Narayan Prasad

Engaging India's NewSpace

An Open Letter to ISRO Chief K. Sivan on Promoting STEM Education in India

K. Sivan
Chairman, Indian Space Research Organisation

As the premier research establishment in the country, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has done a great job of creating technological capacity in an area as critical as space. ISRO’s rockets, missions to the Moon and Mars and applications tailored to cater to the problems of humans and society are all laudable.

Today, there is a growing inequality in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in India. In the 21st century, we need our children to learn certain skills and design-based learning to spur curiosity and innovation. There is also a conspicuous issue of lack of resources to invest in building teaching capacity and creating experiment-based hands-on learning environments at the grassroots level, and this affects the quality of graduates in India.

ISRO has been the most successful public-sector innovator in the country. It has a responsibility to foster the scientific temper in schools and colleges. While the organisation has been conducting several outreach-related initiatives, including competitions held at various ISRO centres, supporting student satellite missions, etc., there is no overarching roadmap towards nurturing STEM in India as such.

I take this opportunity to present to you a few areas where ISRO can provide a foundation to inspire millions of students across India.

Upgrading restricted access museums to open-access public laboratories

ISRO has museums in each of its major centres – such as the Satellite Assembly Centre (ISAC), the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), the Satish Dhawan Space Centre (SDSC), etc. However, access to these museums – excluding the one at the SAC – are restricted because they are within ISRO campuses (which have security protocols). So moving these museums into a restriction-free zone will allow the general public to visit them more often.

Such a template already exists in the country, with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited having created a museum in Bengaluru with access to various aircraft, helicopter and engine models, flight simulators, a mock air traffic control tower and an exhibit focusing on of India’s aviation history.

Another template is the ‘School Labs’ initiative taken up by the German Space Agency. It offers young people an opportunity to learn about its operations, the work of its scientists and experiments being conducted under various projects.

Such an initiative by ISRO in its various centres in the country will help inspire the next generation of scientists by showcasing its state-of-the-art equipment, often of the kind schools generally don’t have. A visit to such a lab could supplement classroom lessons and help translate theoretical knowledge to its practical counterpart. If school students become fascinated, it will surely make STEM disciplines more desirable among young people in the country.

A physical storefront at these labs, together with an online store, will also help: they could manufacture and sell low-cost models of rockets, satellites and other merchandise to spread the word on ISRO’s role in our society.

Social media engagement

One of the highlights of the Mars Orbiter Mission (MoM) in 2014 that caught the people’s imagination was the live social media outreach. There was even a conversation between members of the team responsible for NASA’s Curiosity rover and those from MoM that went viral. But today, the outreach seems limited to general announcements issued by the organisation.

Given the growing influence of social media on young people, we need to create a social media strategy for STEM outreach, and there is no better institution in the country than ISRO that can carry this baton forward. ISRO’s peers, such as NASA and ESA, have also set up dedicated television channels and YouTube playlists, apart from being active on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., to promote space applications. I hope that under your leadership, ISRO will finally create an institutional strategy for outreach via the social media.

Viewing launches at SHAR

I recently had a chance to view a launch from the ISRO launchpad at Sriharikota. It was a splendid experience. However, the process of securing a viewer’s pass was anything but. In the time of ‘Digital India’, ISRO needs to consider providing access to view launches at the Sriharikota High Altitude Range through an online booking system functioning on a first-come-first-served basis. This way, the burden on employees within ISRO (whom people approach for the passes) will be reduced; more importantly, people could also undergo a hassle-free online identity verification process to gain access.

Internships and doctoral programmes at ISRO centres

There are no standardised tracks at the moment to invite interns to work at ISRO, and undergraduate students trying for such opportunities from the outside find it very difficult to break through. Some forms of nepotism are also not unheard of; consider this answer to a question on Quora by an ISRO scientist: “Generally relatives of ISRO employees and/or the local students (same state in which the centre is situated) are preferred.” Formally soliciting applications via an institutionalised process can help provide equal opportunities to students around the country.

