Indian Space Industry : Updates & Discussions

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9 Indian Startups That Are Taking India’s Space Industry To The Next Level

India has showcased its potential in the area of space technology in the recent years. Here are 9 startups that are revolutionising the space tech of the country.

1.Exseed Space:
Exseed Space was established in 2017 with a vision to become a leader in the manufacturing of spacecrafts. They develop small satellite platforms with a primary focus on assembly, integration, testing and operation of satellites. They build satellites more cost-effectively than the others in the market and build them using a mix of proven expertise and cutting-edge technology. They help with issues ranging from defining what is possible in what kind of budget, to obtaining your payload – optical, communication or otherwise from the right vendors around the world, to building the boxes and launching them vis space launchers, to getting data from them while they’re in flight, to having that data cleaned, analysed and pushed to your desktops and mobile phones.

Exeed Space is developing small satellite platforms with a primary focus on assembly, integration, testing and operation of satellites, their focus areas being:

  1. Contract Satellite Manufacturing:
Exseed Space is working towards setting up India’s first contract satellite manufacturing facility. Once operational, the facility will cater to the growing global demands of manufacturing Cubesats, Nano-sats & Micro-sats.

  1. Communication Satellite Constellations:
Exseed Space believes in building and delivering communication services using small satellite constellations. We are focusing on solutions around M2M communications, Vessel tracking & RF signals monitoring from space.

Last December, the company became the first private company to put a satellite in space.

Founder: Kris Nair

2.Dhruva Space
Founded in the year 2012, Dhruva Space is a private space company based in Bangalore. Its objective is to lead the turnkey spacecraft development private industry in India. Dhruva has also signed an MoU to develop the followup mission to HAMSAT-1 launched in 2005 by How Antrix Is Monetising ISRO’s Core StrengthsISRO, to serve the societal needs in disaster management, amateur/emergency radio communication and education. They are currently working towards the establishment of an AIT for microsatellites in Bengaluru. The company has collaborated with various national and international organisations from the space sector, including Germany’s Berlin Space Technologies and Australia’s Saber Astronautics.

Sanjay Nekkanti of Dhruva Space
Founders: Sanjay Nekkanti, Narayan Prasad, and Abhishek Raju.

3.Earth2Orbit (E2O)
Founded in the year 2007, Earth2Orbit claims to be India’s first private space firm. The aerospace company offers space launch advisory and consulting services. Its goal is to be a leader in India¹s emerging private enterprise for space exploration and utilization. E2O is in Mumbai, Bangalore, Trivandrum and Ahmedabad parts of the country and also has international satellite offices in San Francisco and Vienna, complemented by an international sales network. E2O products and services include satellite and launch services, human space systems, robotic systems, infrastructure and aerospace consulting.

Founders: Sushmita Mohanty

4.Astrome
Astrome technologies was founded in 2015 and is a space startup by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). The startup is fairly new to this league and aims to develop products and services which aid in space exploration.

Founder: Prasad HL and Neha Satak.

5.TeamIndus
TeamIndus has a very interesting founding story. The team had come together in the year 2010 with the aim of winning the Google Lunar X Prize competition, which was announced in 2007. Although the competition ended in 2018 without a winner, TeamIndus is still working towards developing and launching their lunar rover mission sometime in 2019. TeamIndus’ lander is code-named HHK1, and their rover is called Ek Choti Si Asha (ECA).



Founder: Rahul Narayan

6. Kawa Space
Based out of Mumbai, Kawa Space helps in building space products from scratch. It is built to take a space mission idea from end to end. The team lead India’s first private space mission, and won the contract to build over 27 satellites for ISRO. The team has helped everyone from tiny startups to Fortune 50 companies build space missions, from a simple technology demonstration mission to complex constellations.

Founder: Kris Nair

7. Applied Research and Development Laboratories (ARDL)
Founded at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) , the team of ARDL comprises of

ARDL is comprised of young and enthusiastic members coming from all domains like Aerospace, Communication, IT, Electronics, Instrumentation and more who believe in interdisciplinary research and have worked together for the past 5 years on nano projects and presented various research papers related to it. The company currently fabricates Mini CANSAT modules and other related space hardware.

Founders: The team has Sidhant Dhall who has had 5 years of research experience at IISc as the team lead. The other members are Ayush Patawari, Gaurav Achha and Triyambak Tripathy.

8.Xovian
Founded in 2011, Xovian is an Aerospace Company based in New Delhi with a vision to provide low-cost sustainable solutions in satellite fabrication. The team at Xovian has decades of experience in satellite technology. It is also a member of the International Astronautical Federation International Astronautical Federation (IAF). Apart from satellite solutions, the company also conducts Educational and Research-based activities to bridge the innovation gap between industries and educational institutions. Xovian has escalated into the fields of CANSAT, sounding rockets, high altitude balloons and satellite components manufacturing.

Team Xovian with Dr. K. Sivan, Chairman of ISRO.
Founders: Raghav Sharma, Ankit Bhateja.

9.Bellatrix Aerospace
Bellatrix Aerospace is a research and development company developing orbital launch vehicles and electric propulsion systems for satellites. It was established in the year 2015, this Mysore-based startup believes that a revolution in space technology is what it takes to change the world we live in. In the field of satellite propulsion, Bellatrix offers to reduce satellite mission cost through its patented electric propulsion systems. Bellatrix is dedicated to offer its customers high reliability, short wait periods and competitive costs. Bellatrix is in the process of developing two rockets ‘Garuda’ and ‘Chetak’ which will use next-gen construction material such as carbon composites to make them low-cost as well as reusable. It has also patented an electric satellite propulsion system called Microwave Electro-thermal Thruster (MET), which it claims is more efficient than traditional chemical thrusters and lasts longer.

Founders: Rohan M Ganapathy.
 
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Indian startup Bellatrix Aerospace raises $3 million

SANTA BARBARA, California — An Indian satellite propulsion startup with eventual plans to also build a small launch vehicle has raised $3 million from a group of venture capital investors.

