Understanding Indian Space Tech Opportunity: New Tech, New Customers & an Ambitious Vision with Srinath Ravichandran Co-Founder & CEO AgniKul

Srinath Ravichandran, Co-Founder & CEO AgniKul with Shripati Acharya, Managing Partner Prime Venture Partners.

Listen to the podcast to learn about:

03:30 - How AgniKul is Making Going to Space Easy

10:30 - Can Rockets also Shrink?

20:00 - How ISRO works with Indian Space Tech Startups

26:30 - Who will be the New Customers

35:00 - Think of Space as a Platform

42:00 - Many Exciting Opportunities in Space Tech

47:00 - India is a Space-Faring Nation Today

Read the complete transcript below

Shripati Acharya 00:50

Hello and welcome to Prime Podcast. My guest here today with me is Srinath Ravichandran, Co-founder and CEO of AgniKul, one of the foremost space tech startups in the country. Thank you Srinath for joining us. Yep.

Srinath Ravichandran 01:05

Thank you Shripati for having me here.

Shripati Acharya 01:10

It’s a pleasure. So let me kick it off right away, what was the inspiration which led you to start AgniKul.

Srinath Ravichandran 01:20

So I grew up as an aerospace enthusiast, probably because I was in a family, you know, of people who were all into physics in one way or the other. My mom’s a physics teacher. My aunt is a physics teacher. My granddad was in physics. So I guess that that is when the early seeds were sown.

And, I grew up watching PSLV and GSLV launches on Doordarshan. I think actually at that time, GSLV had not been launched, it was mostly PSLV launches at that time or one those, right? But it was time to do engineering or a bachelor’s degree rather, which I wanted to do in aerospace engineering.

No one in my close circle was actually recommending it. And for reasons like, you know, you really not get a job. It’s not easy. It’s a very tough market and all those things. So I went into my next favorite which was electrical engineering, and then that, you know, by a more, you know, a strange set of events and my own choices made me also do a course in financial engineering.

And a little bit of working in electrical engineering and financial engineering and all that made one thing very clear to me that my heart actually is still very much in space. So after a certain amount of time, you know, it took me to build enough guts to say, you know, enough is enough let us give this an honest shot.

I just sort of flipped back to what I always wanted to do, which was aerospace engineering, did a masters in aerospace engineering from University of Illinois and Urbana Champaign and then moved to Los Angeles because SpaceX is there and there was so much of vibe about actually doing some real stuff, which has a business angle in space there.

And I really wanted to understand that as much as possible. So that is what led me to Los Angeles. And, It’s the first time I actually thought that there is a problem in the market as well that, you know, small satellites are struggling to go to space because rockets are too big for them. And I just grew up as a rocket fanboy, as I told you so, yeah, I think, it’s a nice combination of right place, right time, right technology, everything coming together. So that’s sort of how AgniKul started as an.

Shripati Acharya 03:40

What is AgniKul’s vision or mission?

Srinath Ravichandran 03:45

So, We want going to space to be the easiest part of doing anything from space. It could be living in space or working from space or putting stuff in orbit or whatever it is. We really want to make it like transportation to space shouldn’t be the hardest part.

So our vision is really about making sure that going to space is as easy as going to any other point on earth. It shouldn’t be harder than that, that that is the mission. To get there, what kind of things you do. You can build better rockets, you can make rockets more accessible. You can build more inorbit transportation.

A lot of things are possible to enable transportation and space to be an easy thing. And that is our plan. We wanna do all sorts of solutions to make sure that going from place to place, is extremely easy, whether the places are, both of them are in space or one of them is in space. That is really what we wanna do.

Shripati Acharya 04:50

I mean, in that sense, would I be fair to say that it’s no different than what SpaceX is. Its mission, is it is to have, you know, 100th the cost of what at least the cost was 10 years ago to, and then make, make transportation people everything to space a lot cheaper, better, faster, and all that stuff

Srinath Ravichandran 05:10

Yeah. I do think there is one element of difference there, right? There is this focus on making life interplanetary and all that, that gets spoken about. Generally, when we talk about SpaceX. I think that is, that is one goal, and to get to that goal we will probably have to make space transportation very straightforward, right?