Similarly, one of the other problems that Indian higher education has been grappling with is the value and volume of doctoral research. While the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) does provide some opportunities, joint initiatives with premier academic institutes (such as the IITs, NITs, IISERs, IIMs, etc.) for PhDs with a focus on space can help to, among other things, create spin-offs, technology transfers, etc.

In sum, ISRO is a homegrown Indian success story often literally pushing against the edges of our universe, inspiring millions of people. So I hope that, under your leadership, it can expand its contributions to kindling more interest in STEM research in the country.


This article first appeared on The Wire

Time for India to Consider a Special Track for Space Startup Incubation

Believe it or not, today, there are over a thousand startups focusing on space around the world. Yet we only see a handful of startups emerge out of India even though we live in one of the only emerging global powers that has the ability to build, launch, operate and use satellites and rockets. With a network of possibly 500 small-and medium-scale enterprises (SMEs) supporting India’s space activities, the country’s share of these space startups is less than 1%.

The most notable startups in India today include TeamIndus (aiming to land a rover on the Moon as part of the Google Lunar XPrize), Astrome Technologies (developing satellite-based broadband) and Bellatrix Aerospace (developing thrusters with a vision to eventually develop their own launch vehicle). Apart from these, there are ventures that are using space data – such as SatSure – or developing services around education – such as Rocketeers – to help develop the local space industry ecosystem in India.

The equation for retaining high-skilled jobs is pretty simple. If we cannot build a sustained and scalable space-based economy rallying around startups, we will not be able to support the retention of local-high skilled talent. After all, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is limited by its budget and can only hire a few hundred engineers/scientists every year.

Unlike the ones in tech, space startups take anywhere between five and seven years to really mature into something valuable to the market and it is well recognised that investors need to be more patient towards their investments in space than others. Exits may easily take over ten years. To date, there is no institutional investor who has invested in space startups in India and the only participants so far in providing some support to startups are high-net-worth individuals who want to actively support the development of a local Indian space startup ecosystem.

Isn’t it strange that in a country that spends over a billion dollars in space activities every year, and can reach the extents of Moon and Mars, has no specific support programmes in its mission to encourage the incubation of startups? But then how did we have 125 firms participate in building space and ground systems used by ISRO?

The answer is quite simple. In the 1970s, there was a concerted effort under the then leadership of professor Satish Dhawan as the then chairman of ISRO to develop a private industry ecosystem in India via technology transfers.

2010 paper by Antrix Corporation talks about how technology transfer allowed SMEs in the country to gain critical knowledge on the development of space subsystems and materials such as solid propellants, battery cells, etc. ISRO assured buybacks from the SMEs that invested into the effort on meeting the organisation’s quality and reliability requirements.

This policy instituted development of an SME base that today supplies to missions such as Mangalyaan. Such encouragement has also made way for tremendous developments in spin-off benefits by the technology created for space being used on the ground in other allied industries. Examples include using dry powders for extinguishing fires, use of automatic weather stations, etc.

Therefore, the foundation laid back then has led to ISRO trusting the local Indian industry in the development of its recent navigation satellite via a private industry consortium and charting a roadmap to develop its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) via an industry joint venture by 2020.

The question is: how can we accelerate the development of a space start-up ecosystem in India? How can we re-create steps taken in the 1970s to build an SME base in order to create a ‘Space 2.0’ where home-grown Indian space startups backed by ISRO’s support can not only cater to requirements within the country but can start competing globally?

Not to forget, the market within India itself is virginal for many space-based services today. For example, satellite-based broadband can provide connectivity to a potential 750 million users in rural India who to date remain unconnected. This in itself is a multi-billion-dollar market that has the potential to be tapped.

ISRO’s peers such as the European Space Agency recently celebrated incubating its 500th startup and NASA provides opportunities to startups via its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer programmes. Luxembourg has committed to €200 million (Rs 1,500 crore) in funding for early-stage space ventures.

