Space startups use lockdown to hone strategies

Most see demand growing as remote work options become the norm

Updated - July 03, 2020 06:18 pm IST

Published - July 03, 2020 05:06 pm IST - Bengaluru

Indian space startups say the three-month lockdown amidst the COVID-19 pandemic helped them to hone strategies even as it pushed back their satellite and rocket-making schedules and non-priority investments by at least four to six months as of now.

The going has been tough but not without hope, and they do not have to change long-term goals unlike players in the aircraft sector, according to at least four of around 20 space startups in the country.

Yashas Karanam, COO and co-founder of Bellatrix Aerospace, Bengaluru, said the impact of the lockdown is different for upstream (infrastructure providing) and downstream (application-driven) space companies.

Mr. Karanam said, “We had planned qualification tests of our propulsion systems at our lab. There was no way we could have done it through work from home (WfH). Shipping and the global chains were affected; we could not get our raw material and equipment during the lockdown period. The case would be similar for other companies as well.”

For upstream companies like Bellatrix, timelines have shifted as most of them must work on hardware in labs. They have used the time towards strategising, simulations and documentation.

Satellite demand up

For the long term, though, the crisis, said Mr. Karanam, has only pushed up the demand for telecommunication satellites. Work from home and teleconferences have also raised the demand for higher data requirement in the form of video calls, VPN (virtual private network) access to office servers, cloud storage, etc.— all of which are provided by satellites.

“The overall effect is similar to every other industry, though not comparable to the [badly hit] aircraft industry,” he said.

Rocket makers Agnikul and Skyroot and broadband satellites maker Astrome are a few upstream space startups.

Downstream or space-based services startups such as Numer8 are expected to be relatively better placed than the manufacturer-based ones.

Pixxel of Bengaluru plans a constellation of earth observation satellites. Around lockdown time, it was getting ready its first, small, trial satellite for a July launch on a Russian Soyuz rocket.

This has now been pushed to November, said Pixxel’s CEO and co-founder Awais Ahmed.

“Everything hardware related has been impacted such as manufacturing and testing. Timelines and hiring had to be rethought,” he said.

With activities like testing having resumed in mid-June, “We don’t see it getting delayed any further,” he added.

Stating that execution of projects has slowed, Mr Ahmed said space startups have the same problems as other sectors such as cash runway, lay-offs and how to survive these few months.

“Being a startup means you’ll have to go through tough times. Whichever startups survive this will come out much stronger on the other side. We hope to do the same.”

Some growth

Narayan Prasad, co-founder of space products and services marketplace, said its team in Italy also worked during the worst phase of the pandemic, thanks to their tele-working and software-based model across three countries.

“We had only 2-3 weeks of slow growth but people started getting used to WfH and we continued to see growth.”

By February, allocations were made up to August and the company had the “resources to get out of this reasonably”. Nor did it change plans.

As for the future, Mr. Karanam expected 75% normality to return within a month.

Companies that were banking on income from customers such as Indian Space Research Organisation, Defence Research & Development Organisation and public sector enterprises would be temporarily hit by late payments.

Acquiring new customers and new orders would be on hold until face-to-face meetings, facility visits and operations resume fully, sources said.

For earth imaging applications company SatSure, plan to raise equity and overseas deals got hit and it expects lower revenues from infrastructure and financial sectors this year, its co-founder and CEO Prateep Basu said. It even hired people.

Fast recovery

Rakesh Sashibhushan, CMD of the State-owned Antrix Corporation, Department of Space, said most young startups have not reached the revenue-making stage yet; so they are somewhat spared compared to ISRO-dependent large and medium scale companies or those that fund the startups.

“In the post-COVID-19 scenario, because of the high demand for connectivity, the space industry should be one of the first businesses to pick up before the rest, and on a much bigger scale than before,” he said.

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