"All civilizations become either spacefaring or extinct” - Carl Sagan
What is common between Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson? Well, apart from the fact that these three larger-than-life individuals are among the richest people on planet earth, what’s really interesting is that they are all solving for space.
Space technology and related endeavors pertain to all activities focused on space and the use of its resources for applications beneficial to humans. While it does encompass the grand view of becoming a spacefaring civilization, much of space technology today is geared towards employing space for creating value to humans here, on earth.
The Case for Space
According to Morgan Stanley, the global space sector is forecasted to reach $1 trillion in revenue by 2040. Historically, the space sector was intricately associated with a country’s government. Thanks to new-age space companies today, much of space technology and access to it has been democratized. In 2019, government space spending only accounted for 20% of total global space revenue, while 80% of revenue was generated by commercial space products and support industries.
The space industry can be segmented broadly into upstream and downstream activities. Put simply, upstream refers to space technology activities focused on designing, manufacturing, and launching objects into space, whereas downstream refers to the use of the same objects in space to deliver value or services to humans. This includes all satellite services like radio, broadband, direct-to-home television, earth observation among others.
The upstream segment is predicted to amass $11 billion in revenue by 2028, growing at a rate of 4% per annum. On the other hand, the downstream segment is expected to rake a revenue of $474 billion by 2028. On the whole, it is anticipated that the most impactful short to medium-term opportunities on route to the $1 trillion space economy by 2040 will emerge out of access to satellite-enabled internet broadband, contributing anywhere between 50 - 70% of the projected growth of the global space economy.
Who is Pouring Money into the Space Industry?
Primarily there are two major types of investor personas in the space startup ecosystem. The first type of investors are advocacy billionaire investors, who are passionate about their role in empowering transformative human space experience through their own colossal brand identity. This includes the famous trio – Elon Musk (SpaceX), Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) and Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic).
Elon Musk’s SpaceX was founded with the grand vision of building a colony on Mars. While the immediate feasibility of that is questionable, it’s beyond doubt that SpaceX has continued to break barriers that were presumed unscalable before. Recently in 2020, the astronaut ferrying Crew Dragon autonomously docked with the International Space Station, representing a significant leap in space operations.
Blue Origin was founded by Jeff Bezos in 2000. Bezos believes in preserving Earth for future generations by finding accessible ways to go to space to tap into its unlimited resources. He wants to build a colony on the moon and Blue Origin has been expending majority of its effort towards this goal by developing a pair of rockets called the New Shepard and New Glenn.
On the other hand, Virgin Galactic, the brainchild of Richard Branson is developing commercial spacecraft that can arrange for suborbital space flights to tourists, as well as, for space missions. Among other things, it is known for its incredulous ticket price of $250,000 for early buyers.
The second type of investors are corporate strategic and financial investors, who invest for a combination of financial and other benefits arising as a consequence of partnership building and entry into newer disruptive markets. For example, consider OneWeb, a low-earth broadband venture, which attracted $500 million in funding from the likes of Coca-Cola and Qualcomm way back in 2015.
Space ventures continue to woo these investors owing to lucrative market factors and the inherent untapped potential. In 2020 alone, globally equity investments of a whopping $25.6 billion were made in space companies, bringing the cumulative amount of space company investments to $177.7 billion (since 2011). Monopolisation of funding by a few top companies was evident in 2020 as well, as investments in top 10 companies made up 64% of the total space investments. Furthermore, investors liquidated $37.5 billion via exits in 43 space companies.
The year past also shone light on the underrated activity in space technology of mainstream tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft. Microsoft’s announcement that it is working closely with SpaceX’s starlink internet through Azure cloud network came as a surprise. Thus putting it on a neck-to-neck competition path with Amazon and its projects. Both Azure space and AWS space are slowly paving way to a global network / infrastructure for space based communication and data collection. It seems like the big tech players and space companies have once again found each other!
Beyond the Big Players: The India Picture
While we are familiar with startups like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, today let us unravel the thriving space technology startup ecosystem in India.
It is impossible to talk about Indian space technology without mentioning the vital role of ISRO and the founding members of Indian space. India is definitely not new to space and in fact, embarked on its journey of building for space in 1962 under the visionary leadership of Vikram Sarabhai. Sarabhai, who went on to establish Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) is heralded as the Father of the Indian space program. In 1969, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) was created from INCOSPAR, to spearhead all space-related endeavors in the country. ISRO with its team of the country’s smartest scientists, engineers, and its audaciously executed space missions on a cost-effective budget is the primary reason behind India’s reputation as a country that can design and operate technology for space in a frugal and reliable manner.
