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A Breath of Fresh Air for Indian Startups

The policy decisions announced by the Indian government in the last one year have created a new hope in the Indian Space-tech startup ecosystem.

By Meenal Dhande
By Meenal Dhande

Senior Assistant Editor | Defence & Intelligence

With the intent to be among the top Space-tech countries in the world, India is working rigorously on developing a series of Space missions like Chandrayaan, Mangalyaan, PSLV, SSLV, among others. According to reports, the Indian Space sector currently accounts for just 3% of the global Space market, with Space application services (45%) and ground equipment (48%) occupying the majority share. In order to boost innovation in the sector and encourage private players to participate in the Indian Space, the government has announced a series of policy measures in the last one year. While these announcements have been welcomed by the entire sector, one particular segment, that of Indian Space-tech startups, is particularly cheerful.

At present, there are over 350 active Space startups in India working on various projects ranging from rocket engines to in-Space propulsion systems. Geospatial World got in touch with some of these companies to understand what had changed in the last one year, and what is likely to change in the coming future.

Lending a Helping Hand

In a written reply to the Upper House of the Indian Parliament last year, Union Minister of Atomic Energy and Space, Jitendra Singh said, “The government will allow them (Indian Space companies) to utilise those infrastructures of Indian Space Research Organisation which are otherwise not available elsewhere in India, and there will be reasonable charges for utilisation of government infrastructure which will be varying, depending on the requirement.” Since availability of funds is a concern for the Indian Space-tech startups, the announcement came as a landmark decision.

Dreaming big

“The changes in the policy by the Government of India are a breath of fresh air for the Indian Space startup ecosystem. The Draft Remote Sensing Policy by the Department of Space, the new geospatial guidelines by the Department of Science and Technology, and the Space Activities Bill are a step in the right direction,” emphasizes Sanjay Nekkanti, Founder of Dhruva Space, a Hyderabad-based startup involved in aerospace manufacturing. The company is focusing on developing small satellites in the commercial, government and academic markets. “With these policies, the key takeaway for the industry is the focus and promotion of Indian companies and indigenous solutions,” Nekkanti adds.

Bellatrix, a Bangalore-based startup found in 2015, is focused on advanced in-Space propulsion systems and rocket propulsion technologies. The company’s CEO and Co-founder, Rohan Ganapathy feels that the recent announcements by the government have actually “encouraged Indian startups to dream big and take up more ambitious missions from the Indian soil”. He says, “In the next few years, we will see many Indian companies working on disruptive Space technologies. At Bellatrix, we ourselves decided to start a new project to develop orbital transportation vehicles (Space taxis) with the confidence that there will not be regulatory challenges.”

Also based in Bangalore is Pixxel, a Space-tech startup founded by Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal in February 2019. The only Asian startup to qualify for the 2019 Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator in Los Angeles, Pixxel partnered with NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), to launch its Remote Sensing satellite on a PSLV rocket. The company is now working on launching the “world’s highest resolution hyperspectral satellite constellation”. “The policies we had in place earlier were years behind that of other countries. For instance, while companies globally were making it easier to buy satellite imagery, in India, all purchases needed to go through the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC). The process led to delays which could impact business operations. A competitor from another country could easily buy directly from the website of a company and gain advantage,” says Pixxel CEO and Co-founder Awais Ahmed.

Several Space-tech Startups like Digantara, Agnikul, Skyroot and Pixxel have successfully raised capital in the recent past.

Bridging divide

The government’s decision to set up the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center (IN-SPACe) has received a thumbs up from the startups. IN-SPACe is an independent agency that will regulate and promote building of routine satellites, rockets and commercial launch services through Indian companies. “The IN-SPACe mechanism has been extremely responsive and is acting as the bridge it has been envisioned. The agency is currently an interim body and yet it is proactively liaising with the industry and guiding through the process,” says Nekkanti.

Echoing Nekkanti’s sentiments, Ahmed says, “With the setting up of IN-SPACe and the new draft policy, the overall process will become more straightforward, simpler and clearer. Till now, while with regard to the Remote Sensing Policy, it only covered usage of satellite imagery and not the operations of Earth imaging satellites. Essentially, an Indian company could manufacture a satellite but there existed no framework to obtain the requisite licenses to launch and operate satellites.”

The recent steps by the government have boosted investor confidence, with many sector-agnostic funds taking bets on Space startups | Courtesy: Dhruva Space, Agnikul, Pixxel.

Funding assurance

One of the biggest challenges faced by the Indian Space-tech startups has been securing funds. However, with the new policy announcements, there is a growing belief that small companies will get big investments in the coming future. “These reforms will surely aid investments in Space companies. No one wants to invest in a sector where your returns and exit are dependent on government regulations. The recent steps by the government have boosted investor confidence, with many sector agnostic funds taking bets on Space companies. We have recently seen startups like Digantara, Agnikul and Skyroot raise capital. Bellatrix has also received multiple investor interests for our future rounds,” says Ganapathy.

“The most significant change for Indian Space startups over the last couple of years has been the availability and access to venture capital that allows companies and their founders to fund a minimum version of the product that they are trying to build,” says Satsearch Chief Operations Officer Narayan Prasad. Ahmed reveals that his company has raised $8 million in total funding in the recent past. “This (policy shift) will create success stories leading to more startups coming up and boosting innovation in the sector,” he concludes.