As we enter a new era of space race, India is rapidly gaining recognition as a formidable player. The journey began modestly in 1963 with the launch of its first sounding rocket. But in the past 20 years, the country has made impressive strides to push the boundaries of the next frontier. On its way, India has reached many significant milestones, from its successful Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan-1) to the path-breaking Chandrayaan-3 to explore the dark side of the Moon and the latest Aditya-L1 solar observation project.
Undeniably, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has played a pivotal role in this stellar success. However, today, what stands out as the need of the hour in establishing India as a leader in the global space economy is the increased involvement of private enterprises.
According to a report by Inc42 titled ‘Indian Spacetech Startup Landscape and Market Opportunity, 2023’, more than 150 spacetech startups secured $285 Mn+ in funding between 2014 and 2023. Most of them are backed by a diverse array of active investors, including prominent names such as Pi Ventures, Speciale Invest, Peak XV (formerly Sequoia India and SEA), Mumbai Angels, Artha India Ventures and 9Unicorns, among others.
“The government and ISRO have been formulating policies to support startups in the space technology sector. On the one hand, ISRO is assisting private companies in expanding their launch capabilities, while on the other hand, in the sensing sector, a growing number of startups are developing advanced analytics. This is intensifying stakeholders’ interest in the ecosystem,” said Manish Singhal, founding partner, pi Ventures.
The Spacetech Boom: Key Custodians And Driving Factors
Set up in 1969, ISRO has been a top-ranking space research organisation in the public sector. Widely lauded for its successful missions, cost-effective solutions and willingness to collaborate with private entities, it has laid a robust foundation for the space industry and continues to create opportunities for digital-age spacetech startups.
But lately, India has found a surer footing in the global space race due to the government’s proactive policies and initiatives. The establishment of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center (IN-SPACe), a second nodal agency autonomously operating under the Department of Space (DoS), along with the Make in India move, has created a favourable environment for private sector involvement. These measures have also reduced bureaucratic hurdles and boosted investments in the spacetech sector.
More importantly, the rise of spacetech startups in the past decade has ushered in fresh perspectives, tech innovation and a competitive edge. Of course, critical all-private missions are no longer a novelty now, be it deep space observation and exploration, launching objects to different orbital levels or remote sensing and satellite data analytics for a wide range of industry segments – from defence to environment to disaster management, from agriculture and fish farming to telecommunication, infrastructure, maritime activities and more.
But before we explore how the nascent spacetech startups are navigating the next frontier with support and collaboration from the government and the private sector, here is a look at the key custodians of the Indian space industry.
While these custodians are steering the spacetech momentum, some of the key factors which are pushing the growth ahead in the ecosystem are:
Cost-Effective Innovation: Indian spacetech companies are famous for their cost-effective solutions based on frugal engineering principles. This cost-conscious approach not only attracts domestic clients but also positions these startups as formidable contenders in the international arena.
Global Collaborations: India has actively pursued collaborations with international space agencies and corporations to facilitate knowledge exchange, technology transfers and joint missions. To date, the country has inked co-operative arrangements with more than 65 countries.
Co-operative documents for equipment support have also been signed with international multilateral bodies like the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), the European Commission, the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), the European Space Agency (ESA) and South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). These partnerships grant access to cutting-edge technologies and global markets, thus boosting the local spacetech landscape.
Space Communication Policy, 2020: The policy aspires to address the nation’s expanding needs for space-based communications and the creation of pertinent technologies for self-sustenance in the fields of commercial, secure, and societal communications. This opens the door for local and global communication services markets.
Space Remote Sensing Policy Of India, 2020: The SpaceRS policy outlines a clear and comprehensive framework and details systematic procedures for obtaining government approvals to operate remote-sensing applications within India. The guidelines cover both upstream and downstream companies in satellite-based remote-sensing space for a thorough understanding of operational requirements. This will encourage stakeholders to actively participate in this field and further push the commercialisation of space technology.
For reference, the upstream sector broadly covers transportation, exploration, deep space observations, design and development of space components, subsystems, ground and space stations and more. The downstream sector includes the use of space technologies for satellite transmission services, Earth observation, navigation and satellite communication to enrich and simplify our everyday lives.
Indian Space Policy, 2023: The 2023 Indian Space Policy aims to establish a framework for integrating the private sector into the space industry, allowing ISRO to concentrate on advancing space technology through research and development. This policy is expected to bring much-needed transparency to space-related reforms and boost private sector involvement, thereby fostering the growth of the space economy in India.
