Growing up, Sanjay Srikanth Nekkanti had wanted to be a pilot. But while studying for his bachelor’s degree in engineering in SRM University in Chennai, he was selected to be part of the team that built the first student nano satellite project in India. “That’s when I got interested in the space domain,” says Nekkanti, the 25-year-old CEO of India’s first private company to manufacture satellites, Dhruva Space. While building the satellite in college, Nekkanti and his team did a comparison between the cost of solutions in India and abroad, and realised that they could do it for a third of what it would cost in Europe. That planted the seed for the Bengaluru-headquartered start-up that is currently making two satellites, one a communication satellite for a client and the other an experimental satellite with multiple payloads, which are likely to be launched late this year or early next year.
The company is looking to build and launch small satellites in the 10-100 kg range which cost less, and have a much shorter turnaround time of around 18 months, compared to the 3-4 years that bigger space agencies take. This is due to the recent innovations in the space industry, which have brought down the cost of production, and the adoption of a model of frugal innovation, which has spurred many private companies abroad to venture into the field of small satellite manufacture. This new space industry is dominated by start-ups which use low-cost technology. “We can build a satellite with the same capabilities as a big satellite, but at a fraction of the cost,” says Abhishek Raju, chief strategy officer of the company.
In line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make In India’ campaign, Dhruva Space is also collaborating with a foreign company to formulate a proposal to set up a satellite manufacturing facility in India and hopes to make a formal proposal to the government by the end of February.
Although Nekkanti and his team had built a satellite successfully in college, he couldn’t immediately launch his venture. “Back then, I was just an undergraduate and it was unlikely that I would have been taken seriously,” he says. He also needed a team to work with and nobody was willing to take the risk of launching a start-up to manufacture satellites at that point, so he decided to go to Europe to do his Masters. It was while doing his Masters in space science and technology as part of the multi-university Erasmus Mundus programme that he met Dhruva Space co-founder Narayan Prasad, a mechanical engineer.
On a shoestring budget
Like India’s Mars mission, which won global accolades for keeping costs low, Dhruva Space also follows the model of frugal innovation, starting from keeping the office as lean as possible. “To use a colloquial term, we use a lot of jugaad,” says Raju. This includes using a lot of 3D printing, replacing space grade components with commercial grade components that cost one-tenth after extensive testing, and reusing and re-engineering components wherever possible.
Their company is also the only small satellite manufacturer that is completely bootstrapped, adds Raju, laughing. “We are trying to prove our hypothesis that space need not be expensive, and a lot of frugal innovation is possible.” Nekkanti adds that when they had approached investors initially, they were told that it was a completely new domain and were asked a lot of questions to which they did not have answers back then. But they still wanted to go ahead, so they used the savings they had from working abroad. Now, having managed to get a client in the first two years of operations, they can finance operations through revenues, rather than their own pockets.
Apart from satellites, the company has also pioneered a high-altitude ballooning platform, which is currently being used by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics for experiments and observation. The platform can go up to an altitude of 40 kilometres which is close to the edge of the stratosphere. (To put this in perspective, commercial flights usually fly at an altitude of 10-11 kilometres.) Dhruva is also keen on planning to build the country’s first indigenous automatic identification systems to track ships on the high seas.
The company does not view itself as a rival to ISRO, says Raju. “ISRO satellites have a much longer life expectancy of around eight years, while ours will be around three years. And their clientele will be different. We share a lot of information with them from time to time, and they are our mentors in a very informal way,” he says.
Asked when the company would break even or generate profit, Nekkanti admitted that this was a tough question. “Our aim is to have a constellation of satellites in orbit and we have taken a very small step towards this big vision,” he says. The company’s ultimate goal is to be able to provide real-time data through its network of satellites, whether it is monitoring a natural disaster or crop patterns, which is where the bulk of the revenue would come from.
The biggest challenge to the company is policy, or rather the lack of one, geared towards the private space industry, since it has so far been dominated by ISRO. “We need to convince the government to create policies to include smaller companies like us and integrate us into the ecosystem,” says Raju. Dhruva also expects more such start-ups to come into being, provided policies are changed accordingly.
In the long term, Dhruva Space also wants to spin off its outreach arm into a separate university, which would design a curriculum for advanced courses, and also create manpower for the industry, which is currently a challenge. “We are in this for the long run,” Raju adds.