Bangalore, India-based Bellatrix Aerospace intends to use the funds to demonstrate its thruster technology in space.

IDFC-Parampara, StartupXseed, Karsemven Fund and Survam Partners led the pre-Series A round. GrowX Ventures participated in the round, as did Indian actress Deepika Padukone through KA Enterprises, and the incubators CIIE (from IIM Ahmedabad) and SINE (from IIT Bombay)

Formed in 2015 at the Indian Institute of Science, Bellatrix currently consists of 14 people, but will use the investment to increase that number, co-founder Yashas Karanam told SpaceNews.

Bellatrix is building propulsion systems for all sizes of satellites, he said. The company’s first product is an electric propulsion system that runs on water. Karanam declined to say when Bellatrix’s first thruster would launch.

Bellatrix is not alone in building water-based propulsion systems. Momentus Space, Deep Space Industries and Tethers Unlimited have also detailed plans to use water as thruster fuel.

Karanam said Bellatrix believes it can leverage cost-saving techniques learned by working with the Indian Space Research Organization to win on price in the commercial market.

“Coming from India, one of the things we can offer is a very affordable price tag with the frugal engineering that we are able to bring,” he said.

Bellatrix is also reviewing standards from NASA and the European Space Agency to make sure its products meet global expectations.

“The aim is to be a global player,” Karanam said, adding that Bellatrix wants to eventually set up offices in the U.S. and Europe.

In contrast to the U.S. and Europe, few space startups have emerged internationally from India, but that could soon change. Seraphim Capital Investment Manager Conor O’Sullivan said India’s achievements in launch and space exploration lay the foundation for space startups to emerge.

“This engineering heritage combined with the talent pool and ambition is a great platform upon which to develop the newspace economy in India,” O’Sullivan said. “We see a steady flow of opportunities in India, albeit fewer than from other major space faring nations.”

Karanam said that while Bellatrix’s first capital raise came fully from Indian investors, the company will reach out globally for its next round. Bellatrix Co-founder Rohan Ganapathy said the company hopes to complete its Series A round by the end of 2020.

The most famous private Indian space initiative is arguably TeamIndus, which competed for the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize to privately develop a spacecraft, land it on the moon, travel at least 500 meters across the lunar surface, and return images and video. The competition ended without a winner, but TeamIndus may get a second chance through its partnership with BeyondOrbit, an Edison, New Jersey-based company that received $97 million from NASA in May as part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

O’Sullivan said he expects more Indian space startups to gain traction, similar to Bellatrix.

“We’re reasonably confident that we’ll see more funding round announcements like this in India across all parts of the space value chain, both hardware and software,” he said.

Bellatrix is working on a launch vehicle that Karanam said will launch around 200 kilograms to low Earth orbit — a part of the small launch market Rocket Lab currently serves with its Electron vehicle.

Karanam said Bellatrix’s launcher likely won’t be ready until 2023 or 2024. Companies in the small launcher market say more than 100 such vehicles are or have recently been under development, creating concerns that many more vehicles are in the works than will survive.

Karanam said Bellatrix is preparing its vehicle in great detail to be one those survivors.

“Even if we are slightly delayed in entering the market, we believe we will be giving a better product,” he said.

B. V. Naidu, Managing Partner of StartupXseed, said in a statement that the venture firm is excited to journey with Bellatrix as the startup grows.

“Emerging out of India and with global applications, their innovations in the area of thrusters, have tremendous opportunity worldwide,” he said.

Bellatrix was inspired by the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, a star-forming region visible in the night sky near the star Bellatrix in the constellation Orion, which led to the company name, Karanam said.
 
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Conquering the Final Frontier: India's new start-ups speed up in space race, attract investors' interests

Their fundraising represents a big leap in private space investments in India, a leading space power but where the government has enjoyed a near-monopoly for decades.

Written By : Reuters, Updated: Jun 23, 2019, 02:39 PM IST
1561303694391.png

Bengaluru: Bellatrix Aerospace CEO Rohan Ganapathy stands next to a vacuum chamber at their laboratory (Photo: Reuters)


From companies building palm-sized satellites to those aiming to propel satellites into space using cleaner fuels, a new wave of space technology startups is mushrooming in India, catching the attention of investors keen to join the space race.

Bengaluru-based Bellatrix Aerospace, which wants to propel satellites into orbit using electric and non-toxic chemical thrusters, has raised $3 million from a group of investors, co-founder Yashas Karanam told Reuters.

Venture capital fund IDFC Parampara is leading Bellatrix’s pre-Series A round. The family office of Suman Kant Munjal, who belongs to the billionaire family that controls Indian motorcycle maker Hero MotoCorp, and Deepika Padukone, one of Bollywood’s biggest stars, are two of the other seven investors.

Meanwhile, Mumbai-based Kawa Space, which designs and operates earth observation satellites, has closed a seed round of an undisclosed amount, one of its investors, Vishesh Rajaram, managing partner at Speciale Invest, told Reuters.

Bellatrix and Kawa are two of over a dozen Indian startups developing satellites, rockets and related support systems which can power space missions serving a range of industries.

Their fundraising represents a big leap in private space investments in India, a leading space power but where the government has enjoyed a near-monopoly for decades.

“No venture capital firm which does tech investments in India has invested an amount of this size in space technology before,” said Narayan Prasad, co-founder of online space products marketplace Satsearch, referring to Bellatrix’s funding.

Besides Bellatrix and Kawa, seven space technology companies in India are funded, according to startup data tracker Tracxn and interviews with investors.

Space technology is red hot thanks partly to activity happening 2,000 km (1,200 miles) above the earth in the low-earth orbit, much closer and easier to reach than the geostationary orbit where many communications satellites operate.

Here, small and cheaper satellites are snapping images used in everything from crop-monitoring and geology to defense and urban planning, bringing down costs and increasing the frequency of images.

‘EXCITING TIMES’

In the past five years, some two dozen Indian startups have grown into unicorns - companies with over $1 billion valuations - most betting on India’s growing middle-class and the consumer boom at home.

