Private Space Companies In India Prepare For Liftoff
Startups aim to offer an alternative to Russia and China for building and launching satellites.
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Since the 1970s the barrier island of Sriharikota on India’s east coast has served as the country’s Cape Canaveral, with the national space agency launching scores of spacecraft headed as far as the moon and Mars. But in November a new tenant appeared: Agnikul Cosmos, a startup based in Chennai, 60 miles to the south, which plans to use its own launchpad on the island for its first mission, scheduled for May or June. The company aims to complete at least four launches in 2024, taking advantage of the country’s new embrace of space startups. “This opens up India as a gateway for private players to go into space,” says Srinath Ravichandran, Agnikul’s co-founder.
Agnikul has no intention of taking on heavyweights such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is working on spacecraft that can carry as much cargo as a half-dozen eighteen-wheelers can. Instead the company says its Agnibaan rocket can serve customers seeking to launch payloads of 100 kilograms (220 pounds). And with the number of satellites in orbit projected to grow tenfold, to more than 60,000, by 2030, Ravichandran says private companies such as his can prosper by catering to price-conscious customers. “There is enough stuff for everyone to do,” he says.
Promoting India’s space sector is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strategy of offering an alternative to China for goods ranging from auto parts to iPhones. As in many other industries, India’s space startups got a late start compared with their Chinese peers, which have been allowed in the field for almost a decade and have completed several orbital launches. India didn’t start liberalizing the sector until 2020.
Many Indians say Russia’s isolation following last year’s invasion of Ukraine, coupled with growing tensions between China and the US, makes their country an increasingly attractive option for Western companies looking for space products or services. And India’s standing will be bolstered by its decades of providing tech outsourcing services at relatively low cost, says Anil Kumar Bhatt, director general of the Indian Space Association, an industry lobbying group. “The credibility the Indian IT industry enjoys will be passed on to space,” he says.
Pixxel, a startup in Bengaluru, in February released the first vivid pictures from what’s planned to be a network of 24 satellites capable of taking high-resolution images for use in agriculture, mining and oil exploration. And in November, Skyroot Aerospace launched India’s first privately developed rocket. “India has the opportunity to narrow the gap with China in the global space business as it is in a better position politically,” says Skyroot Chief Executive Officer Pawan Kumar Chandana.
India’s space companies have gotten backing from the likes of Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC and Silicon Valley-based Sherpalo Ventures. The government is preparing rules to make foreign investment in space projects easier, and in April it unveiled policies aimed at encouraging private-sector participation across the industry. “For Modi, this is like a linchpin of his entire progressive India campaign,” says Sheetal Bahl, a partner with GrowX Ventures, a VC firm in Delhi that’s invested in Pixxel and Bellatrix Aerospace, a Bengaluru startup that develops spacecraft and propulsion systems. “He wants us to be positioned as a leader in space tech.”
India has a long way to go before it can match China. As of 2020, India accounted for just 2.3% of all Earth-orbiting satellites, compared with 13.6% for China, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Indian space startups have attracted investments totaling $220 million from venture capitalists since 2011, according to the Indian Space Association. Chinese companies received almost five times that much last year alone.
And India’s technological capabilities remain far behind China’s, says Sunil Indurti, director of Azista BST Aerospace, a venture between a German design firm and an Indian manufacturer that says it can make some 50 satellites a year. The joint venture, which plans to launch its first remote-sensing satellite aboard a SpaceX rocket in June, can produce its spacecraft for 20% less than rivals elsewhere, according to Indurti. But he says there’s still much India’s industry must learn to be truly competitive. “We can’t leapfrog the entire curve in just a couple of years,” he says.
Industry executives are counting on the Indian Space Research Organization, a state-controlled agency, to help accelerate that process. ISRO has more than five decades of experience, and in 2014 it sent an orbiter to Mars. NewSpace India Ltd., the agency’s commercial arm, in March launched three dozen satellites into low-Earth orbit for OneWeb Ltd., a London company competing with SpaceX to deploy communication satellites. Pixxel CEO Awais Ahmed says his company and its rivals in the growing sector will benefit from the agency’s support and from the facilities it’s built at Sriharikota. “There are probably five or six countries in the world that have that kind of infrastructure and expertise to bank on,” he says. “And India is one of those.”
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