In December 2018, Mumbai-based Exseed Space created nothing short of history by being the first private commercial organisation in the country to launch a satellite in space via Elon Musk-led SpaceX.
The company, now rechristened Satellize, did what was considered unthinkable at one time - slashing down the cost of building a satellite. So, while earlier satellites would cost Rs 1,000 crore each to build and launch, Satellize's technology brought this down to under Rs 10 crore each. “These make them radically affordable both for the private and public sectors,” says Mahesh Murthy, Founder & Director, Satellize.
The company has an interesting story behind how it all started. Mahesh Murthy and Asshar Farhan, the founders of Satellize, go back a long way. They first met as quizzers and debaters while at rival schools in the year 1980 in Hyderabad where bonding over steaming cups of Irani Chai only seemed natural. 15 years ago, a company that Farhan co-founded was acquired by Geodesic, a company that Murthy had co-founded.
Flashback then to five years ago when Murthy and Farhan jointly mentored a space startup called Dhruva Space. After the government’s Electronics Development Fund contacted Murthy in 2017, he called Farhan and a brainstorming session on a fund for space followed soon enough.
“We believed it might be a hard sell to raise a fund focused around space back then - and decided to do a startup to prove the point that world class space startups can be built in India. One of the first things we did was to acquire the assets of Dhruva Space and kick off Satellize in 2017,” he recalls.
The founders’ vision was to become a leader in spacecraft manufacturing. Satellize claims to build satellites that offer high performance at radically lower costs. “We have launched two already and are the only Indian firm to do so. Moreover, we have experience launching on both SpaceX and ISRO platforms. No other company in Asia has either,” asserts Murthy. Companies, he says, tend to buy them in constellations of dozens each. ISRO is a world leader in launching them with a market share of over 30%.
The founders draw attention to how what was once being achieved through large satellites at phenomenally high costs can today be made possible via nanosatellites. And they can do it all - earth observation, remote sensing, optical imaging and communication - at highly reduced costs.
“India has over 150,000 trained people with hands-on space expertise - except there was no private space industry in India that existed earlier. Specifically, no one was making nanosatellites, one of the fastest-growing parts of this sector. The world is moving towards smaller, more affordable satellites called nanosatellites about the size of a few coffee cups,” reveals Murthy.
Their satellites are beneficial for imaging, communication and other data gathering purposes. A range of use cases such as helping detect diseases on farms and increasing crop yields; monitoring road and infrastructure construction; helping cities govern themselves better and detect intruders via sea, forest or land; picking up distress calls of teams in remote mountainous areas for search and rescue operations are possible via Satellize. “We have partners within and outside the group who help us offer customers the entire solution from one single source - from payload manufacturing, satellite assembly and rocket launches, to ground station coverage, data analysis and insight sharing,” he highlights.
The India opportunity ::
The opportunity for India is waiting to be tapped and a space strategy can be a gamechanger for both government and private companies, feels Murthy. Satellize is currently working with several state governments and central bodies to help re-shape their approach to solutions by using new space technology.
Murthy is of the firm belief that India needs to up the quantum of its nanosatellites to make a qualitative difference. “India launches a few hundred nanosatellites a year. Just a couple every year are of Indian origin. Even if we were to make 10% of the nanosatellites that India launches - that alone is a $100m revenue base. When you add other satellites that are launched from the US, New Zealand, Europe, China and other nations, even a 10% share of this market quickly takes potential revenues way past the $ 1 billion mark,” he reasons.
Besides this, the revenue potential available in the rest of the space ecosystem is also immense. As per estimates, space is expected to be a trillion dollar sector in 5 years and Indian companies can vie for a chunk of this pie.
Despite such potential, however, the space startup faced a lot of resistance in 2018 when they tried to get a launch slot on an Indian rocket as there was no precedent. “We even had spies from Indian intelligence agencies vetting us before ISRO gave us a go ahead,” adds Murthy.
They tried for over a year where they had to solve a wide range of issues from insurance and liability to clearance for spectrum and ensuring the payloads worked before finally being cleared to launch on SpaceX. “This was a blessing in disguise because knowing that we had successfully launched on SpaceX then helped ISRO to understand our capabilities and welcome us as a partner and customer in India,” he gushes.
Spacing it out well ::
The founders are enthused by the response and have plans lined up for the innings ahead. On the anvil are plans to launch 8 more payloads in the next three months. “We hope to launch 10 more payloads in 2020, most of them being commercial. We aim to be one of the world's leading players in this business by 2022. It's hard to say what this means in revenues - but it's not likely to be a small number. We hope to grow sustainably at over 50% a year over the next 2 to 5 years,” he candidly states.
The startup has made steady progress. Murthy says that they now get regular calls from ISRO and other government agencies to advise them on various aspects. Potential customers also feel exhilarated to know that they can have their own space-based assets for Rs 10 crore.
All this is making Satellize come closer to what they had envisioned of kick-starting the private space revolution in India. The going ahead, then, looks better than what they had even expected. “The support for our vision is already there overseas - and is growing in India. We are beginning to see the centre, various states and private industries show interest in working with us,” he says.
Murthy gives food for thought before signing off by talking about helping to build the future of humanity even in space. This stems from all the ecological issues on earth at present which, the founders believe, may warrant a better alternative for people of the planet. “And that is, a life off-planet. We don't know how and when that might happen - but we would like to do our bit to make this possible, with affordable technologies for space,” reveals Murthy, with a conviction clear enough to narrate their future leanings in space.