But I do think there are a lot more reasons why space transportation should be straightforward, not necessarily about going and living on another planet, so that. In some sense, yes, there is a huge overlap, but in some sense also, I think it’s a broader goal in some sense.

Shripati Acharya 05:50

Fair enough, I mean, what I was, saying more, I agree with you that Elon Musk talks about, you know, SpaceX, he talks about, you know, having a base on the moon and colonizing Mars and so forth.

What I hear you say is, you want to make the transport to space as cheap as possible and as accessible as possible. And, so where are you starting with, right? Obviously that’s the grand vision. So what is the current product and the current offering?

Srinath Ravichandran 06:20

Yeah. So I think the first thing that we figured is to go to space, you need to have really nimble and flexible solutions, machines that take you to orbit, right?

And, rockets today are the only way to get there. So the first set of building blocks that we are building is to make sure that in every aspect of technology required for rockets, we build out something that with a single-minded focus on reducing time to go to space, what can be done?

Let it be in terms of making, you know, rocket engines let it be in terms of making other structural aspects of rockets. Let it be in terms of using the right sort of avionics, whatever it is, or even at an operations level, right? What is the kind of configuration, how do you put all of these systems together and get a launch done?

Our focus is on building a set of systems and putting them together in the right way in such a manner that waiting time to go to space the basic obstacle today, which is waiting time to go to space, is completely eliminated. So that’s the first product, rocket that can be completely configured can be completely customized to take anyone or anything to orbit within the record period.

Shripati Acharya 07:45

Can you give us some numbers then? Like what was sort of the state of the art or the accepted norms before you came in terms of space. And what is AgniKul doing today? So you have done some test launches, right?

Srinath Ravichandran 08:05

Sure. So, I think from our context of what was in the market, so the problem itself, if you look at the way we wanted to structure this, you see the satellite market, so people who are trying to go to space, right? Satellites are a large chunk of that. Now, these people have started shrinking their machines. Basically, satellites became smaller and smaller inside. However, the rockets, which were just vehicles to take them to orbit. They were still sort of stuck in the old era in the 90s, 2000 era, because satellites mostly are electronic competence, right?

And you know what happened with the electronic competence? Everything shrunk, power became computational, more computational power within less volume, less mass and so on. Rockets on the hand had a lot of mechanical moving parts. It had extreme, you know, precision manufacturing requirements. And those things actually did not catch up for a long time.

When you saw the semiconductor industry boom, manufacturing was getting more and more mainstream I would say maybe more and more productionized, but we were not having breakthroughs in manufacturing. Breakthroughs in mechanical systems. So there was a gap where, from a rocket industry standpoint, the customers became completely different in terms of, you know, mass in terms of dimensions, what used to be 2 tons, you were asking me about numbers, right?

So what used to be satellites that are two tons, three tons started becoming satellites, which are around 200 kgs, 100 kgs. And people also figured that you can have a distributed version of a satellite wherein it’s not a single hardware orbiting earth, but a set of series of hardwares working together. That will actually make one mission possible.

And that inherently also builds in some risk diversification and builds in modularity, builds in configurability. All of these things are also there. So now the new context then became about, okay, when all of this is possible, why are vehicles alone stuck in the past? Because of the way in recent mechanical manufacturing industry or production of any of those systems, And then you saw things like 3D printing start to come in.

You saw things like, mems, right? The micro electronic mechanicals, which are small devices that are actually able to capture what big meaningful masks based mechanical systems are actually doing. But at the scale of what a typical semiconductor device would.

So when these things started to come, there was a scope for can rockets also now shrink, and so can you make rockets that can take 200 kgs to space, 100 kgs to space, 50 kgs to space. And we see that, even in the last 10 years, the average useful satellite mass, right, which was at least around two tons or so, has now become as low as even 30-40 kgs.

What used to be viable with only a finite kg satellite has now become viable for a 150 kg satellite, which we think in the next three years will be viable for a 50 kgs satellite. So we also realize that rockets should have the ability to scale to be able to scale down or you know, have the ability to actually lower your capacity so that you can accommodate even the smallest customer.

