The proposal by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman to open up the ‘space’ sector to private players and link start-ups to atomic energy R&D has been broadly welcomed by private firms, especially small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
As part of the fourth tranche of the Rs 20 trillion economic package, Sitharaman said private firms are being given access to the space sector.
They would be allowed to use the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) facilities to improve their competencies. She also mentioned about atomic energy reforms, wherein the start-up ecosystem will be connected with the nuclear sector to develop synergy between tech entrepreneurs and research facilities.
“The Indian private sector will be a co-traveller in India’s space sector journey. We will provide a level-playing field for private companies in satellites, launches and space-based services,” Sitharaman said on Saturday.
Even though ISRO has been talking about allowing the private sector in its various missions and projects, it has so far seen limited success. Last year, for example, the space agency’s commercial arm NewSpace India had called for expressions of interest (EoI) from private players in the country to make five Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rockets. With missions such as Chandrayaan 3 and Gaganyaan in talks, this would not only mean tremendous business potential for the private sector but also an opportunity for end-to-end fully Made-in-India space technology, say experts.
“The initial thoughts are that this is for the first time something like this on the privatisation of space has come from such a top position in the government,” said Awais Ahmed, founder and CEO at space start-up Pixxel. “She spoke about the government’s intent and vision, which is a very good starting point, but it depends on execution.”
According to Rohan Ganapathy, founder-director of Bellatrix Aerospace, there is a lot of clarity that is needed. “It is a very good move by the government and a fresh take. But the devil is in the detail. We have to wait for the details, which will come in the following days,” he said.
He said that the government should also, while opening up the sector to private players, consider having a financing mechanism for smaller companies and start-ups which are not deep-pocketed like large conglomerates.
“I hope they consider creating an independent regulator who can conduct systematic reviews and reforms on a continuous basis rather than the ministry of finance or the Prime Minister's Office getting involved in every single decision," said Narayan Prasad, co-founder at Satsearch, a European Space Agency supported space start-up.
In the recent past, an increasing number of top space companies are emerging from India and have now gained interest from venture capital investors. In March this year, AgniKul, a start-up pioneering 3D printed single-piece rocket engines and building an orbital-class launch vehicle that can take small satellites to space, raised Rs 23.4 crore in a pre-series A round led by pi Ventures.
“This is for the first time that the government has shared a clear direction, after the space Bill that was put out for public review in November 2017,” said Srinath Ravichandran, co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO), AgniKul.
Vishwakumara Kayargadde, co-founder and chief operating officer, Saankhya Labs, said, measures such as allowing private firms to use ISRO facilities and other relevant assets will enhance corporate India’s involvement in the space sector journey. Saankhya Labs which has developed cutting edge software-defined radios-based Satellite Internet of Things systems, is already a strategic technology partner for ISRO’s S band satellite terminals.
According to reports, the global space industry has grown into a $350 billion market with many private players entering the sector. It is predicted that in 2022, more than 2,500 small satellites will be launched compared to less than 500 today.