups are talking about 3D-built rockets, Electric and Green thrusters, Low-cost VTOLs (Vertical take-off & landing), and satellites weighing in as little as 50 kg — capable of doing some of the functions conventional large satellites do.

The innovation in this sector is largely being driven by new-age companies. There are currently 120 active space-tech startups in India, with 64% having come into active existence only in and around 2014.

The space economy can be largely classified into downstream segment and upstream segment:

Upstream Segment

The upstream segment includes:
Research, space manufacturing and ground systems (fundamental and applied research activities, scientific and engineering support activities, material and components supply, manufacturing of space systems etc.).

Start-ups in this segment:
(1) Bellatrix Aerospace — Bellatrix is leveraging innovation and new-age technology by building efficient, eco-friendly, and economic propulsion systems for satellite of all sizes. They’ve successfully tested a propulsion system that runs on water.
(2)Agnikul — Agnikul uses 3D technology to make launch vehicles capable of carrying up to 100 kgs to low earth orbits (700km)
(3) Skyroot — Skyroot develops space launch vehicles that are focused on launching small satellites at low costs.

Downstream Segment

The downstream segment includes:
Space operations for terrestrial use, and products and services which rely on satellite technology, signal, data to function (e.g. satellite broadcasting, selected GIS, GNSS-enabled devices).

Start-ups in this segment:
(1) Pixxel
(2) Kawa space
(3) Galaxeye

All startups aim at mapping and quantifying relevant data available from space for better forecasting, prediction, and observation. The benefit of this data is far-reaching and serves a plethora of needs from agriculture to defence.

While most of these start-ups are still early in their product journeys, there are more companies jumping on the bandwagon and we believe that some of the future unicorns from India will be companies operating in this skyrocketing sector.

INVESTMENT INTEREST

India’s still-nascent space startups have been in the news lately with $31 million being raised in funding only in the first quarter of this year, a 70% increase from $18.2 million raised in 2020. This interest is also shared globally with a US-based firm Next Capital investing in $10M in Vesta Space in 2020.

Interest from notable investors and established institutional firms in this space include Mukesh Bansal, Vijay Shekar Sharma, Blume Ventures, Indian Angel Network, Speciale Invest — amongst others. Investors have bet on these startups working on novel technologies/equipment and are confident about the endgame they all share — making space accessible to the common man.

The last year has seen about 22 Indian firms and 4 global companies (Amazon, Bharti Airtel — OneWeb, etc.) sending their applications to IN-SPACe seeking approval for different space-based applications. This has garnered interest from investors on both the domestic and international front.

The leading companies have closed their Seed/Series A rounds during the last couple of years and are already gearing up to raise bigger rounds to achieve their goals.

What lies next for India & Space?

From looking on enviously and relying on other countries’ space programs, India’s bold moves in this sector are refreshing and motivating! New-age companies in India are spending far lesser than their western counterparts and are leveraging the wealth of resources in manufacturing revolutionizing products.

In the immediate future, contracts have been inked between ISRO and start-ups like Agnikul, Pixxel and Bellatrix to drive India’s mission of making space accessible to organizations and the public at large in the fields of transportation and Satellite imagery & analysis.

There is also a strong movement in mass manufacturing of SSLVs and PSLVs through Private-Public-Partnerships with the government and start-ups. ISRO has also allowed complete autonomy for the private sector to produce solutions for the provision of food, medicine and better tools to the astronauts in its upcoming Gaganyaan mission scheduled for 2023.

It’s incredulous how India is on the cusp of literally reaching the stars with its space programs. The government, ISRO, and the private sector have come together well to meet the surging demand for space-based services and applications both within India and abroad.

We at Inflexor Ventures are excited to see what this space is going to hold in the future!

Tech / IP focused, sector agnostic, VC fund. We invest in early stage companies solving real world challenges, from Seed to Series A+ stages.