With over 5 decades of presence, ISRO has managed to create and support a thriving ecosystem of 500 small-medium enterprises (SME), that are involved in the manufacturing of various components and other ground infrastructure facilities.
India’s competitive advantage lies in its aspiration and ability to build space technology in a cost effective manner. The transformation of India’s space activity from Nike Apache rocket parts being transported on a bicycle in 1963, to launching Mars Mission “Mangalyaan” in 2013, at the cost of ~$74 million, 1/9th of the NASA Maven Mars Orbiter mission has been nothing less than phenomenal.
Recently in June 2020, the government opened up Indian space sector to private players and designated Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (INSPACe), as ISRO’s arm for the purpose of rendering guidance to private companies in their space endeavors. Subsequently, the entry of private players will bolster the growth of space technology in India, which has key advantages such as high demand for services, technical and pricing advantage, talented human resource pool, well-developed manufacturing competency, and supply chain.
Sky is not the Limit for these Indian Startups (pun intended)
Till about a few years back, Indian spacetech startups struggled to get attention from investors. With proliferation of small-satellites, reduced launch costs, increasing maturity of the space startup ecosystem and the need for more real-time deep intelligence, Indian space tech startups have begun to attract more attention from investors. Some of the notable deals in 2020 include, Agnikul closing a $3.25 million round, Pixxel raising a $5 million seed fund, and Vesta Space landing a $10 million check.
Spacetech startups are ready to take off in India. Here’s a quick summary of some of the prominent Indian startups operating in the upstream segment, downstream segment, and both.
Skyroot Aerospace - make space flight as affordable and reliable as air flight
Skyroot, a Hyderabad-based space venture was founded in mid-2018, by former ISRO scientists, Pawan Kumar, and Naga Bharath Daka. It holds a vision of creating a world-class space company arising from India by providing low-cost launch solutions to reach space efficiently. Their current product offerings include three launch vehicles for small satellite markets - Vikram 1, 2, and 3 that can carry payloads of 200-700 kg to low earth orbit (LEO). They have also built a 3D printed cryogenic engine ‘Dhawan 1’ with regenerative cooling, expected to be used in the upper stage of Vikram 2 propulsion. Skyroot’s first launch vehicle, Vikram 1 is currently being manufactured and expected to be launched by December 2021.
Manastu Space - launching to space made greener and efficient
Manastu Space was founded in 2017 by Tushar Jadav and Asthesh Kumar, with complementary backgrounds in aerospace and mechanical engineering from IIT-B. They are on a mission to create cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient propellant. They claim that their unique green propellant system is ~60% cheaper than the competition and 10-15% more efficient than the NASA alternative clean fuel system. The high-temperature catalyst that they have invented can decompose hydrogen peroxide under high temperature/stress and is 40 times less toxic and 25% more efficient than hydrazine fuel. Manastu is currently targeting to qualify for Level 9 on technology readiness scale (originally developed at NASA) within the next 1-1.5 years, which will mean that the tech has proven to work smoothly and is operational.
Agnikul - uber equivalent for small satellite launches
Founded by Srinath Ravichandran, an aerospace enthusiast and Moin SPM in 2017, under the mentorship of S.R Chakravarthy and retired ISRO scientist RV Perumal. Agnikul is currently housed at the National Centre of Combustion R&D (NCCRD) in IIT-Madras (India). Agnikul is solving the problem of the high operational cost of keeping a small satellite waiting. The current practice is to carry small satellites piggybacking on larger rockets. This essentially translates into a long waiting time and hence additional cost for the accurate launch of small satellites. Agnikul has developed Agnibaan, a fully customizable orbital launch vehicle that can carry a payload of up to 100 kg to LEO. Agnibaan boasts of a fully 3D printed first-stage rocket combustion section. They plan on having their first test flight in 2021 and post that, a commercial flight in 2022.
