Space tech start-ups need more government nurturing, resources

Published in the Indian Express on June 8, 2020

We must trust and support early-stage innovations through “adventure” capital, not just risk-averse venture capital. We also need “patient” capital, as the lead times are long in this sector.

On May 16, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a ground-breaking initiative by opening up space and atomic energy to private players, referring to them as “fellow travellers”. And, on May 30, history was created by SpaceX when NASA astronauts were launched into orbit by the first-ever commercially-built rocket and spacecraft. “NewSpace” is a rapidly growing market that will be worth hundreds of billions of dollars in the next decade. Can India take advantage?

The welcome reforms announced by the FM include the levelling of the playing field for private companies in satellites, launches and space-based services by introducing a predictable policy and regulatory environment to private players and providing access to geospatial data and facilities of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Many doors of opportunity are opening in this sector. Reportedly, more than 17,000 small satellites will be launched in Low Earth Orbit by 2030. Exciting Indian space-tech startups are emerging in this area.

For instance, Pixxel, founded by two BITS Pilani graduates, is building a constellation of nano-satellites to provide global, real-time and affordable satellite imagery services. Bengaluru-based startup, Bellatrix Aerospace offers novel “electric propulsion” systems, which have applications in the field of nano and micro-satellite propulsion. And Mumbai-based startup Manastu Space has developed a “green propulsion” system using hydrogen peroxide as fuel. So, what can we do to help such young “co-travellers”?

First, the crucial issue of funding. We must trust and support early-stage innovations through “adventure” capital, not just risk-averse venture capital. We also need “patient” capital, as the lead times are long in this sector.

The government can be the provider of such adventure and patient capital. It did so in 2000, when we at CSIR launched the New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative. CSIR gave very low-interest soft loans to early-stage startups, who explored radical ideas. After proof of concept, other financial instruments, including venture capital, became available. So, the public-private partnership that the FM is referring to should be in financing too, not just in development.

Second, startups need a head start in the market and the current public procurement system is heavily loaded against them. The lowest-cost-selection approach must change to lower total cost of ownership. Path Ahead: Transformative Ideas for India, edited by Amitabh Kant, carries my chapter on creating an innovative public procurement policy for startups. Perhaps, it is worth revisiting.

Third, we need to create a robust space tech-startup national innovation ecosystem comprising incubators, accelerators, scalerators and mentors. ISRO has a pivotal role in anchoring this initiative. Just as important will be the synergy with the government’s flagship programmes such as Digital India, Startup India, Make in India, Smart Cities Mission, etc.

Fourth, we urgently need a law that allows private players to participate across the space value chain, not just bits of it, as is the case today. The draft Space Activities Bill, introduced in 2017, has lapsed. This is an opportunity to rewrite it with a bold perspective.

Fifth, the nation needs a new mantra. On May 26, in an interview about actioning the recent initiatives announced by the finance minister, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, offered it. Referring to the principal idea from my recent book on the subject, he said that we must move our aspirations from leapfrogging to pole vaulting. Can India pole vault to a 10 per cent share of the global space economy within a decade?

Yes, we can. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given us an inspiring agenda of Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan. To achieve this, we need “aatmavishwas” — self-belief, and trust. If we build this atmavishwas with bold policies coupled with determined actions, then we can certainly pole vault to a great new future, and sooner rather than later.

This article first appeared in the print edition on June 3, 2020 under the title ‘A new frontier’. The writer is former DG, Council of Scientific & Industrial Research.