India’s space technology firms are part of a new breed of startups, and investors are paying attention, given the surging global interest in everything from space exploration to space vacations.

Satellite launches planned in the coming years worldwide give investors confidence in such companies, said Bellatrix investor Jatin Desai, whose Parampara Capital collaborated with lender IDFC to form IDFC Parampara.

“That gives us a large addressable potential market,” Desai said.

Over 17,000 small satellites could be launched between 2018 and 2030, consulting firm Frost & Sullivan estimates.

“There is money to be made ... These are exciting times for lots of entrepreneurs,” said Rajaram, whose Speciale Invest has bet on three space startups in India.

LONG GESTATION PERIOD

To be sure, investors aren’t opening the coffers for India’s space startups in large numbers just yet.

Indian venture capital firms Maple Capital, Ideaspring Capital, Bharat Innovation Fund and 3one4 Capital, say they have held talks with space startups but are taking a wait-and-watch approach.

“The gestation period is long by the time you see returns,” said Naganand Doraswamy, managing partner at Ideaspring, referring to the multiple stages of development, testing and government approvals involved in space missions.

The state-run Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), currently preparing for its second lunar mission, has a monopoly on launching rockets in India.

Still, Indian firms are free to use ISRO’s rockets or overseas launch services such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX or New Zealand and Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab to send satellites to space.

Most Indian space startups are hopeful that parliament will pass a long-pending space law, which will give clarity on how private companies can operate in the sector.

The administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought suggestions from stakeholders for a draft Space Activities Bill, which it has said could “possibly” be introduced in parliament this year.

Bellatrix Aerospace’s first customer is ISRO, which is also mentoring the company as it readies a water-based propellant to help maneuver satellites in space.

Bellatrix is not the only company racing to develop newer satellite propulsion systems, with at least three others overseas reportedly working on similar products.

The company says its systems are affordable, less toxic and much lighter, providing more room for payload on satellites. “This will be the future,” co-founder Karanam said.


Conquering the Final Frontier: India's new start-ups speed up in space race, attract investors' interests
 
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India is a maturing space power, but can rival the US with an independent regulator

Several space start-ups in India are looking to build products & services independent of ISRO. This is the stage where they need certainty in regulation.

By Narayan Prasad, Updated: 8 August, 2019 1:00 pm IST


A GSAT-7A at Sriharikota | isro.gov.in

High technology-driven industries in India have seen exponential growth in only two kinds of policy environments:

1. Where the government had a marginal presence, giving a free hand to competitive market-driven economics, such as the Information Technology (IT) services sector.

2. Where the government was an incumbent, but set up a regulator to let the sector attract more private investment and allow market forces to drive growth, such as the telecom industry.

The success of both these sectors has led to immense socio-economic benefits, which have been passed on to citizens and contributed to India’s overall economic growth story.

The space industry in India today is perhaps where IT was in the 1990s, with several entrepreneurs trying to enter the sector with their own products and services. The question is, how can the government ensure that they survive and thrive?

India is a maturing space power

Today, the Indian space sector is witnessing exciting start-ups like Astrome, Exseed Space and Pixxel. The difference between them and the traditional industries that serve the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is that they are trying to build independent products and services, instead of being a cog in the ISRO supply chain.

This transition is a sign of a maturing space power. It happened in the US several decades ago, when the government had to find a framework to regulate industry activity, so that entrepreneurs can easily do business in space.

The goal in India should be to simply provide regulatory certainty for the start-ups. For example, if a start-up wants to launch its own satellite, it will need a set of frequencies to operate its satellite and communicate with it. Right now, ISRO interfaces with the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) for its satellite operations. However, there is no clarity on what basis such frequencies will be allocated for independently-functioning start-ups.

Depending on the type of activity, there are a number of other areas in the space industry which need regulatory certainty for growth. These include licencing to distribute images acquired from satellites, supervising and coordinating potential tests by start-ups wanting to operate their own rockets, etc.

Again, to give a sense of how this works in a mature space power like the US, companies do not go to NASA to get approvals for their activities. The US government has deputed independent agencies for the job — such as the Federal Communications Commission to coordinate the use of space frequencies, the Federal Aviation Administration to coordinate space launches and rocketry-related tests, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to licence those who want to provide imagery-related services, and the United States Department of Commerce to regulates any export-related issues.

A single coordinating body could help leapfrog US

In 2017, India’s Department of Space issued a draft space bill, which states that companies planning to independently pursue space activities need to apply for a government licence. The draft bill says the government will “put in place a mechanism”, but does not make it clear what timelines, processes or institutions will be involved.

Given that the varied nature of activities and the several institutions within the government that need to be involved in providing regulatory clarity to the nascent space industry in India, the space bill should consider setting up of an independent coordinating body which can act as a single point of contact for all types of activities.

By establishing a single coordinating body, India has a chance to leapfrog established space powers such as the US, where space entrepreneurs are struggling to deal with multiple agencies and institutions. This will also allow the government itself to effectively coordinate among its own ministries and departments as well.

Setting up a body which can make the regulatory framework for this industry will also provide impetus for Parliament to pass the space bill. This would then allow the newly-created body to do all the necessary groundwork in setting the rules of the game for different activities, instead of the space bill having half-baked overarching clauses, which could take us back to the days of ‘Licence Raj’.

The writer is a space industry expert and founder of NewSpace India, a networking community for space-related developments in India.


India is a maturing space power, but can rival the US with an independent regulator
 

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Your ashes can travel to space for $2,000, IIT-Madras space start-up has a plan

Agnikul Cosmos is making a small rocket that can carry a payload of around 200 kg.

By Regina Mihindukulasuriya
Updated: 22 July, 2019 1:47 pm IST

AgniKul Cosmos at SpaceExpoIndia | Twitter

New Delhi: India has increasingly shown its prowess in space technology in the past few years with various innovations. Of late, there has also been a wave of space start-ups that makes smaller satellites and communications systems. One such is the Agnikul Cosmos, an IIT-Madras incubated company, which is planning to offer people a chance to send ashes of their loved ones to space for a little over $2,000.