While at the same time also have the ability to address a large set of customers, or you know, one large customer and. So when we set out to build a space transportation system, we realized we wanna cut out waiting time completely. We wanted to have a vehicle that is configurable. So think of it as an experience of how one of us on this call actually, like buy laptops, right?

We both are looking at, say, buying a Mac. I’m sure that your requirements on the Mac would actually determine the configuration you choose, even if we agree to buy the same MacBook Pro series, right? You may buy more Ram, I may buy a larger screen size or a larger hard disc capacity.

But still the architecture is the same, and it is possible to scale up or scale down within the confines of the stream, same architecture without calling it another laptop, right? We wanted to bring the same experience to customers here and say between 30 to 300 kgs of satellite mass the ability to configure a mission and launch should have no waiting time or basically waiting time of less than two weeks.

Today those numbers are more like one and half years or so, and the cost per kg for any of these satellite masses is still the same. So a person who’s taking 300 kgs to space, or a person who’s taking 30 kgs to space should not be differentiated on the basis of pricing. Of course, if you want to give a wholesale discount because that is something that you are able to offer for some other reason, that is great, but not from a core mission standpoint itself. Because today that is the norm.

You wanna launch 5 tons on SpaceX, you may go down as low as even $10,000 or $15,000 per kg, but if you’re launching 50 kgs with SpaceX, the number is completely arbitrary. It could be. $80,000 per kg, or it could even be $8,000 per kg. If they have a small slot available in any way there’s a vehicle going and you’re just filling up an empty spot and they’re selling and you have a fire sale going on, right? So it’s so unpredictable and it’s very hard to construct business models around something in space when you know that transportation cost is so much open.

So that is what we really try to solve for 30 to 300 kgs capacity vehicles that can be scaled down. Or scaled up linearly keeping the cost per kg exactly the same so that we don’t differentiate between any two customers and do all of this within a two week timeframe.

Shripati Acharya 14:15

Sounds good. So what is the cost per kg, which AgniKul would be targeting and what is sort of like the state of the art right now? Is there a significant difference?

Srinath Ravichandran 14:30

Yeah, so I think today the state of the art market for small satellites is north of 50, $60,000 per kg. That’s not what is quoted, but that’s what people end up paying finally.

There’s a lot of fine print that goes on in terms of what gets added on to. What you actually get in terms of launch service itself, like you have to pay for the mounting structures of your satellite on the rocket. You have to pay for the rejection system. Lot of pricing. You know, there are a lot of add-ons that are not exactly optional that get you know, bundled into the pricing.

I will probably refrain from telling where, you know, we will let the pricing go, but we are at a fraction of that number, what I just told you in terms of what we incur, right? And that was actually not the goal. I wanna be very clear about that part. In our goal, we just looked at the market and we felt like people were not able to go to space when they wanted to go to space.

So we wanted to keep the cost actually somewhat similar and just solve for extremely low waiting time. But to solve for extremely low waiting time, we had to go into technologies like 3D printing, architectures that are modular, which actually led to a reduction in cost as well. So obviously we were solving for cost all the time, but it was not the core purpose.

It was not to go out there and say we will be the most inexpensive solution to go to orbit. It really was about we will be the quickest solution to go to orbit. But the only set of technologies that we were able to think of, uh, actually led to a cost reduction as well. And that is itself coming to be a meaningful reduction in prices.

Shripati Acharya 16:15

Understood. So is it fair to say that previously people had a set of rockets and said, okay, show me your satellite, the payload, we are going to mount it on this rocket. And as you said, if there is less or more space available it can go. What AgniKul is doing is actually looking at what the, what is it that you want to send, which is the payload, the satellite, and creating a rocket which is optimized, sort of like a bespoke rocket, which actually goes up and doing it in a very short period of time. Is that the right way to put it?

Srinath Ravichandran 16:50

Exactly. So think of the experience of, say you are a customer and you want to put, uh, say a particular mass of 50kgs in a certain orbit, say lower orbit. Uh, say within a three week timeframe, right? We really shouldn’t be asking you anything more than those three parameters I just told you.

