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Space tech: Can India breach new frontiers?

Apr 12, 2024 04:38 PM IST

The only other country that can match or beat the costs India offers in space tech is China, but the geopolitical situation is such that the world does not trust China

On the grand chessboard of global geopolitics, India, it appears, is making a bold move that signals the country’s intent to play and redefine the space tech game. The most immediate evidence of this is that Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is finally comfortable with private players in the arena. The promise is that in the longer term this will elevate the country’s role on the global stage.

The burgeoning private space sector in India tells a story of entrepreneurial spirit and innovation. (Representative file photo)
The burgeoning private space sector in India tells a story of entrepreneurial spirit and innovation. (Representative file photo)

Harish Mehta, co-founder of NASSCOM and author of the best-selling book ‘The Maverick Effect’ says, “Space tech has as much if not more potential than Information Technology (IT).” When he speaks about India’s cost advantage in this sector, he speaks not just as an author but also as the founder of Onward Technologies and as a member of the India Angel Network. “We are uniquely placed to build the lowest cost space stack,” Mehta reckons.

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The only other country that can match or beat the costs India offers in space tech is China, but the geopolitical situation is such that the world does not trust China.

The burgeoning private space sector in India, highlighted by the achievements of start-ups like Skyroot Aerospace and Agnikul Cosmos, tells a story of entrepreneurial spirit and innovation. Skyroot Aerospace’s Vikram series of launch vehicles and Agnikul’s customizable rocket engines are testaments to what can be achieved when ambition meets opportunity.

However, the lead of a Bengaluru-based private equity consortium sounds a word of caution: “Just when did space tech become the flavour of the season? Are investors getting into it because their peers are investing into space tech, or is there something else I am missing?” he asks. He hasn’t invested yet and is watching the space with caution.

Harish Mehta for his part acknowledges there are challenges to be dealt with. There are at least 100 space tech companies in India and as part of the IAN, he has personally sat through presentations made by at least 20 companies. The network has invested in two that includes Dhruva Space. He was not at liberty to disclose the name of the other entity, he said.

What Mehta would now like to see is “umbrella support come in from the government”. If it does, the Bengaluru-based PE investor says his scepticism “will go down significantly”. To place that in perspective look at how the Indian IT sector grew after the government collaborated actively with NASSCOM. This led to a deeper understanding of issues the ecosystem faced and the government could work to create conducive policies. Free Trade Agreements between 126 countries and easier immigration and emigration for workers allowed more seamless workflows. This is happening in biotech as well where the government is offering grants of up to 5 crore to promising start-ups.

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Such systems haven’t clicked in space tech yet. This is important because this industry offers Indian companies a chance to showcase their capabilities on the world stage. And when they do, it is inevitable that they will be exposed to the vagaries of international politics and market dynamics. In an era where technology and geopolitics are increasingly intertwined, India’s space ventures could become chess pieces in a larger geopolitical game, subject to the whims of international sanctions, trade wars, and diplomatic standoffs.

As any chess player knows, every strategic advantage comes with vulnerabilities. The inclusion of private players introduces a complex mosaic of regulatory challenges. How does one ensure that the cosmos, humanity’s shared heritage, remains a space for exploration and not exploitation? The answer lies in crafting policies that are as forward-looking as the technologies they seek to regulate, a task easier said than done.

A low-touch approach it adopted in IT and is now deploying in biotech is what space-tech needs.

And let’s not forget that in this grand chess game of space exploration, India is not just playing to win; it’s playing to change the game itself. That, in the final analysis, is the boldest move of all.

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