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A New Race to Space: The Indian Startup Story Unlike the Cold War of the 1960s, which was led by national space programs as the US and the Soviet Union competed neck to neck for space flight supremacy, a new race to space has begun in our own age, wherein startups are playing a key role

By Soumya Duggal

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Changing geopolitical conditions are reframing the battle for space exploration, with erstwhile key players such as Russia and China losing credibility as competing forces against the US. While it currently occupies just over two per cent of the global space economy, India is emerging as the new kid on the block, so to say, as innovations increase every day.

The year 2022 proved to be a landmark time period for the Indian space tech ecosystem as the country recorded the launch of its first private rocket by Skyroot Aerospace, the establishment of its first privately-owned rocket launchpad by Agnikul Cosmos as well as the launch of multiple satellites by startups such as Dhruva Space and Pixxel. Additionally, late last month, state-owned NewSpace India Ltd. launched 36 communications satellites from Odisha for Bharati Airtel and UK government-backed OneWeb. The latter had turned to India after Russia cancelled the launch last year in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine.

"The world is considering which other countries have the capability and quality and sheer talent to innovate space technologies. We are sitting on a golden egg in India," says Yashas Karanam, co-founder and COO, Bellatrix Aerospace.

Unlike the Cold War of the 1960s, which was led by national space programs as the US and the Soviet Union competed neck to neck for space flight supremacy, a new race to space has begun in our own age, wherein startups are playing a key role. India too has joined the ranks of competitors. How did we get here?

Indian Spacetech Startups: A Decade of Evolution

Bengaluru-based Bellatrix Aerospace was founded in 2015 at a time of a lot of regulatory unknowns in the country. "I didn't know if I'd be legally allowed to launch my own rocket some day or have my own satellite or communication down station," says Karanam, reflecting on the origins of the startup as a result of both pure passion and an early realisation of the global market potential of space technologies.

For several decades, Indian space exploration activities were predominantly the mandate of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), with private companies' role being restricted to the supply of parts and built-to-spec models. In June 2020, the Indian government introduced many initiatives to deregulate the private space sector and established the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (INSPACe) to incubate technology into private firms and startups. Tellingly, between 2012 and 2022, the Indian spacetech startup ecosystem is recorded to have grown from one to over a 100 startups.

"Earlier, the mentality globally was that only space agencies could execute innovation in the sector but now there is much more commercialisation and the US has of course taken the lead in opening avenues for private players such as Elon Musk's SpaceX. But in the last four to five years, even Indian regulators have opened up almost everything and new opportunities are coming up in leap frog technologies, in-orbit manufacturing, communication, one web and so on," explains Nitish Singh, co-founder and CEO, Astrogate Labs.

Accordingly, capital deployment has also increased given that many deeptech funds focus on investing in spacetech ventures from both the financial and regulatory perspectives. As per data from the Indian Space Association (ISpA), Indian startups have secured over $245.35 million in funding thus far. While fundraising is sometimes difficult in the growth and late stages, venture capitalists are becoming increasingly well-equipped to understand space technologies and their aims as they take the roadmap of patient capital due to longer gestation periods of such ventures.

Kshitij Khandelwal, the founder and CTO of Pixxel, which builds hyperspectral images for various climate uses, believes that support is key to sustaining the proliferation of the spacetech sector: "It is near impossible to build a vertically integrated space company without the support of the manufacturers of individual components, integrators, testing facilities and so on…An entire value chain must exist so that multiple organisations can save costs, access shared talent pools and benefit from a close-knit community. That's why there is a lot of value, for instance, in space parks being built in the country." Space Technology Parks (STPs) are special purpose infrastructure, which will provide the necessary ground infrastructure and key facilities for the entire life cycle of space-related activities as well as facilitate collaboration with academic institutions.

Despite these recent strides, it must be recognised that the spacetech industry moves slightly slower than others given its fundamental high-risk nature. Consider that if an asset blasts on the way to space, there's nothing one can do about it. "Launch vehicle companies and startups, including SpaceX, often face three to four failures upfront before perfecting the product. But products such as satellites mostly work right even in the first instance. It's a tough ecosystem but a lot of standardisations have come up in the last twenty years. There is certainly scope for many horizontally-integrated ventures since we take components from the right manufacturers and our feasibility studies are also quite lengthy," opines Suyash Singh, co-founder and CEO, GalaxEye.

"Going forward, we can do more applications based on cloud, imagery, GPS and so on and commercialise them. Just as semiconductors were the chief subject of innovation in the 1980s and 90s, now is the time to really think about space," he adds.

Although Yashas, Kshitij, Nitish and Suyash lead different spacetech ventures, in truth, their individual journeys congeal to form the larger spacetech story in India: a bunch of young innovators and entrepreneurs based in the same city, frequently bumping into each other at conferences and summits as they navigate the infamous Bengaluru traffic jams on their way to bringing a space revolution in the country and beyond. They are certainly ambitious but on most occassions, there's more camaraderie than competition.

Soumya Duggal

Former Feature Writer

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