All they want is a sliver of space

Susmita Mohanty, Narayan Prasad and Gadhadar Reddy are space entrepreneurs out to carve a place in space, but under the Indian sun. Photo: Sudhakara Jain  

She wants to be India’s space ambassador, he wants to beam down power from above, and the third dreams of creating small satellites that enable novel uses. There’s even a team that wants to fly to the moon and place two robotic rovers on its surface.

They are a restless bunch of 20 to 30-somethings — smart, cool, educated abroad, founders or leaders of unusual ventures and restless for a ‘space’ of their own.

Susmita Mohanty, Narayan Prasad and Gadhadar Reddy are space entrepreneurs out to carve a place in space, but under the Indian sun.They grew up on the legends of Vikram Sarabhai, Arthur Clarke and Carl Sagan, and were inspired by gutsy entrepreneurial models of this century — Elon Musk of SpaceX. (Musk’s private-funded U.S. venture of 2002 has bagged NASA contracts to ferry 12 shuttle trips to the International Space Station.)

You find the face of India’s space startups — at least four of them from Bengaluru — at global conferences, mingling with the who’s who of the world of space; presenting dreams; challenging old norms; or helping out like-minded buddies. They want a small place on the same lane as government-funded establishments, such as the Indian Space Research Organisation.

Fuelled by passion and doggedness, they put their savings into their dreams, round up small teams of like-minded young engineers and rope in retired ISRO scientists. Having knocked on the doors of the government and private investors, they wait in hope for some sign of policy support for private space players.

“I want to be India’s space ambassador,” says Mohanty, CEO of Earth2Orbit, who moved from Mumbai to Bengaluru a year ago to be where the Department of Space is based.

“My interest is in human space flight,” she says. Years back, she imagined problems of living in microgravity, conjured up their solutions and mailed her ideas to the European Space Agency and NASA. “They sometimes even replied to me in those pre-Internet days,” she recalls, wistfully.

Narayan Prasad (27) founded Dhruva Space with Sanjay Nekkanti in 2012. His team is building a place where small or micro satellites can be assembled, tested and later operated once in space.

Power from space

Reddy (25), who specialises in nanotechnology, believes his venture NoPo Nanotechnolologies India P. Ltd. is on its way to put the world’s first satellite that will produce green solar energy, in space, for use on Earth.

Reddy’s venture is working on special (technically ‘single-walled carbon’) nanotubes that can be the means to it. The idea hit him when, as a student, he started supplying specially-made nano materials to a few labs in the U.S. for use in solar cells.

Says Reddy, “The way we are consuming energy, we are committing suicide. I want to use nanotech and space, and produce clean solar energy from space. This is possible, and I am trying to make that happen in the next five to 10 years.”

Now, he is moving ahead to produce ‘space energy’ — a concept that he says is 30 to 40 years old, but which no one has succeeded in yet. NoPo is setting up a prototype lab and hopes to raise money in five years to launch the first power-generating satellite.

Only in September, NP (as Narayan Prasad is popularly called) and Reddy jointly won the Space Solar Power International Student and Young Professional Design Competition, for their paper on satellites that generate solar power in space.

For E2O’s Mohanty, space was a natural frontier. As the daughter of a space scientist, she grew up on Ahmedabad’s Space Applications Centre campus hearing about the country’s legendary space visionaries from her father’s colleagues.

Apart from selling value-added Earth imageries from Indian satellites, she wants to bring U.S. and Japanese customers to launch their satellites on the country’s PSLV rocket. Her other dreams include creating novel, practical living quarters for astronauts and space-based applications on mobile devices.

Using the skills honed at the National Institute of Design, she dreams of designing “habitats for life in space; dwellings that are not messy machines, but by bringing in psychologists, architects, sociologists and colour theorists to make it much more liveable in space”.

Her successful Vienna-based venture has created a prototype of a fully kitted-out, foldable living capsule for two astronauts as part of an international project. “Given a chance, we can do these things in India,” she says.

A hard journey

Exhilarating as it may sound, their individual journeys have not been smooth.

“Not many people understand space entrepreneurship,” says NP. “The Indian space programme kicked-off from denial of technology, affecting a mindset of a generation of scientists, who said we should not depend on foreign technology. I feel the Swadeshi sentiment is gone.”

The brains and the will are there, but not the backers or policies. Says NP, “We have been giving our papers and proposals [to authorities] all these years. All we need is some acknowledgement, some response. We should not be seen as a threat or competitor. People ask if I can give solutions in 10 months! Sometimes, I don’t know which office I must go to.”

He suggests that the space sector needs an independent regulator like TRAI to level the field for PSUs and private players alike. “We are more appreciated abroad than here,” says Reddy.

Team Indus, which recently moved to Bengaluru in the business avatar of Axion Research Labs, seems to be an exception. It won the Rs. 6.15-crore ($ 1 million) milestone prize and also generated the first round of funds worth around Rs. 215 crore ($ 35 million) last December from a few investors.

Mohanty compares the plight of space start-ups to the hardships that pioneers of space and atomic energy, Vikram Sarabhai and Homi J. Bhabha, went through when they were starting these agencies.

Their proposals were submitted to many decision-makers in industry, government and investment firms, but only to discover that “the Indian mindset is to duplicate other inventions, not encourage the original. Encouraging conversations are yet to translate into actions,” says Mohanty.

Why IT and not them?

She, like her fellow start-ups, is disappointed that as a country “we are wearing IT blinkers forever. IT (information technology) is completely unregulated and thriving. Here is space, overregulated and stifled in the name of security and protocol.”

According to her, young people in IT and space want to do something different with technology. “A 24-year-old with a laptop can conquer the world, but space takes a good six to seven years to say ‘I have arrived’.”

Next step

What should be done? NP suggests a platform to air their views to policy makers; transparency; and overhaul of the entire system. He says his mostly middle-class team has not taken a salary in three years and manage by piecemeal consulting, external projects, documenting or doing high-altitude balloon experiments for researchers of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. With a tinge of concern, he says, “I don’t know what this will come to.”

Mohanty articulates a common exasperation. “Deregulate space. Give us all the rights that IT has, lift controls, be transparent, ease customs duties if we import components. Everybody will take care of the opportunities. We will raise the money.” He adds: “Nobody can stop us. The wave has been unleashed. We are the wave. It might take us five years, 10 years, but we are going to change the landscape. We will get there.”

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 9:11:17 AM |

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