Recently, the government amended rules governing foreign direct investments (FDI) in the Indian space sector, making it easier for investors to enter the market. At the helm of affairs is Dr Pawan Goenka, the Chairman of IN-SPACe, the space regulator. In a chat with businessline, Dr Goenka spoke about how roomy space is for investors. Excerpts: 


How many proposals have IN-SPACe received? How many space start-ups do we have today?

As on March 1, we received 466 applications from various companies and academic institutions for authorisation or facilitation of space activities. We have signed about 50 MoUs and a dozen agreements for the transfer of ISRO’s technologies.

There are about 200 space start-ups which attracted investments amounting to $135 million this financial year, as against $115 million last year and $80 million the year before. This was before the (liberalised) new space FDI policy. With the new policy, we are expecting the level of investments to go up sharply.


What kind of ideas are you seeing? What do these start-ups want to be doing?

The good thing is, none of the companies we interface with wants to do anything routine. Each company is trying to create a niche; every space start-up is a deep-tech start-up.


What they want to do falls in four or five buckets?

The first is launch vehicles. There are two start-ups in this space — Agnikul Cosmos and Skyroot — and there are two more who want to build launch vehicles, whom I cannot name. A lot of innovation is happening in launch vehicles. For example, Agnikul has developed a fully 3D printed engine in their own factory in IIT Madras. This is a first in India, and I think globally too. Also, they have brought in a lot of innovation in the propulsion system. They are test-firing their rocket coming Friday (March 22). It is a big day for them.

Then there are satellite companies, who are working on platforms that will be cutting edge in terms of reducing weight and complexity of satellites and launching their own satellites. Right now, most of the satellites are in demonstration phase, after which they will be able to generate business not just in India but also globally.

Then there are things that go into the satellites. There are 2-3 companies working on developing solar panels for them. Right now, in India, we don’t make solar cells for space applications. These companies are importing cells and making the panels here. They have got a small order for exports also.

Then there is payload, where a lot of innovation is happening. For example, there is a company called Pixel that is developing a camera to provide very high-resolution images. They are trying to get images of the order of 5 metres, with 18 satellites that will fully cover the globe and be able to provide updates every day. This development includes new satellite platforms. They have created their own satellite platform and have developed their own payload as well. Then there are satellites for space situational awareness.

The third bucket is ground stations and antennas. Right now, all ground stations are either owned by ISRO or the Defence. Nothing is owned by the private sector.

There is a company that is developing a smaller, low-cost antenna and is supplying to the Defence in a big way. Finally, the big thing will be the ‘applications’ — meaning, how do you take the images and data that come from space and do meaningful analysis to give useful outcomes.

The scope for this is unlimited.


How is India’s NAVIC system? Are there companies that are using the data?

Right now, India has a NAVIC system which is primarily used for Defence and homeland security. Not for any civil applications. There were certain constraints in the NAVIC constellation, which are now getting removed by launching new satellites and soon we will have a NAVIC constellation. Soon the Indian private sector will be able to use NAVIC data for civil applications, rather than having to depend upon GPS.


Would you say the emerging geo-political situation has influenced India’s space FDI policy? Are more foreign companies coming to India because of the Russia-Ukraine, Israel-Hamas tensions?

Well, no and yes. ‘No’, because the FDI policy was not due to any geo-political situation. We felt that we need investments from abroad — the Indian investors are still a little shy of investing in space. ‘Yes’ because the geo-political situation is in favour of India right now and it could lead to increased interest in India. Every large company in space has an interest in India, and they have approached us. We are in the process of enabling these companies to come to India. We also have to make sure that the Indian companies have a level playing field.


How much of FDI can Indian space sector get in the next 3-5 years?

That would be difficult to say. What I can say is, we have an aspiration that the annual space economy should be $44 billion by 2033. Three-fourths of this will come from within India and 25 per cent from abroad. To make this $44 billion happen we would need investments of about $22–25 billion.