Recently released Rocket Boys on Voot has been the greatest web series ever made on India’s brightest minds trying their bit to build India’s first indigenous rocket and eventually becoming the world’s top space organisation.
The web series has shown a disgruntled Homi who complains about India’s dependence on other countries for raw materials putting India’s space mission in a backseat.
Cut to 2022, India announces its launch of Chandrayaan-3 by August and has been established as one of the world’s best space organisations equipped with the brightest of scientific minds but the dependence on raw materials and electronics from external sources yet remains unsolved.
In 2019, India’s space agency planned to build and launched 17 homegrown satellites but managed to deliver only half due to a shortage of electronic parts. The absence of a robust homegrown electronics ecosystem is hurting the ambitious space targets by the ISRO that has lined more than 60 missions over the next five years. This brings two questions. Will partnering with space tech startups or private entities help ISRO to reduce dependence on imports and manage costs? Is it the right time for space tech startups?
Time for Indian space tech startups to take off
The greatest challenge lies in ISRO and the Department of Space not being willing to engage with private entities that leave the market dry for the Indian space tech startups to mushroom. According to Statista, the global space economy was pegged at $423.8 billion in 2019, which includes a range of activities involved in the researching, exploring, and utilization of space, whereas India despite having the most successful space missions contributes only 2 percent in the global space economy far behind USA and China. The two key reasons for India’s low contribution can be attributed to the lack of specific laws and effective monopoly of ISRO in overall space-related activities.
If we look at foreign space organisations or agencies, the private sector has played a pivotal role in the global space economy. Companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and Arianespace have disrupted the space sector by reducing costs and turnaround time with advanced technology, whereas in India the private players are limited to just being vendors for suppliers of instruments such as higher resolution cameras, SLVs, etc.
According to Statista, the global space economy was pegged at $423.8 billion in 2019, which includes a range of activities involved in the researching, exploring, and utilization of space.
What lies ahead for India’s space tech startups?
Space tech startups and ISRO can form a symbiotic relationship where ISRO can guide or help startups in various ways by either supplying subsystems or allowing the use of their infrastructure and facilities, to lend time on ground stations and even compliance. On the other hand, ISRO has about 500 domestic vendors for its mission and yet imports certain optics and semiconductors thus there lies a demand gap where space tech startups should foray. Associating or nurturing space tech startups will be highly beneficial for ISRO in the long run if the private players can produce these components and can take over the satellite and rocket production so that the space organisation can invest its time into core space research.
Moreover, other than restricted to space, the startups will find new avenues in satellites, sub-assemblies, electronic components, materials for domestic usage in sectors like agriculture, weather, communications, military, defence, banking, monitoring, geographic information systems, and surveillance. To encourage the growth of startups in space ISRO has opened its door to startups through the programme – Space Entrepreneurship & Enterprise Development (SEED). According to ISRO’s report the number of startups in the space sector increased to 47 in 2021 from 11 in 2019. From the funding front, the startups have raised $30 million in 2021 from less than $10 million in 2019 as per Equitymaster, thus ushering the pace of growth in the space sector in India.