The firm says it wants to make space travel as routine and affordable as “going to the Sunday market”.

Agnikul is making a small rocket that can carry a payload of around 200 kg.

“If a company provides the satellite to carry the ashes, we can give the rocket,” said Srinath Ravichandran, co-founder and CEO of Agnikul.

“As of now, transporting items to the outer space is a big deal,” explained Ravichandran.

Agnikul was founded in December 2017 by 34-year-old Ravichandran, who studied and worked in the US before heading back to India.

Commercialisation of space

In the past several years, global space start-ups have been doing various activities, both for science and adventure. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched a full-blown Tesla Roadster into orbit around the Sun and US-based Rocket Labs launched a disco ball-like sphere into orbit so it can be seen brightly from the Earth.

Japanese firm ALE is working on space ‘fireworks’: its micro-satellite will gradually release minute particles 400 km above Earth that will burn brightly as it hurtles towards the planet and disintegrate 60km before hitting the ground. Some firms have also been trying to store data in low orbiting satellites.

Malaysian aerospace company Independence-X has sent a letter of interest to Agnikul for its rocket services. Independence-X wants to perform protein crystallisation in space — a method used for studying protein structures. Ravichandran said the company wants to launch 15-20 satellites in the coming years.

A booming rocket industry

Making and launching rockets is slowly turning into a lucrative industry, with estimates saying the Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) market will cross 2.4 billion by 2024. These rockets come in all shapes and sizes and are capable of launching both within the atmosphere and in the Earth’s orbit.

Smaller rockets, such as the one that Agnikul is working on, has been gaining a fair amount of interest from investors too.

US-based small rocket builder Vector raised $70 million from investors such as Morgan Stanley in October 2018 while Bangalore-based Bellatrix Aerospace raised $3 million in June 2019.

Agnikul too raised Rs 3 crore in funding from Speciale Invest in February 2019.

Working in India

While working in the US, in early 2016, Ravichandran got in touch a few IIT professors in Kanpur, Kharagpur, Delhi, Mumbai and Madras who were known for their aerospace programs and pitched his idea of making smaller rockets for commercial purposes.

“Nothing worked for a while. Either no one was interested or everyone was too busy,” he said.

It was S.R. Chakravarthy, an aerospace engineering professor at IIT-Madras, who finally showed interest in Ravichandran’s idea. Agnikul is now incubated at IIT-Madras’ National Center for Combustion Research and Development (NCCRD), with advisors such as former ISRO officer and Padma Bhushan winner R.V. Perumal.

Today, it has a team of 40 members, including former interns of NASA and European Space Agency (ESA).

“Agnikul has the potential to be very successful. The team has been working with the right scientists,” said Chakravarthy.

The goal is to make smaller rockets and at an 80 per cent lower cost than bigger ones, said Ravichandran.

“You can’t replicate the design used for a large rocket. They are both modes of transportation but have different designs,” he explained.

It takes about four-five years and $10-15 million to make the first full-scale prototype of a small rocket, Ravichandran further said.

“So far, we have about two more years to complete the model. Agnikul hopes to launch its rocket in 2021. After the first model is built successfully, replicating it is likely to cost less than $1 million,” he added.

The bulk of their components are 3D printed, which aids in both accuracy of design and lowering costs. Building and testing of their prototypes is entirely done at NCCRD.

Lack of awareness

Team Agnikul is currently looking to raise funds to cover manufacturing costs but most Indian investors do not know enough about space start-ups. “We spoke with about 100 investors and each time we had to teach them,” Ravichandran said.

Yet another hurdle is lack of freedom for private players to enter the space business in India, which is reliant on ISRO. Ravichandran feels the latest glitch in Chandrayaan-2’s launch might put ISRO on a cautious foot. “This will definitely make ISRO more guarded about letting private companies perform space launches”.

Whatever it is, this space enthusiast only hopes ISRO’s glitches are not here to stay so Agnikul can launch its rockets soon.

Your ashes can travel to space for $2,000, IIT-Madras space start-up has a plan
 
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How this student startup landed in a space accelerator

5 min read . Updated: 11 Aug 2019, 08:41 PM IST Sumit Chakraberty
  • Pixxel, aiming to launch microsatellites to beam data for AI analytics, is the only one from Asia in US’ Techstars Starburst
  • The young entrepreneurs are getting a glimpse of business use cases for their work as well as validation from top space scientists


Pixxel founders Kshitij Khandelwal and Awais Ahmed in Los Angeles, where they are working on their startup idea and meeting Nasa scientists

Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal are just 21. Not long ago they were reading about Nasa’s Voyager mission and Mars rovers, like most kids fascinated by space stories. Now they’re in Los Angeles visiting Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), talking to scientists who worked on those Voyager and Mars missions about their startup, Pixxel.

Ahmed and Khandelwal co-founded Pixxel in their final year at BITS, Pilani, in 2018. This year, they raised pre-seed funding to start building microsatellites to beam down data for AI analytics. Next June, the first one will hitch a ride on an Isro rocket. They aim to send out two more next year, then six satellites every quarter in 2021 until a constellation of them can take an “ECG of the earth round the clock," as Ahmed puts it.

Speed of execution is the name of the game in entrepreneurship. A shot in the arm came from Pixxel being the only startup from Asia to be selected for the first batch of 10 startups in Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator in Los Angeles. Techstars is a leading accelerator and partners with corporations. Nasa’s JPL, US air force, Lockheed Martin, Maxar Technologies, and Israel Aerospace Industries are part of this programme. It gives the young entrepreneurs an early grasp of business use cases for their satellite as well as validation from the world’s top space scientists.

Fine-tuning Business Models

“JPL, Lockheed Martin and others are open to working with private entrepreneurs. It’s the same with the Israeli space industry. They’re always looking for a win-win," says Ahmed, who is also the CEO of Pixxel. “Our first adopters will be here in the US. So we’re getting inroads into the ecosystem and fine-tuning business models. Two years of reaching out to these people are condensed into three months till October (in the accelerator programme)."

