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Space startups ignite investor interest

From companies building palm-sized satellites to those aiming to propel satellites into space using cleaner fuels, a new wave of space technology startups are mushrooming in India, catching the attention of investors keen to join the space race. Bengaluru-based Bellatrix Aerospace, which wants to propel satellites into orbit using electric and non-toxic chemical thrusters, has raised US $3 million from a group of investors, said co-founder Yashas Karanam.

Meanwhile, Mumbai-based Kawa Space, which designs and operates earth observation satellites, has closed a seed round of an undisclosed amount, said one of its investors, Vishesh Rajaram, managing partner at Speciale Invest.

Bellatrix and Kawa are two of over a dozen Indian startups developing satellites, rockets and related support systems which can power space missions serving a range of industries.

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, 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. Space technology is red hot thanks partly to activity happening 2,000 km (1,200 miles) above the earth in the low-earth orbit, much closer and easier to reach than the geostationary orbit where many communications satellites operate.

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.

In the past five years, some two dozen startups have grown into unicorns – companies with over US $1 billion valuations – most betting on India’s growing middle-class and the consumer boom at home. Indian 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. Over 17,000 small satellites could be launched between 2018 and 2030, consulting firm Frost & Sullivan estimates.

To be sure, investors aren’t opening the coffers for India’s space startups in large numbers just yet. 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. The state-run Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), currently preparing for its second lunar mission, has a monopoly on launching rockets in India.

Still, 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 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 government has sought suggestions from stakeholders for a draft Space Activities Bill, which could possibly be introduced in parliament this year. Reuters

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