Indian private space ecosystem needs to leapfrog to get ahead of other countries, say experts

At TechSparks 2021, stakeholders from the spacetech ecosystem explained that ISRO's work may have made India one of the top countries in the space sector, but the private spacetech ecosystem is lagging as compared to other countries.
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Spacetech in India has come a long way. India’s rocket science began its historical journey on a bicycle and a bullock cart way back in 1963 when Dr Vikram Sarabhai, along with his colleagues including Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, built NASA’s Nike-Apache sounding rocket in India and launched it from a village called Thumba in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

In 2020, the Indian spacetech sector saw another milestone as the central government opened up the space sector for private players.

Speaking at YourStory’s flagship startup-tech event TechSparks 2021, Awais Ahmed, Founder and CEO, Pixxel, said, India is one of the top countries in the space segment thanks to ISRO. However, this is from the public space technology standpoint.

“Whenever you talk about space technology missions, ISRO is there in the top three or four. So that has been the work in the past five or six decades. But where we are lacking is that our private spacetech industry is five to 10 years behind some countries in certain areas. Look at the US, with its proliferation of launch companies, or even Europe, which is coming up with many space debris companies and others. China, which started later in 2015, now has multiple private companies doing launches and their own satellites.” 

“We see that lacking because predominantly that support didn't come in from the government or the policy side. However, with the announcement last year this is something that is a priority for the government as well as to make sure it is privatised,” he said.

However, Awais said the Indian space ecosystem will now need to leapfrog other countries instead of doing similar linear things. Otherwise, India might continue to stay behind.

According to him, this feat can be achieved by catalysing the startups in the country.

TechSparks 2021

Startup opportunity in space

The opening up of the space sector in India is aimed at increasing private space missions and expanding India’s contribution in the global space economy.

The government also launched the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), an extension of ISRO, which is aimed at including private players in space-related activities. These new reforms and establishment of IN-SPACe are aimed at increasing India’s share to at least 10 percent in the global space economy.

Srinath Ravichandran, Co-founder and CEO of launch-vehicle startup Agnikul,  said the opening up of the space sector would ensure credibility.

“Now, you can actually build something out of India and claim that you are going to actually do it for real, as opposed to having a gray area about whether the government will allow you or if there will be support from the country. That translates to multiple levels of the second level of credibility. For example, more people who are trying to build careers here in India would like to join startups or private players doing spacetech.

"Investors who are actually looking at the sector are not going to be scared because there is some gray area in the policy level. You also have large suppliers actually willing to support even smaller companies, because they know that there is a vision that is coming all the way from the government.” 

“It is good for everyone here; it is good for the entire nation actually because we are opening up in a real way and we are getting the government's validation for that as well,” he said.

Earlier, in October, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Indian Space Association (ISpA), a premier industry association of space and satellite companies, which has been created to act as the collective voice of the Indian space industry.

During the launch, Prime Minister Modi said the “space sector is a major medium for the progress of 130 crore countrymen”.

With private players entering the market and developing new use cases for space technology, the sector is now gaining interest from investors. 

Earlier this year, Agnikul Cosmos and Skyroot Aerospace announced they had raised $11 million in their Series A funding round, the most raised in a single deal by Indian private space sector operators to date. This followed the $7.3 million seed funding round raised by small satellite startup Pixxel in March this year.

Most recently, Dhruva Space raised Rs 22 crore led by IAN Fund and Blue Ashva Capital.

Applications for spacetech services

Talking about applications, Srinath explained that space to date might not have been considered by individuals for solving day-to-day problems. But now, with the opening up of the space sector and increase space data, people will find use cases to use the data to solve problems.

The opening up of spacetech will ensure increase in private and commercial space missions, which means increased availability of satellite data to solve problems, especially in sectors such as communications, transportation, agriculture, and disaster management.

Bengaluru-based spacetech startup Pixxel is currently building the highest resolution hyperspectral satellite constellation, which will provide high-quality images of the planet. These images can be used for agricultural, disaster management, identifying gas or oil leakages, among others.

Currently, there are three forms of imaging -- RGB, multispectral, and hyperspectral. RGB includes three wavelengths using which humans can see while multispectral includes some wavelengths from the infrared range. 

“Hyperspectral enables us to capture information in hundreds of wavelengths across the entire visible infrared image. So, instead of just seeing how the crop is doing, the hundreds of bands (wavelengths) now tell us how the soil health is, which crop we are looking at, whether the irrigation level is adequate or not.

"Some of those bands can identify natural gas or oil leakages, which we can't see with our eyes. So that is the difference between what's up there today, which is predominantly multispectral at RGB, and then what we tend to do with hyperspectral,” he said. 

Mapping services company MapmyIndia earlier this year announced its partnership with ISRO to offer fully indigenous mapping portal and geospatial services by combining the power of MapMyIndia’s digital maps and technologies with ISRO’s catalogue of satellite imagery and earth observation data.

“Coming to the use cases (of spacetech services), they are enormous, like it starts and ends with almost all everything that we do, see, perceive, and deal with in the real world, whether it is something like emergency response, urban planning & development, and agriculture, among others.

"For the mapping ecosystem, which is a direct beneficiary where we get real-time consistent information from satellites, the Indian market size is pretty much small right now at $8 to $9 billion, and globally it is about 10X of this. But given all this information, you could probably leapfrog that to even more as market size. So that's what we are looking at,” said Ankeet Bhat, Chief Strategy Officer, MapMyIndia.


For a line-up of all the action-packed sessions at YourStory's flagship startup-tech conference, check out the TechSparks 2021 website.

Edited by Megha Reddy

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