India's Space Woman Started Her Journey Long Before the Industry Took Shape

With the right moves the space-tech sector can capture at least a quarter of the global market

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Space has always been a fascination for almost every child while growing up, with many desiring to be astronauts or at least have the chance to witness rocket science from close quarters. For Susmita Mohanty, who has been hailed as 'India's Space Woman' by many in the international space community, the domain became much larger than just a childhood dream.

Susmita Mohanty

Having the advantage of growing up in Ahmedabad's Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) facility, where her father worked, her exposure to the field came much earlier.But she did not want to be just another part of the space community, rather disrupt it to bring to light business ventures that could benefit from the domain.

The Beginnings

After a stint at NASA and then Boeing, she began her entrepreneurial journey way back in 2001, when she started MoonFront in LA, US, a boutique space consulting firm and her second in 2003, Liquifier, in Vienna which worked on advanced concepts for space transportation and habitation. Finally she came home to India in 2008, and started Earth2Orbit, India’s first space startup in 2010, a time when the first couple of startups had just started to take shape in India and space-tech ventures were unheard of. She wanted to build a venture that would break the traditional mould of how space the domain is viewed in India.

“I thought why not leverage my network and connection to launch payloads via the PSLV from India,” she said during a chat with Entrepreneur India.

Today her company operates out of three countries (India, US and Austria) and facilitates international satellite launches on the PSLV with clients like Osaka Institute of Technology, Japan and Google Terra Bella, USA along with creating geo-intelligence data products.

The Challenges of the Space Industry in India

The private space industry in India is still at a nascent stage, even though government’s premier arm ISRO has scaled great heights globally. The global space industry stands close to $300bn, in which India’s share is just close to a billion dollars.

Shedding light on why such a mammoth gap exists Mohanty says, “Lack of a national space policy that actively supports space entrepreneurship is the primary reason. The global space industry is currently dominated by countries such as the United States, France and Russia. India urgently needs to overhaul its space policy to allow private players to compete in the international space marketplace in addition to serving the needs of our domestic space program.”

She further talks about the role of the government is securing solid funds as agencies like NASA and ESA, who receive billions of dollars / euros to support innovation and disruption by private space players. When asked about the scope of private investor pouring in money into the sector, she believes the dearth is due to expectations of quicker returns, that don’t happen in the sector so often.

“Space companies take 7-10 years to mature, unlike their IT counterparts, so we need patient capital i.e. investors who take a long-term view and are not looking for a quick ROI,” she said.

Hope for the Stars

So can a future SpaceX or Blue Origin like company come out of India , and can we really see visionary minds like Elon Musk, who take charge of futuristic ideas by backing them with monetary support?

“Absolutely,” said  Mohanty,  “more like 15-20 years though,  because we have to, as a nation, first deregulate and privatize our government-controlled space program. We have to embrace risk takers and entrepreneurs who are trying to innovate and disrupt the government controlled space industry. The government space agency needs to treats start-ups as allies, not competitors and if we make the right moves, we can go out and capture at least a quarter of this market if not more in the coming decade or two,” she concludes.

Agamoni Ghosh

Written By

She was generating stories out of Bengaluru for Entrepreneur India. She has worked with leading national and international business publications, including Newsweek, Business Standard, and CNBC in the past.