In this illustration strap-on motors getting separated from a PSLV rocket

It’s high time India’s commercial space enterprises grew out of ISRO’s towering shadow

by Arun Venkatraman

India's private space startups seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand is India’s national space agency ISRO, a behemoth whose contract doles provide vital sustenance to many startups. On the other is the increasingly commercialised side of this very same agency, which has now taken up a new and swanky commercial avatar as NewSpace India Ltd (NSIL), a somewhat indirect competitor-cum-contractor to the same startups.

Over the past few years, ISRO’s been involved in just about everything related to space in the country, from launching its heaviest satellite to building its smallest launch vehicle. However, this jack-of-all-trades act from the agency has left India’s space startups wondering where exactly they belong in the industry, particularly since the launch of NSIL in early March. It was no wonder then that there was some amount of palpable tension at last week’s ORF Kalpana Chawla Space Policy Dialogue as government representatives and space-entrepreneurs gathered under the same roof.

Looking Beyond ISRO

If there's one thing most Indian space startups are on the same page about, it's that their future would have to lie beyond ISRO and not within its influence. However, there was considerable disagreement on how this could be achieved. One of the first to fire a salvo was Honeywell Aerospace President Neelu Khatri, who argued that ISRO's opportunities for smaller players in the space sector are very restricted compared to larger national space programs, stifling the growth of private enterprise in the process.

When asked about the possibility of a for-private-by-private ecosystem for the space industry, Khatri, speaking at the sidelines of the event, said, "At this point, it seems very unlikely. Primarily because space is still a pretty unsure bet and startups need a significant amount of hand holding, which they’re not getting. I have personally spoken to several bankers and investors who say they would rather put their money in the retail sector than invest in space, despite the promise of big returns."

However, if it's support that Indian startups are looking for, there's enough of it to be found if they're open to looking beyond the country's borders, says Tom Segert, German entrepreneur and Director of Berlin Space Technologies. "Startups in other countries such as Germany have a distinct advantage because of access to funding. The key difference is that in Germany or in several other western countries, the universities play a very major and direct role in supporting new ventures, research, and technology."

Even if that isn't the case in India, it doesn't mean there isn't a way forward for Indian space startups, Segert adds. "There's no dearth of engineering talent or capability in the space sector in India and the only thing holding them back not looking beyond current opportunities."

Segert has been pushing his company’s vision of bringing 'Fordism' and mass manufacturing to the satellite industry and believes that’s where the future lies for Indian space startups too. "There are already several major companies that are talking about having their own constellations of 100-plus satellites. The day will soon come when big business in India will also have similar requirements."

The question then is if Indian startups will be ready for the challenge before then. "It seems rather unlikely if they don’t broaden their horizons," he weighs in.

Where Do The Opportunities Lie?

On the other hand, young pioneers like Narayan Prasad of SatSearch argue that there's only one question startups need to ask themselves: if they want to go for the moonshot or the low-hanging fruit. Prasad argues that opportunities for Indian space startups are aplenty at the moment, without even having to look to the future. In fact, he contends that entrepreneurs in India are sitting on a goldmine of opportunities that have little to do with ISRO.

"There is no dearth of opportunities if startups look in the right places," Prasad says. "Launching rockets and putting satellites in space is one thing, but it is important to connect it to the opportunities on the ground. There are a number of private arenas where satellite data is vital and extremely useful and that’s where Indian startups should be looking," explains the entrepreneur. Citing an example, he says, "Localised satellite data at farm level could be extremely useful for crop insurers when it comes to underwriting risk. One of the main reasons why insurance in agriculture hasn’t really taken off is the lack of data. A number of other industries too suffer from the same problem. Satellite technology could plug this essential gap by bringing in high-quality data."

Prasad's company SatSearch is already looking at selling such data to insurers on a subscription basis, and he says the demand definitely exists.

The Way Forward

ISRO’s commercial exploits might have gotten the startup industry flustered, but Berlin Space Technologies' Tom Segert believes that this push cannot be sustained and the mantle will ultimately fall to the shoulders of private industry. "The key difference to remember is that ISRO is the Indian Space 'Research' Organisation. Services such as manufacturing and providing data for end-user do not come under its mandate. That is why the future of Indian space industry will be private," he argues.

While startups in the space sector have already made giant strides in recent years — from launching their own satellites to developing new and novel technologies — the need of the hour according to industry experts is clarity, of where they stand and what ISRO's needs and ambitions are.

With India’s much-awaited space policy on the way, this might just be the shot-in-the-arm the Indian space startups need to finally liftoff.

The author is a science writer and student at the TATA Institute of Social Sciences