India's startup space race quickens with 170 requests for approval

Pawan Goenka, the chairman of  IN-SPACe, says 50% more private space startups were incorporated in India last year than in 2021.
Pawan Goenka, the chairman of IN-SPACe, says 50% more private space startups were incorporated in India last year than in 2021.

Summary

IN-SPACe chairman says ‘large space companies’ will emerge from India’s private sector in the coming years.

NEW DELHI : Private space startups in India submitted 170 requests for approval to the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center (IN-SPACe) last year. Pawan Goenka, chairman of the government’s nodal space authorization agency, said that only 25-30 of these required the agency’s approval, and it has so far cleared five private space projects.

The most notable example of such approval is the launch of India’s first private space mission by Skyroot Aerospace, which launched its indigenously built Vikram-S rocket in a demonstration mission on 18 November. Goenka added that “large space companies" will emerge from India’s private sector in the coming years.

“In terms of the relative value of that company to India’s space sector, it would not be too different from the value of SpaceX to the US space sector. But don’t expect it overnight—space is an expensive enterprise and is something that takes time. Even SpaceX took its own time to get to where it is today," he said.

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He, however, warned that private space companies in India’s fledgling batch of private startups would not necessarily look to emulate the success of SpaceX, the world’s most prominent private space firm, but look at a wide variety of sectors that are necessary for the space sector.

“What will emerge as a large Indian space corporation may be different. SpaceX is more into launches of satellites. Indian space companies could emerge in different downstream sectors, such as space-based applications, or also offer ground stations and satellite services. The exact scope of the business is difficult to determine, but there certainly will be one," he said.

“In 2022, India’s most highly valued space startup was of the order of $200 million. Multiplying this valuation to a billion dollars before the end of this year is something that we would be happy to see," he said, noting that it’s hard to predict when such milestones will be achieved.

To be sure, India doesn’t have unicorns, or startups valued at $1 billion or more, in the space sector. According to data from researcher Tracxn on 17 November, Hyderabad-based Skyroot was the highest-valued private space startup in India — valued at $163.3 million after its $50.5 million Series A funding round in September 2022.

India’s satellite launch industry could be worth $13 billion by 2025, according to an October report from industry body Indian Space Association and consulting firm EY India.

2022 played a strong precursor to the private space sector, Goenka said, adding that 50% more private space startups were incorporated in India last year than in 2021. “Indian startups also received investments worth $110 million through 2022, without counting internal investments by large companies. This is nearly 8% of Isro’s budget, which clearly shows startups are beginning to make meaningful investments, and this number will only go up," he added.

He said the much-awaited space policy, as well as a fresh set of regulations for foreign direct investments for the space sector, are both expected this year.

“Currently, the FDI policy is restrictive, putting constraints on startups. There is a process for FDI approvals being framed, and this process has already been finalized between IN-SPACe, the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) and the Department of Space, ministry of science and technology. It is now with the Space Commission for approval," he said, clarifying that FDI will “not be part of the space policy" but will come as a standalone regulation.

According to Goenka, the policy will redefine the roles ISRO and IN-SPACe play in India’s space industry. It will also remove “almost all" restrictions currently imposed on the private sector.

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