The Rise Of Spacetech Startups In India
So far, the spacetech startups have seized every opportunity presented to them. One of their most notable contributions to India’s spacetech evolution has been in the development of small satellites.
Notable achievements include Skyroot, which became the first startup to successfully launch a rocket into space in November 2022, and Pixxel, the first Indian private startup to deploy its satellite, Shakuntala, into a low Earth orbit.
These startups are actively engaged in harnessing advancements in miniaturisation and cost-effective satellite manufacturing techniques. Additionally, they are pioneering reusability in the launch process and developing cutting-edge software and data analytics solutions.
These endeavours collectively play a pivotal role in driving innovation and expanding India’s presence in the realms of space exploration and satellite technology. At the same time, they have significant applications in areas such as agriculture, infrastructure and urban monitoring, weather prediction, climatetech, maritime activities and defence among others.
Further, the surging demand for satellite-based services across sectors such as telecommunications, agriculture, disaster management, defence, and navigation serves as a driving force for the spacetech ecosystem. Startups are capitalising on these opportunities, developing and deploying satellite constellations to meet diverse requirements effectively.
“Even though the space tech startups in the country are fairly nascent, we are extremely bullish about the opportunities in the coming few years. In the next 10 years, we will see ourselves exceeding a few other ecosystems,” said Awais Ahmed, CEO of Pixxel.
Global Spacetech Market: How Indian Startups Stack Up
Compared to other countries, India has very few operational satellites. These account for less than 1% (59+ or 0.9%) of the global total of 6K+. The US leads the pack with 67.1% (4,511+), followed by China (8.7% or 586+) and the UK (8.4% or 561+), according to Inc42’s latest report on spacetech ecosystem.
This is not surprising as very little private capital or gigantic government funding has come its way. In 2022, the country’s spacetech received only $1.93 Bn in government funding, starkly contrasting the US investment of $61.97 Bn and China’s investment of more than $11.94 Bn. Understandably, spacetech startups are still a nascent segment at home and require a lot of hand-holding in terms of growth capital, technology support and R&D.
However, Vishesh Rajaram, the managing partner at the Bengaluru-based Speciale Invest Fund, points out that ISRO, IN-SPACe and the more recent Indian Space Policy 2023 have established guidelines and support mechanisms for fledgling startups. These measures will help them to take part and make meaningful contributions to India’s expanding presence in the global space sector.
“According to IBEF estimates, India’s contribution to the global space economy stood at 2.1%, with a market value of $9.6 Bn in 2020. But management consulting firm Arthur D. Little expects India’s market share to surge to an impressive $100 Bn by 2040. Currently, India holds a 2% share in the global space economy, with projections anticipating 9% growth by 2030,” he added.
A quick look at the private initiatives further clarifies how Indian spacetech startups will fare in this new space race. They have specialised in launch vehicles and satellite deliveries for Earth observation programmes, mining and analysing data beamed by satellites, advanced communication systems and more.
Most of these products and services cater to downstream markets and remain outside the realm of the high-end upstream sector, including developments required for exploration, space stations, navigation systems and accessories. However, a paradigm shift in this market will not occur soon. Large-scale and innovative private enterprises (à la Elon Musk’s SpaceX) are still a far cry, as ISRO (and the Indian government) will remain the primary decision-maker for DoS.
This should not deter the Indian startups, though. Globally, there is a thriving downstream economy powered by low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. For instance, an analysis by Inc42 estimates that communication is poised to dominate India’s downstream market, with projections indicating it may surpass $30 Bn by 2030. It also estimates that the downstream sector can cover two-thirds of the current market opportunity and may amount to more than $52 Bn by that time. Concurrently, satellite launchers and thrusters are expected to capture the largest share of the upstream market opportunity.
Such developments can transform the spacetech arena and substantially contribute to India’s economic growth. The scope is bound to broaden, as the 2023 space policy specifies a shift in ISRO’s operations. As the national space agency will concentrate more on R&D in advanced technologies and transition out of developing operational space systems, this may pave the growth path for startups. They can undertake more critical and market-viable projects to move up the value chain.
Suyash Singh, founder of the Chennai-based spacetech startup GalaxEye that is building a multisensor imaging satellite for Earth observation, believes this area will also experience significant growth in the coming years. Also, with several startups focussing on satellite and launch vehicle development, adequate infrastructure will be in place in the next few years. He also emphasises the need to focus on more downstream efforts, especially in the Earth observation space.
Five Key Areas Where Space Startups Need A Liftoff
From the perspective of startups, one of the most significant challenges in the past was the need for a coherent policy framework. However, recent reforms signal a substantial shift, with the government displaying robust support and confidence in the private spacetech sector.
