India's space startups ignite investor interest
Bengaluru-based Bellatrix Aerospace, which wants to propel satellites into orbit using electric and non-toxic chemical thrusters, has raised $3 million from a group of investors, co-founder Yashas Karanam said.
Meanwhile, Mumbai-based Kawa Space, which designs and operates earth observation satellites, has closed a seed round of an undisclosed amount, one of its investors, Vishesh Rajaram, managing partner at Speciale Invest, said.
Big leap in private space investments
Their fundraising represents a big leap in private space investments in India, a leading space power but where the government has enjoyed a near-monopoly for decades.
"No venture capital firm which does tech investments in India has invested an amount of this size in space technology before," said Narayan Prasad, co-founder of online space products marketplace Satsearch, referring to Bellatrix's funding.
Besides Bellatrix and Kawa, seven space technology companies in India are funded, according to startup data tracker Tracxn and interviews with investors.
Red hot opportunity
Here, small and cheaper satellites are snapping images used in everything from crop-monitoring and geology to defence and urban planning, bringing down costs and increasing the frequency of images.
India's space technology firms are part of a new breed of startups, and investors are paying attention, given the surging global interest in everything from space exploration to space vacations.
Satellite launches planned in the coming years worldwide give investors confidence in such companies, said Bellatrix investor Jatin Desai, whose Parampara Capital collaborated with lender IDFC to form IDFC Parampara.
"That gives us a large addressable potential market," Desai said.
Over 17,000 small satellites could be launched between 2018 and 2030, consulting firm Frost & Sullivan estimates.
"There is money to be made ... These are exciting times for lots of entrepreneurs," said Rajaram, whose Speciale Invest has bet on three space startups in India.
Long gestation period
Indian venture capital firms Maple Capital, Ideaspring Capital, Bharat Innovation Fund and 3one4 Capital, say they have held talks with space startups but are taking a wait-and-watch approach.
"The gestation period is long by the time you see returns," said Naganand Doraswamy, managing partner at Ideaspring, referring to the multiple stages of development, testing and government approvals involved in space missions.
Still, Indian firms are free to use ISRO's rockets or overseas launch services such as Elon Musk's SpaceX or New Zealand and Los Angeles-based Rocket Lab to send satellites to space.
Most Indian space startups are hopeful that parliament will pass a long-pending space law, which will give clarity on how private companies can operate in the sector.
The administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought suggestions from stakeholders for a draft Space Activities Bill, which it has said could "possibly" be introduced in parliament this year.
'This will be the future'
Bellatrix is not the only company racing to develop newer satellite propulsion systems, with at least three others overseas reportedly working on similar products.
The company says its systems are affordable, less toxic and much lighter, providing more room for payload on satellites. "This will be the future," co-founder Karanam said.
In pic: Bellatrix Aerospace CEO Rohan Ganapathy stands next to a vacuum chamber at their laboratory in Bengaluru.