These Astropreneurs are Disrupting an Untapped Sector in India Although the global space industry is as big as $300 billion, India's share in it is close to just a billion
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India is a recognized global space pioneer, with successful missions by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) like the Mangalyaan, Chandrayaan and several PSLV flights.
Ironically though, there is no extensive commercial exploitation of private space infrastructure, largely due to lack of deregulation and privatization, despite the country possessing a niche talent pool in the sector. Although the global space industry is as big as $300 billion, India's share in it is close to just a billion.
To bridge this gap and explore newer horizons, a new breed of entrepreneurs has turned their passion for space into reality by setting up ventures within the very challenging model of local space industry in India. Amongst them is Susmita Mohanty, known as India's space lady in the international space community, who started the country's first private space start-up Earth2Orbit way back in 2010.
Growing up in a spacerelated environment, as her father worked with ISRO, she developed a fascination for the orbital sciences but eventually wanted to build a venture that would break the traditional mould of how the space domain is viewed in India.
Her company facilitates international satellite launches on the PSLV with clients like Osaka Institute of Technology in Japan and Google Terra Bella in USA along with creating geointelligence data products.
"India has just about begun its commercial space journey, which is currently dominated by countries such as the US France and Russia. We need to overhaul our space policy to allow private players to compete in the international space marketplace. If we make the right moves, we can go out and capture at least a quarter of this market in the coming decade or two," she said.
On the other end of the spectrum, Rohan Ganpathy and Yashas Karanam's company, Bellatrix Aerospace, is the first private company to secure a development order from ISRO, for their waterpowered, electric propulsion system for satellites that can drastically bring down the cost of sending payload into space.
The youngsters, who work with a dedicated team, credit most of their success to Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, who provided them the right support system required. Neha Satak, CEO, Astrome Technologies, a company that aims to deliver internet directly from satellites, gave up prospects in the US to return to India, realizing that the country was the perfect ground for her idea to be executed. If implemented successfully, the cost of coverage for internet in India could come down by over 100 times.
On why she chose her home country over the lucrative US space eco-system, Satak said, "We as a developing nation have multiple problems to solve. With a little nudge from the government when it comes to space policy, ventures like ours could not only get the right direction, but meet practical deadlines."
FUNDING AND SCALABILITY
These companies have varied missions, one starkly different from the other as space exploration-based technology they are working on. However, any technology development model of business can be financially exhausting, which is why investment in the sector is tough to come by.
"The problem with the venture capital and angel culture in India is firstly, most of them don't understand the space sector. Secondly, most of them make investments with a short-term vision of either getting quick return of investments or exiting after two or three years," said Karnam of Bellatrix.
"Spacetech is not a one to two year investment. Look at SpaceX, it's a futuristic investment," he said. While some players in the sector, like Team Indus, have got sizable funding for their Lunar Mission, it's not enough for sustainability and long-term business ideas. "People need to understand that space-tech has a much bigger scope and is not just restricted to space missions," said Abhishek Raju, who co-founded SatSure and also works with DhruvaSpace.
"The advantage of this sector is its dynamism and the variety of applications for which space technology can be used," he said pointing towards his company's engagement with banks, financial institutions and insurers, who depend on SatSure's solutions to assess credit risk for sectors like agriculture and oil and gas.
These space geeks are, however, in no mood to halt due to paucity of funding. They believe its a temporary setback and the mindset is changing slowly. "Things are changing now. It's better than what it used to be say five years ago," said Divyanshu Poddar, an ex-ISRO employee who founded Rocketeers, which provides skill development and training for space-related projects. "The space sector just needs that turning point like the IT industry or the telecommunications sector, where opportunities were created by the government for larger private sector participation."
While it may take years to churn out a SpaceX or Blue Origin from India, most of these entrepreneurs believe that India's private space race has just begun and the start-up community needs to move beyond aping western ideas.
"If you are in the science and technology sector, there is little or no scope for copying. You need to constantly innovate and culminate that idea into a viable business model," said Raghav Sharma of Xovian Technologies, which provides low cost sustainable solutions in satellite fabrication.
"Learning and horning your skills in an academic-intensive sector like this is important. However, more important is to successfully bootstrap yours venture before you seek funding," he added.
Can the next Elon Musk produce a SpaceX from India? "Absolutely, in the next 15-20 years I see something like that happen, but before that we as a nation, have to first deregulate and privatise our government-controlled space programs. We have to embrace entrepreneurs who are trying to disrupt the government controlled space industry," said Mohanty concluding, "We are just about to start our journey to the space."
(This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine. To subscribe, click here)