In an attempt to encourage space startups post Brexit, the UK has invested in the development of 15 space startup clusters and plans to grow its space industry to control 10% of the global market by 2030. Similarly, France has invested into building Aerospace Valley in Toulouse. It has been positioned as a competitiveness cluster for aeronautics, space and embedded systems which today employs 1,24,000, striving to create an ambitious 35-40,000 new jobs by the year 2025.

Even a country like China – which has traditionally operated in an all government fashion – has formally announced it would allow private companies to build and launch satellites in 2014, unleashing a flood of Chinese entrepreneurs looking to tap into the $400 billion global satellite industry. This has led to several Chinese companies raising startup investments in the millions to compete globally. Link Space recently unveiled a design for a reusable rocket and wants to be able to compete with the likes of Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

From an Indian space startup ecosystem development perspective, we already have technical excellence centres of ISRO in production of spacecraft (ISAC in Bangalore), technologies for launch (VSSC and LPSC in Trivandrum), key payload development capabilities (SAC Ahmedabad) and space data applications (NRSC in Hyderabad), which can be utilised as launch pads to support kicking off space startups.

By creating an incubation programme, startup ideas that are complementary to ISRO’s roadmap of technologies and capabilities can be encouraged so that we catalyse the space-based technology and services creation in the country. A template based on a mix of practices by ESA (such as the creation of Business Incubation Centers around ESA technical centres), NASA’s funding practices of choosing based on the pool of ideas submitted under the SBIR can be adopted by ISRO to catalyse India’s space start-up ecosystem. The participation of ISRO in encouraging space startups will provide confidence to local institutional and foreign investors to add fuel to fire.

Today, India’s share of the global $400 billion space market may be less than 0.01%. The most prominent space company out of India in the global space market today is the wholly-owned government of India company Antrix Corporation that has recent revenues of about $290 million. Development of a space startup ecosystem can further provide traction for initiatives such as Digital India, Make in India (programmes in which space sector has a big stake) and encourage local institutional investment, foreign direct investment, the creation of joint ventures, merger and acquisitions and public listings as the ecosystem matures.

India has a potential of creating a $10 billion+ independent space-based economy, employing 100,000+ high skilled engineers and scientists by 2025. For this to happen, India needs to consider putting together a space startup incubation programme as a building block of a strong space startup ecosystem that can drive the development of a modern space-based economy.


This article first appeared on The Wire.

Why is NewSpace important for India?

NewSpace is a movement of space entrepreneurs investing/getting backing private capital to create space products and services which are primarily targeted at B2B, B2C markets. This is different from traditional folks who target government mostly as their customer and try to hold the government as an anchor customer for them to kick-off and run their business.

The NewSpace India team has been a part of a new crowdsourced venture on tracking NewSpace companies around the world. HERE is an archive of 100s of NewSpace companies being tracked with different verticals (launch, satellite, analytics, etc.) across different geographies. Today there is evidence that there are more than 1000 NewSpace companies around the globe that have been kicked-off in the last 10 years.

One needs to reflect the overall global NewSpace ecosystem from that of India. This is extremely important since several of the new satellite-based services such as the internet from LEO satellites, IoT/M2M connectivity, satellite big-data analytics platforms shall expand the space economy and Indian companies need to carve out a niche for themselves. Today, there is some movement in Indian NewSpace community with several new start-ups trying to create their own niche in upstream and downstream.

There are significant opportunities for these NewSpace companies to target new technology niches which complement the capabilities and interests of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). ISRO currently has no evident roadmap in creating services such as internet based on LEO satellites, IoT/M2M services, satellite big-data analytics.

There are several things needed in shaping this community of complementarities. Creating a Business Incubation Programme that is start-up-ISRO complimentary is one of foundation of beginning this. One of the other core problems to tackle is the need for financing via private capital for these start-ups to accelerate. There is a need to diversify current regulatory framework and create frameworks and policy environments that are needed to attract larger investment from both Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and local institutional investors.