Despite the progress, early stage startups in India still face challenges unlike those in the US and the EU. For instance, obtaining grants, generating revenue and finding suitable contract mechanisms are significant hurdles that hinder their growth. The need for late and growth stage investors at home has further complicated the task of raising substantial funding within the country, as spacetech remains a sensitive sector.
Several essential measures must be taken to bolster new and existing startups across the ecosystem. For starters, it is imperative to set up more incubators and accelerators to support innovation and provide access to much-needed capital. If the government locally procures spacetech products and simplifies foreign direct investment (FDI), it will likely catapult spacetech startups to new heights.
As Pixxel CEO Ahmed aptly points out, there is a pressing need to foster the development of new technologies and simultaneously focus on commercialising spacetech services. These will entail local and global partnerships for R&D and public-private collaborations for new infrastructure development.
Here are the five key areas where stakeholders must channel their efforts to make a more substantial impact on India’s spacetech ecosystem:
Streamlined regulatory processes: Authorities need to simplify and streamline regulatory, licensing and approval procedures to boost the ease of doing business.
Production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme: India should introduce a space-focussed PLI scheme akin to the one for large-scale electronics manufacturing to level the playing field and encourage indigenous capability-building and procurement.
Collaborative initiatives: Enabling collaboration between the government, academia and the private sector will enable innovation and knowledge-sharing.
International partnerships: As India enjoys a unique geopolitical advantage (most US and EU-based ventures prefer this market instead of tapping into China), tying up with international space agencies and organisations will help showcase its expertise in the global arena and boost its market potential.
Infrastructure development: Developing new launch facilities, testing and integration centres, ground stations and additional infrastructure will make India one of the most competitive markets, and startups will benefit accordingly.
Simply put, creating an enabling environment for R&D, technology and business innovation is essential to foster progress in spacetech. Government and private entities must work together to raise awareness and drive innovation in this field. This involves more investments in education and training programmes, especially in systems engineering, aerospace engineering, satellite technology, data analytics and space law. After all, a skilled workforce dedicated to transforming the sector is critical for winning the new space race.
“By focussing on these critical areas, Indian stakeholders can nurture a more vibrant and sustainable spacetech ecosystem. It will contribute to economic growth, advance scientific knowledge and position the country to help realise its full potential in this domain,” said Pixxel’s Ahmed.
What Will Fuel India’s Next Space Odyssey
Going by ISRO’s robust Earth observation programmes, its success with upstream space exploration missions like Chandrayaan-3 and Aditya L-1 or its profitable legacy in the downstream domain, successfully followed and enhanced by spacetech startups, India is now well-positioned to spearhead the development of new technologies and applications.
Rajaram of Speciale Invest feels even more ambitious. He envisions the next generation of startups tackling increasingly complex challenges such as de-orbiting, in-space manufacturing and maintenance, and setting up space stations and colonies. Take, for example, InspeCity, an IIT-Bombay-incubated company with a vision to build space colonies and infrastructure while focussing on in-space maintenance in the short term.
But to achieve self-reliance and foster the growth of upstream companies, adequate hardware development should be the next big thing on the cards. Despite the cost and efforts, it will have two-way benefits, as downstream entities can leverage the high-end infrastructure and deliver more value to end-users.
Ahmed of Pixxel also expects a surge in spacetech startups entering the market and proving their capabilities. He anticipates significant contributions in areas like satellite manufacturing, ground services and satellite services, primarily due to the burgeoning demand for higher bandwidth and ultra-low latency data requirements.
Also, better and more unique datasets, including hyperspectral, thermal and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data, will experience greater growth than traditional multispectral/RGB imaging. Although deep space missions will continue to capture our attention, the focus is now shifting towards technologies that can ensure sustainability for the long haul. Not surprisingly, stakeholders expect India to deep dive into climate change, forestry and carbon-related use cases.
But India’s success in this industry must also be attributed to the spacetech startups’ innovative spirit and entrepreneurial drive. The milestones achieved by these young companies and their emphasis on both deeptech and utility apps are reshaping the country’s spacetech landscape.
With advancements in remote-sensing technologies, optimised use of satellite data, and a continued focus on indigenous satellites, communication systems and heavy-lift launch vehicles, Indian startups are ready to showcase their upstream and downstream expertise to the community worldwide and capture a bigger slice of the global space market, which is expected to reach a size of $1 Tn by 2030.
[Edited by Sanghamitra Mandal]