But the high point for Ahmed was meeting seasoned Nasa scientists. “Getting their validation that we are on the right track means a lot," he says.

The idea came to them while working on an IBM Watson AI XPrize project, a $5-million competition for teams around the world to tackle “the world’s grand challenges," using IBM’s open-source AI platform.

The Bitsians wanted to build AI models to derive insights from satellite imagery to help farmers. Satellite images were available from open source repositories but they ran into a problem.

The images did not have the resolution their AI models needed. “We wanted to analyze the nutrient and moisture content of the soil, chlorophyll content of leaves, and so on," says Ahmed. “The available satellite image data could at best show crop health status, but little beyond that."

The same applies to other areas where satellite imagery can be transformative—such as in exploration for minerals, oil and gas. Just as infrared images provide night vision, light reflected from the Earth can help zero in on undiscovered mineral-rich areas to explore. But better images are needed for this. Top-grade defence satellites have the capability, but those are not available commercially and don’t cover all geographies.

“We reached out to organizations across the world. Then we decided to do it ourselves," says Ahmed. Instead of doing what they started out with—AI analytics on satellite imagery—they moved upstream to solve the more fundamental data problem.

Pixxel aims to be a web platform on the cloud. It will provide access to satellite images for AI analytics teams from various organizations and companies. Customers can specify the frequency—daily or weekly—and area of coverage.

It’s tempting for the startup to do the analytics too, but it doesn’t want to bite off more than it can chew. “Right now our focus is on the tougher part of the value chain. Whoever owns the data controls the entire supply chain," says Ahmed. “We will be a platform play, rather than provide customized solutions, because that will be more scalable."

Taking on Competition

There are a few startups in this space. The biggest of them is US-based Planet, which has 150 active satellites and $183 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. Its first set of 88 Dove satellites went into orbit aboard an Isro rocket in 2013.

But its images don’t have the resolution to go deeper than simple use cases, according to Ahmed. “Our instrument will provide more information," he says, without wanting to disclose more at this stage.

What’s hard is to strike a balance between the capability of the microsatellite and its weight, because every extra kilo can add ₹20 lakh to the launch cost. But doing both the hardware and the software to capture and process the image data has its pluses. “It gives us control over the pipeline to build the satellites according to the data required by customers," says Khandelwal, CTO of Pixxel.

The hardest challenge Pixxel has faced so far is not the technology, but raising funds for a capital-intensive venture as student entrepreneurs. “It took eight months. Everyone was interested but no one was willing to put their money where their mouth was. We had to be better than normal entrepreneurs because we were students, I think," says Ahmed.

Finally, the BITS Pilani alumni network kicked in. Bay Area’s Raju Reddy made the first bet. growX ventures became the first institutional investor in July this year. This will enable Pixxel to make its first launch, but it will have to raise more funding.

“Pixxel may have to look outside India for the next round of funding because VCs here are risk-averse," says Sheetal Bahl, partner at growX, an early- stage fund.

What could help Pixxel go forward is being part of the Techstars global network, if all goes well with their launch next year. It will be a giant leap for the two founders from their rural roots. Khandelwal is from Amrapur in the drought-prone Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, where his father has a farm and veterinary practice. Ahmed is from Aldur in Karnataka’s Chikmagaluru. His family has a pharmacy and a coffee plantation.

Ahmed went to Mangaluru for his pre-university studies before making it to BITS Pilani for MSc Mathematics. He became eligible for a BE Mechanical dual degree in the second year, but dropped it the following year because by then he was deep into more exciting extra-curricular activities.

He had joined a project called Ananth to work with Isro scientists to build nanosatellites in his first year. He founded Hyperloop India the following year to build a prototype of a pod that travels at the speed of sound inside a vacuum tube. It was the first team from India to present the prototype to SpaceX’s Elon Musk in the Hyperloop Pod competition, along with teams from MIT and Harvard.

It was the Ananth and Hyperloop experience and mentoring by Isro scientists that gave the Pixxel founders the confidence to build and launch satellites. “We stand on the shoulders of giants," says Ahmed.

*Sumit Chakraberty is a Contributing Editor with Mint

How this student startup landed in a space accelerator
 

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The Ride To The Moon

As India joins the scramble for a berth in outer space, BW Businessworld takes a close look at ISRO’s aspirational ventures and the nascent startup ecosystem on space research and exploration
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In 2017 the Indian Space Research Organisaiton (ISRO) floated a tender calling for private sector participation in building a satellite for the first time. “It was not a large number, there were all of 59 companies in the room. We counted,” recalls Exseed Fund Founder and Managing Partner Mahesh Murthy. At the end of the meeting with private sector bidders, ISRO chose three partners, Exseed among them. The other two companies that bagged the ISRO tender were the public sector Bharat Electronics and Tata Advanced Systems, a large outsourcing company.

“But things have changed in the two years since,” says Murthy. And that — despite the fact that investment in space exploration and expedition is really like betting on the abyss of space. If the venture works, the investor gets to become a part of history and begins a tryst with next generation technology. If it does not, some hard-earned money flows into a black hole.

India’s prowess in space technology is exceptional, as ISRO demonstrated with its Chandrayaan-2 mission. The Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-MkIII-M1), dubbed Baahubali, lifted-off from the second launch pad at the spaceport and successfully placed the 3,850-kg Chandrayaan-2 into the earth’s orbit. Since the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, into an elliptical low earth orbit in 1957, more than 8,650 objects have been launched into space.

In the years ahead, one cannot rule out India Inc. taking the lead in space expedition. In the United States, new age e-commerce giant Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos is looking at space exploration through his latest venture, Blue Origin. Bezos has talked of lower costs of space research and exploitation of resources in outer space, like generating fuel using ice in the dark craters of the moon. South African billionaire Elon Musk hopes to revolutionise the aerospace industry with his company, SpaceX, which proposes to begin commercial flights to the moon and beyond.