Such fundamental shifts in steps of ecosystem creation shall form the foundation for the many more NewSpace start-ups to emerge out of India.

Why won’t there be a SpaceX in India, unless…

Many of us dream of becoming astronauts who reach out for the stars when we are young despite India not having a human space programme. As we grow up, we start to live up to the expectations of our society and make our ends meet by not chasing such wild dreams rather shaping our talent to contribute to the upcoming opportunities by taking jobs in the government or the private sector or by being academics. There are some who achieve their dreams of working in the space sector and join ISRO as scientists and engineers.

However, there are some who continue on to dream about reaching for the stars much like the way they dreamt in their childhood and take risks in chasing it. Over the last few years, we are witnessing the emergence of NewSpace in India with a vision to build world-class enterprises that do business built on top of developing space assets. Many of these NewSpace companies are built on the inspiration of being able to build a company like SpaceX from India that can match in the spirit of saying not only we have a space agency that is as good as any other premier space agency in the world, but we will build enterprises that will be as good if not better. This is a moonshot but one that matches the growing spirit of entrepreneurship in India. However, what makes a SpaceX?

Unlike many other technology sectors, space is one which needs a tremendous amount of skill, investment, and support to reach a level of fruition in the marketplace to provide substantial returns. If you try to understand how enterprises succeed in the space sector, it’s a mix of several important aspects of an ecosystem. A SpaceX happens because there is not only a vision of an Elon Musk standing by but because there are people who buy into the vision in different quarters, be it the governmental agencies, regulatory authorities, financial investors, etc.

When SpaceX says, we are going to make rockets cheap, they are not just saying we are going to make rockets cheap just for the Americans. It is for the whole world that is exploring space. This is one of the key differentiators of how our vision in India has historically aligned against the one that needs to change now. Yes, we were a country that did not have the means to invest into fancy adventures of walking on the Moon, but we did really well for ourselves by investing early into space for reaping the benefits of space exploration for our society. We ran and continue to run programmes in teleeducation, telemedicine, mapping of resources and even became the first nation in the world to send a spacecraft to Mars at the first instant. However, we are shy to think of a big question. Will we just focus on having limiting ourselves to sorting out needs of our local market or will we build an ecosystem that will take the fruits of investing in space for more than five decades and turn it around to build products and services that can be sold to the world attaching the brand value of Mangalyaan?

Some may say, well we already sell rocket slots and launch many foreign satellites. Remember, space is a $300b market and we don’t come close to even occupying 0.1% of this market in the world. Why? Because the government cannot chase an international market opportunity and ignore the needs of its own society. Recently, the Chairman ISRO said that we have about 34 satellites and need to increase it to about 70-74 to cater to all the needs of the country. Which really means, that ISRO doesn’t really have the bandwidth to stop working on such requirements and jump ship to building international businesses. Therefore, the real opportunity is for people who will dare to build on the fundamentals of our space programme and effectively build products and services for the entire globe with business models that are scalable and sustainable. Now the question is what stands between now and this possible future?

To answer this question, we will have to go back and again review how SpaceX happened to be. We all only tend to remember the great things that happened such as the SpaceX delivering cargo to the ISS or recently landing on a barge. However, what we probably don’t think about in our part of the world is how NASA trusted SpaceX and supported its emergence by providing launch contracts despite its initial launch failures. One of the great lessons is to not only accept failure and providing an opportunity to succeed in the future but is in the leadership of enabling a young brigade to build for the future. Remember, NASA has built and flown all the rockets that humans could imagine. However, someone there said, if we enable these NewSpace folks, and provide them with an opportunity we will see disruption happening not just locally but in the entire world market. And so it did.