Bellatrix Aerospace - taxi in space to ferry small satellites into multiple orbits
Founded in 2015 by Rohan M and Yashas Karanam and currently housed in the Entrepreneurship Centre Society for Innovation and Development at IISc. To them, leveraging on the expertise of the core team to build propulsion systems and thus democratizing access to space was an organic decision. Bellatrix Aerospace considers itself as an R&D company that is developing electric propulsion systems for satellites and orbital transfer vehicles that can be maneuvered in space cost-effectively, to drop small satellites in the right orbit. It has also begun to expand its business and establish itself as the main contractor for both the development and maintenance of unconventional satellite platform systems. Bellatrix’s partnership with SatSure will help it place its payload in LEO by December 2022.
Kawa space - a software company for the space economy
With its headquarters in Mumbai, it was founded in early 2019 by Kris Nair. Kris’s journey into founding Kawa Space began with “a little renaissance in Indian space ecosystem” by building a tiny powerful 1.5 kg communication satellite in a record time of 9 months and successfully launching it in 2018, via the SSO SpaceX mission. His journey then slowly pivoted to utilising the value that satellites currently already hold. What makes Kawa space unique is that it gives access to satellite data from more than 200 satellites, within 300 milliseconds, through an easy-to-use API. In simple words, one could leverage earth observation data information through the Kawa space platform for things like better route planning, better preparedness for weather conditions, increasing the yield from farming, etc. Kawa space’s long-term vision is to collect and organize the world’s satellite data and make it programmable.
Astrome - last mile internet connectivity and satellite-enabled internet company
Founded in 2015 by Neha Satak and Prasad Horabailu in Bangalore, Astrome holds a grand vision of enabling rural broadband connectivity in India and solving the current network congestion problem of telecommunication networks. The company has a strong core IP based on patented millimeter wave wireless technology, ‘GigaMesh’, that reduces network congestion and enables existing infrastructure to become 5G ready. It is proven to reduce cost per link by 6x times, with the capacity to incorporate 4x more users per tower among other features. Telecommunication network operators are their primary customers. The company eventually plans to use the patented millimeter wave technology in LEO satellites to enable access to broadband from space.
Upstream & Downstream Segment
Digantara - Air traffic controller for space
“The near-earth space is becoming extremely congested and we hope to become an air traffic controller of sorts for space” ~ Anirudh, CEO
Digantara literally means ‘space’ in Sanskrit. Currently incubated at the Indian Institute of Science Society for Innovation and Development, Digantara was founded in 2018, by Anirudh Sarma and Rahul Rawat. What started off as a student project with a LatAm company eventually culminated in the company trying to solve the problem of lack of effective monitoring systems for space debris. What makes Digantara different is its ability to track space objects (debris/space junk/satellites) of size as small as 1 cm in size and provide information about the lifespan of objects in space (space situational awareness), which is not currently being met by ground-based surveillance systems. Digantara has several MOUs with prominent global companies under its belt. As Digantara looks skyward, it hopes to launch its first-ever nanosatellite with a debris tracker by Q4 2021, to test its MVP.
Vesta space - we help you build anything for space
Vesta space was founded in 2018 and is headquartered in Pune. The founder Arun Kumar, developed the idea of Vesta space, while working as a research assistant on a CubeSat project in USC (University of Southern California). With a 50 member team, Vesta space envisions being an integrated space services company that positions itself throughout the upstream and downstream value chain. Their product offering can be broadly segmented into launch assist, design, and manufacturing of satellite, mission control, and ground station. The company has operations spread across the globe, with customers from ~14 different sectors. In early March 2020, it deployed its first CubeSat with a payload of 10 kg.
Will India become the Silicon Valley of Spacetech?
Despite having multiple successful space missions on a shoestring budget, ISRO for the first time has the opportunity to closely work with private new age players. This opens up a legacy institute and its invaluable resources to the new entrant private space companies. In all similar situations, across other industries such an ecosystem has led to formation of entrepreneurial mafia circles.
A systemic change is afoot in the Indian space industry, where numerous innovative space startups, availability of risk capital, increasing public-private space partnerships and ISRO’s deep knowledge and expertise will most likely manifest into India becoming a spacetech powerhouse. The next step in the evolution of space technology in India will largely be pre-determined based on the fate of these space startups and their ability to validate themselves as profitable high-growth businesses.
So does this mean that India is on the cusp to become the new Silicon valley for spacetech?
Note: A heartfelt thank you to all the space startup founders without whom this piece wouldn't have been possible. The startup description is curated based on our interviews with them.