SpaceX is expected to launch a Falcon Heavy rocket carrying 24 satellites for the US military. It also aims to carry the immortal ashes of a hundred people into outer space, including those of actor James Doohan, who played Scotty on Star Trek. SpaceX, now valued at $33 billion, plans to launch a constellation of more than 12,000 small satellites into the earth’s orbit in a programme named Starlink. It is the beginning of an era of a new breed of entrepreneurs and private individuals who look to exploit space for both advancement of humankind and greed, which is cause célèbre for futuristic enterprises that are yet to establish a clear business model.

So what would be the business model for space research and expedition in the future? “By 2040, there will be 1,000 people living and working on the moon with 10,000 annual visitors,” according to Aaron Sorenson, a spokesman of the Japanese lunar exploraton startup iSpace Inc. Both technology giants and startups pursuing bold plans such as selling space tourism and mining asteroids in the sky are winning millions in investment. Significant drops in launch costs by technological breakthrough such as development of commercial reusable rockets have caught the interest of startups and investors.

Space hotels, cosmic business insurance, celestial advertising billboards, and in-space manufacturing are among the businesses being explored by firms that hope that technology will open up new horizons amidst a boom in commercial space activity. The United States and Luxembourg have both passed legislation aiming to allow property rights on planets and create regulations to permit space mining, with Russia indicating earlier this year that it may follow suit.

At this stage, even as humans search for a perfect horizon in space, the global space industry is estimated to be $350 billion and is likely to triple in size by 2040, according to the US investment bank Morgan Stanley. Any key breakthrough in the near future will only make these business propositions more viable. The scramble for a berth in outer space has now begun in right earnest.

Startup founders with ISRO Chairman Kailasavadivoo Sivan: Pivate players need guidelines for participation in India’s space exploration programme and look to the Space Activities Bill for clarity on policies

The business of space :


How monolithic is the space business? “On one of the online groups where many of us new space entrepreneurs hang out, one of the older gents who worked for a US multinational said that there’s no way any private startup from India had the smarts to launch a satellite,” recalls Mahesh Murthy.

Exseed Fund of which Murthy is managing partner is the only fund in India focused on space. “I had challenged him then that we would launch two (satellites) within a year. He pooh-poohed us. Now, two launches later, he is strangely silent on the group,” quips Murthy.

Till now, space expeditions have been about sending satellites into space to map and conduct activities on earth, like better communication and navigation. From now on, it may be about launching heavy satellites into the earth’s outer orbit (beyond the low orbit) and space tourism in the sub-orbital level above the earth, where one feels zero-gravity and is able to look down at the curved image of the earth. Yasuka Maezawa, owner of a Japanese fashion conglomerate, has already made a payment for a trip around the moon, planned as early as 2023.

Till 2009, most of the research and expeditions into outer space were undertaken by government agencies, but that has changed in the course of a decade. A report titled Start-Up Space, published by Bryce Space and Technology in 2018, showed that investments into space companies, from venture capital to debt financing, totaled $3.23 billion. It said venture capital investment alone grew 22 per cent in 2018 to $2 billion.



According to a statement placed in Parliament, altogether 239 satellites were launched by ISRO’s commercial arm Antrix Corporation in the last three years, enabling it to earn a revenue of Rs 6,289 crore. At the moment, India’s share in the global space industry is just about seven per cent, even though India is an advanced player in the research and development (R&D) of various satellites. The Indian Space Research Organisation not only competes with the best in world, but has an edge in some futuristic technologies too, as was evident from the launch of Chandrayaan-2. The satellite is about to place a lander called Vikram on the lunar surface. Only three countries, the United States, Russia and China, have attempted and succeeded in such soft landing on the moon.


The Way Forward :

Space Activities Bill, 2017 – policy recommendations should address concerns of India Inc.

India’s space policy needs to cover liabilities for damage to third party space assets. (India is a signatory to the UN treaties on Outer Space Activity)

Emulate legislations of the US, France and the European Union, that allow underwriting costs of damage should it exceed insurance when a private satellite launch goes awry or a rocket hits another object in space

Access high bandwidth spectrum

Make rocket launch by private players possible

No to restrictive licensing; government can do with permissive licensing

With the present organisational structure of the Department of Space, an independent Space Startup Cell can be created which directly reports to the Space Commission and thereby to the Prime Minister’s Office

Space ecosystem in India :

The Indian space ecosystem is in a nascent stage, but some new startups have emerged in this domain. Even as ISRO aims at new aspirational projects, new space startups are emerging every day with innovative ideas to plug technological gaps in the industry, says Ankit Bhateja, Founder of Xovian Research and Technologies. The scale of business in the domain of space exploration is changing so fast that as many as 500 companies have emerged with ISRO opening its doors to private sector participation in the business.

Xovian is a New Delhi-based aerospace startup that offers sustainable solutions in satellite fabrication. It also conducts educational and research-based activities to bridge the innovation gap between industries and educational institutions. “With startups coming out with new revolutionary ideas India is destined to be one of the leading nations in the space exploration race,” says Bhateja.

In the realm of space research and exploration, India’s private sector is layered in three levels, the giants, mid-level companies and startups. The giants are defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs) like Hindustan Aeronautics, Mishra Dhatu Nigam and Bharat Electronics (BEL), along with large private sector entities like Larsen and Toubro, Godrej, Tata, HCL, Wipro and Tech Mahindra. Larsen & Toubro is among two of ISRO’s oldest industry partners, apart from being among its five major industry partners.



Mid-sized companies in the aerospace domain are mostly ISRO’s tier-2 and tier-3 vendors. The almost 500 private sector players in this domain have revenues hovering between Rs 20 crore and Rs 200 crore. Companies like Alpha Design, Ananth, Data Patterns and Apollo have already done a great deal of space-related work and show tremendous potential. In the third layer are startups like Xovian, GroundCloud and HF Signals. “A couple of years ago, there were maybe five or ten of us,” says Bhateja, “Today, there are 35 to 50 startups from India who are trying to do something worthwhile in the space economy.”