SpaceX is not just a story of getting support from a governmental space agency, it’s also a story of being supported by investors who pumped in millions of dollars into a dream of technology disruption. Remember when SpaceX was founded? It was in June of 2002. Which means for the Earth shaking landing of the rocket that SpaceX did on the barge, it took a solid 13-year journey of investments. How did it survive? Yes, Elon was already a millionaire and he did put his millions into SpaceX. But he also had an ecosystem of people in the financial world to ride together into this risk with investor such as Founders Fund, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, putting in their millions to back such a risky venture. So essentially SpaceX happened because they were investors who bought into the long-term vision and saw that such an enterprise doesn’t look at exiting option in 3 years. FYI, it took SpaceX 6 years to come through with its first successful launch after 3 failed launch attempts and having one last rocket left. That was how close SpaceX got to being bankrupt without launch contract from NASA. Finally, when the fourth rocket was successful came the time when NASA itself put in $400–500M with most of that as progress payments on launch contracts.

Therefore, while we India have witnessed a great big number of startups in tech space being invested in with millions of dollars, does anyone around recollect any high-tech company with elements of hardware and software combined with a longer term vision with a disruptive international market focus being invested in? Probably not. Because chances are there are none. Therefore, it is not sufficient for just a bunch of people with passion and skill to come together, it is really important for financial investors to also take a stand on such enterprises. Chances are very much that most of the financial investors in this country do not understand high-tech and cannot make a confident enough assessment, or do not want to stay invested in a company that will say I have arrived only after 8-10 years. We can’t afford to categorically judge or brand such an investment scenario. We probably would have done the same in their positions, given the risk. Sometimes, it probably is just a one-off event that can change everything and we are yet to see that here in India.

Now, let us assume that we have an investor ready to invest despite all risks, a team and technology focus that have the vision to disrupt not only the local market but bring about a change in the way the world look at Indian startups (of mostly being copycats of successful companies). We may be completely unprepared for NewSpace in India because there are no ground rules for any of the enterprises to work on a product or a service that can be offered internationally. Just imagine a team of young enthusiastic people saying we’ll build a sounding rocket today and test it tomorrow and eventually want to build a launch vehicle. How many eyebrows do you think they will raise?

Chances are that every NewSpace company will get hit by words such as spectrum, remote sensing data, clearances from multiple government stakeholders because of the perceived sensitivity of the product or service. This is definitely not to say that this is rubbish. Their qualms are very necessary. However, growing up to handle these issues and growing out to enable growth is what is missing. The US is in a position of world leadership in space not just because of NASA landing astronauts on the Moon, but for the policy makers taking an interest of growing space as a business and being second to none in commercializing space. These important gaps in regulatory framework make it very difficult for NewSpace to happen in India.

Making NewSpace happen in India will be very much like trying to synchronize musical instruments with the founders of the companies being lone center stage orchestrators. The output of non-synchronization is not only bad for the performers; it has an even worse effect on the audience (customers). Therefore, it is not enough to have a qualification and a dream team to make a space enterprise happen. It is not enough for people with bucket loads of money to trust in this team that is aiming at the way we exploit space. It only happens when we all trust each other and synchronize to play the perfect tune that brings a queue tomorrow waiting. We are at a time when this orchestra needs to practice before it performs on the world stage.

So what can we do? Let’s learn from one of the biggest independent successes of our generation in the private industry and apply it to the world. The IT world did not succeed because their first biggest customers were banks or the government in India. They did because they used their talents and resources to reach out to the globe with their solutions and optimized their functioning to the best of their ability, regardless of the ecosystem in India. Space might very well be where IT was at its early 90s in India.

This is the time to collaborate locally and globally to build great space products and services not just for India but for the world itself. Remember, collaborations may not just be technological, but in solving the problems of financing and regulatory frameworks working with global investors and a network of space lawyers.

5 years from now we can achieve providing excellent connectivity to the corners of the remotest villages, 10 years from now we can demonstrate carbon nanotube based propulsion and power production, 15 years from now we may have satellites generating clean energy using space solar power. Let me finish by recalling Dr. Kalam’s forecast that ‘The future generations will look at the Earth, the Moon, and the Mars as a single economic and strategic entity’. A NewSpace revolution awaits us.