Giants and dwarfs :


The demonstrable capability of India Inc. is growing the risk appetite for a domain in which one jumps into the unknown with the conviction of scientific innovation, for the satisfaction of a sigh of relief and sometimes, great profitability. That is the nature of the space business. Jayant Patil, Senior Vice President, Defence & Aerospace at Larsen & Toubro says his company has invested in infrastructure and manufacturing facilities that cater specifically to the requirements of ISRO. “We have allocated more than 250 acres of land, with 20,000 sq. metres of covered area across our factory locations and plan for an additional 20,000 sq. metres,” says Patil (read interview: ‘Current Policy Does Not Allow Exports’).

Larsen & Toubro is among ISRO’s tier-1 suppliers. “L&T has state-of-the-art facility for manufacturing booster segments, clean rooms for ultra-precision solar array deployment devices at Powai, high-end composites manufacturing facilities at Vadodara and Coimbatore as well as precision manufacturing facilities at Coimbatore to cater for the exacting requirements of ISRO,” says Patil.

Boot-strapping to space :

In the startup scenario, companies are often more tight-fisted. As Dhruva Space Founder & CEO Sanjay Nekkanti explains, “We are a boot-strapped company so far. Thybolt, our sensor division, generates revenues which feeds into the space research activities of the company.” Mahesh Murthy explains that for startups, “the financing is at two levels”. Exseed is setting up India’s first fund for space and expects to announce the first close soon, with participation from multiple parties. “This should help us play in every segment of space. We will announce the size and other details later, but suffice to say that it will be in the range of hundreds of crores of rupees,” says Murthy.

Exseed’s journey has not been smooth all along though. “We have had to pay from our own pockets to prove our credentials in every case. We paid to build and launch our satellites. We paid to put up our ground stations. And we paid to develop our first communication payloads,” says Murthy. In the end though, the risk-taking paid off. As an exultant Murthy points out, “this risk taking has resulted in commercial orders coming our way. One of our group companies is already profitable. The others should be soon!”

Kris Nair, Founder and CEO, Kawa Space says, “We have raised a pre-series A round from Vijayshekhar Sharma (Founder, Paytm) and Speciale Invest Fund, space-focused venture capital firm.” Kawa Space’s team built and launched India’s first privately built satellite. “While the journey has been long and hard,” says Nair, “we are extremely grateful to all the help and support that we received during the course of the mission from the likes of ISRO and the Indian government.”

As an industry, space exploration is unique, where even a first breakthrough can be a “eureka” moment for an industry player. “The good thing about this business is that even getting one order in a year can make a startup break even, or wildly profitable. Because these are high-value and unique products and technologies that we make and sell — it’s not an eyeball game or an e-com or fintech loss-making game,” explains Nair.

Private players in space exploration :

In the case of L&T, a giant among private players in India, the association with ISRO dates back to the 1970s. Over nearly five decades, L&T has played a significant role in India’s space programmes and contributed to all generations of ISRO launch vehicles, right from the first Indian space launch, including SLV3, ASLV, PSLV and GSLV to the latest GSLV Mk-III, which is being used for Chandrayaan 2. “For the Chandrayan 2 launch mission, L&T has provided several critical flight hardware, which includes metallic and composite sub-systems and assemblies. L&T has supplied more than 180 large and small hardware assemblies or sub-assemblies for the launch vehicle,” Patil points out.

Among the dwarfs, the Exseed group has many firsts to its name. It includes India’s first private satellite company, India’s first private ground station company – GroundCloud, and India’s first private communication payload company – HF Signals. “And we have more investments on the way,” says Murthy. Another pioneer in space research, Dhruva Space, has been invited by the European Space Agency to incubate for product development in their BIC in collaboration with ISRO. Dhruva Space aims to be the first Indian company to launch a small satellite constellation. Dhruva’s modular design approach reduces development time and cost of manufacturing, enabling launch of a fleet of satellites on demand for targeted commercial applications. The company has a strong technical team that has been part of six satellite missions across four countries.

Kawa Space, which leads India’s first private space mission, is building a vertically integrated solution that will let anyone launch space missions in seconds. “At present, organisations that wish to deploy space-enabled solutions typically build, test and launch satellites, supporting ground stations and the infrastructure required to operate them, which means they own and operate the asset in space,” says Kawa Space Founder, Kris Nair.

Nair says a lot of good work is being done by a new breed of space companies in India, many of whom are focused on specific areas of interest, like imaging and space data processing, assembly integration and testing, and IoT connectivity solutions. Nair says the private sector is actively helping educate and widen the market for space solutions delivered as a service. “We’re hopeful to see both a collaborative approach amongst this new breed of companies and are excited for all the research that is getting added to India’s space repertoire,” he says optimistically.

Mandar Deo, Vice President, Power Systems, at Cummins India, shares an anecdote. “A few months back our customer was looking for a high performing dependable product for a project. The end application was not fully disclosed to the team by the customer at that time. But what was even more challenging was the requirement of the generator to perform under extreme temperatures and very limited ventilation,” recalls Deo. “Owing to our brand promise of ‘innovation and dependability’, Cummins was the partner of choice. The Cummins engineering team, in collaboration with our GOEM (Generator Original Equipment Manufacturer) partner and a key supplier developed a solution to meet the very demanding specifications and successfully demonstrated the capability during witness testing phase,” he says. The story only vindicates that private players, both big and small, were making their presence felt in the realm of space research and exploration.

Xovian fills a critical void in space education. Ankit Bhateja, who founded Xovian in 2012, has tried to bridge the industry-academia skills set gap with space technology-based hands-on activity modules like CANSAT, BALLOONSAT and SMALLSAT. The company has engaged with almost 9,000 students, researchers, and hobbyists across the country. “We provide full support in small satellite development and are currently involved in the development of miniaturised radar technology, with its first launch expected by the end of 2020,” says Bhateja.

Xovian is also the only company from India that happens to be a member of the International Astronautical Federation, an international space advocacy organisation based in Paris. Founded in 1951, the non-governmental organisation, strives to establish a dialogue between scientists around the world and to lay the information for international space cooperation. It works in close association with the United Nations.

Companies that have demonstrated significant capabilities in the defence production sector since it was opened up to private players, are also looking to foray into space exploration. Solar Industries, which has developed an indigenous propulsion system for the Pinaka Rocket, is entering into the business of propulsion systems for space application, which is synergistic with the current business of ammunition, says Manish Nuwal, Managing Director and CEO, Solar Industries. “The Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) is a great business opportunity for private players for the next few decades,” says Nuwal, adding, “The government is framing a space policy to create an environment for private industry to serve India’s commercial and strategic needs, and also make India a global space technology hub.”

Draft Space Activities Bill, 2017 :

As humans eye space exploration or exploitation depending on how you hold the prism, the need for rules of the game emerge as a concern globally. Within the country too private players feel that they need guidelines for participation in India’s space exploration programmes and look to the Space Activities Bill, 2017 for clarity on policies. Meanwhile, ISRO’s commercial space entity Antrix, proposes to transfer small satellite and small launcher technologies to India Inc.

The ISRO has initiated measures for public-private participation in complete PSLV Launch vehicle production along with satellite integration. The ISRO has floated a new commercial entity called the New Space India Limited (NSIL) for commercialisation of various space products, including production of launch vehicles, transfer of technologies and marketing of space products. The idea is to hand over the entire PSLV assembly to the private sector which will be followed by the SSLV.

Leading the charge is L&T as a force multiplier. It has already partnered with government agencies in the domains of both defence and aerospace, in programmes like Chandrayan, Mangalyan and Hypersonic Test Facilities among others. “The current policy does not allow exports in the space segment,” laments Jayant Patil. “Opening up the space segment, as yet reserved for the state, will unlock huge opportunities for Indian players to be a part of the global supply chain. Additionally, access to larger markets will also encourage industry to invest in research and development and build products to cater for the space segment,” he tells BW Businessworld in an exclusive interview (page).

There is thus, need for a national space legislation to support the overall growth of space activities in India. This would encourage enhanced participation of non-governmental and private sector agencies in space activities, in compliance with international treaty obligations, which is becoming very relevant today. Around the world, legislations on space vary greatly in terms of content, scope and applicability. Taking these variations into account, a model law (the Draft Space Activities Bill, 2017) was formulated for a national space legislation and submitted to the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) by the International Law Association (ILA) in 2013. Chapter VI of the Draft Space Activities Bill notifies that any form of intellectual property right developed, generated or created onboard a space object in outer space, shall be deemed to be the property of the Central government.

Entrepreneurs like Xovian Research and Technologies Co-founder, Raghav Sharma, see policy lacunae in the draft Bill. “The Indian space ecosystem is in its early state and there is a missing policy to support startups in the space sector,” he says. The Space Activities Bill has since been introduced, with the point of contention intact. It stipulates that the ownership of intellectual property in space will be with the Union government. Sharma is pinning his hopes on the government reconsidering the clause in the Bill. “We hope that the government will issue a fresh revised draft addressing and rectifying such things which will encourage more and more startups to actively participate in this domain,” says Sharma.

A rather rough ride :

Another bone of contention for private players is licensing for the space industry. A licence of practice is mandatory in space activities as it is a matter of national interest. As Ankit Bhateja of Xovian points out, “The existing companies can bear the cost of the licence, but for startups, a cash crunch always exists. So it is required to put the startups out of the umbrella of the license policy for a period of five to seven years till they attain a mature state.” Murthy of Exseed Fund feels that restrictive licensing could jeopardise the growth prospects of private companies and nip their aspirations in the bud. “There could be thousands of jobs on the horizon if the space policy is not restrictive with any draconian licencing,” says Murthy.

Even so, a spurt of enthusiasm pervades the private sector in India on space research and exploration. Startups though, find it difficult to keep pace with companies that are already established. Startups feel that they need some amount of handholding by the government. Xovian for instance, feels that the Department of Space could have an independent startup cell. The cell could along with the Department of Space, report directly to the Space Commission, which in turn reports directly to the Prime Minister.

The startup ecosystem feels that the absence of damage cover liabilities for third party space assets is a major lacunae in India’s space policy. The United States, France and the European Union, have legislations that underwrite costs of damage should they exceed insurance, when a private satellite launch goes awry, or a rocket hits another object in space. Finally, restriction on private players for rocket launches is seen as a disincentive by private players. A widely asked question is: why would the government not allow divergence of technology and skill for the private players?

In universal law, space has no boundaries. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which had more than 100 nations as signatories, provides the main framework for law on space. It says no nation can claim ownership of outer space and it must be free for use by all countries. Along the way in 1984, some sort of an agreement has come into effect on the moon. The 1984 agreement calls on the international regime to administer exploitation of lunar resources.

Another cause for concern among investors in space exploration is clogging up of space once plans of companies like Amazon and SpaceX to launch thousands of satellites fructify. The limits beyond the earth’s atmosphere could then get cluttered with earth objects and run the risk of collisions. But whether companies can claim ownership of space mineral activities and how countries should decide access rights and commercial gains, is yet to be debated. A debate does rage on now on the piling up of space debris, such as malfunctioned satellites and broken rockets.

India’s space programme can gain momentum with the involvement of players beyond ISRO. The ISRO could, private players believe, continue to focus on the critical and core aspect of research and development on space, leaving peripheral areas of exploration to private sector players. “Space is a half-trillion dollar business,” muses Murthy, “and we hope to capture a significant part of the satellite manufacturing segment. Our aim is simple and ambitious: we’d like to become one of the world’s leading manufacturers of satellites.”

Other industry players too would like to ride out to space and land on the moon or beyond, but only if they are assured of a supportive policy by the government.

The Ride To The Moon
 
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