So I wanna create an experience for our customers here wherein we ask them, Hey, what is your payload mass? Which is the orbit you want to get to? And what is the preferred location you want to launch from? And based on that alone, we should be able to configure a vehicle and a mission that is able to go to space within a 2-3 weeks time slot. That’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

Shripati Acharya 17:40

And is it fair to say that typically your payload will be the only payload which is actually going on that rocket? Cause it’s optimized for that payload?

Srinath Ravichandran 17:45

It could be. Yeah. Exactly. It’s not like it has to be dedicated, but it can be dedicated. So if there is one more customer who wants to go at the same time, we could take them too. It’s not like it has to be dedicated. If anything it’s the other way around, right? Today the market is, it has to be a rideshare for small satellites. We are saying no, we’re not, we’re not enforcing rideshare as the only way to go to space.

Shripati Acharya 18:15

Perfect. That’s the first time I heard the word rideshare in the context of space. But I think we all understand. So what is the State of the Union in terms of AgniKul’s products and launches and so forth? Sounds so exciting.

Srinath Ravichandran 18:30

Yeah, So I think the team has been doing a lot of good work in the development of various subsystems.

So, if you think of the system as a vehicle. Basically, it is a launch vehicle. That’s what it’s called, right? It’s a vehicle that goes through space. So you have, you can think of all of these systems of a vehicle on the ground that also have some parallel in space systems, right? So you have propulsion system, you have a structural system, you have an AV system, you have software running on it. And you have a little more focus on aerodynamics because of the speed at which you’re going in their routes your exterior design.

Where we are today is we have realized all of those systems and we put together a vehicle we would want to be attempting a test launch hopefully in April. Today’s the first day of April, and hopefully before the next 30 days or so that happens. Very close to that. Let’s see. But the point is that is where we are a few days or few weeks away from our first launch.

We are also gearing up for the next set of launches. Which will be more commercial in nature, not necessarily test launches that we plan to do towards the end of this year and so on. The idea is we have the hardware today or the infrastructure today to make enough hardware to do anywhere between six to eight launches a year, right?

A launch basically every six weeks. And with the revenue that comes in from this, I think we should be able to scale it to even a launch once in a month or something of that sort. But that is for probably two years.

Shripati Acharya 20:05

Tell us what is the relationship with ISRO and sort of like, how, how does it work for, cause I would think that you need a launch site and you would need to launch infrastructure to put all of these things together. So, can you just educate us on that?

Srinath Ravichandran 20:25

Yeah. So, you know the way we work with ISRO is more from a regulator standpoint, right? Where they’re a regulator because we need approval from a government authority for launch. So that is where we interact with ISRO, and this is actually a very interesting shift in dynamics over the last three, four years compared to how private players typically interacted with ISRO.

Because ISRO has always been interacting with private players, but it has always been about realizing a particular system for ISRO. Given a particular spec, someone designs and executes, but much more so like the design has been given and you execute and give it to ISRO, but it was all for an Indian Rocket or for an Indian satellite or for an Indian mission.

It was all about serving the government in some way or the other. Now with this announcement of INspace, a new body under the Department of Space, which actually in its name itself says Promotion and Authorization Center, right. For space activities, there is a system of framework now available wherein you can do your own thing as a private player and your relationship with ISRO is more from a regulatory approval standpoint.

So we work with ISRO broadly on three things, right? We work with them on getting some of our systems tested. So for example, we had the opportunity to take our engines once that were designed, manufactured and tested a few times in-house also to ISRO to test it there.

And there was a lot of validation for us in terms of, you know, understanding how to look at that hardware. Even though it has worked for us, it was important for us to get that validation from ISRO. The other way in which we work with them is have a bunch of reviews, have a bunch of discussions on you know, because we’re sitting on 60 years of success and failures that ISRO has seen.

And you know, a lot of, a wealth of knowledge that actually is making us a space faring nation. And it’s actually one of the advantages of building a space tech company in India. I think you are not, you are not starting at zero. You’re starting at, you know, 90, right? And yes, there’s always more to do, but all the basic building blocks in terms of what not to do is very clearly out there.

The knowledge is out there. So, working with ISRO from a review standpoint is the other thing that we do. And then finally also the ability to use their facilities for launch. For example, they allowed us to build our own private launchpad within Sriharikota for example. And those kinds of things, which was, we, we obviously did not even think it was possible when we started.

But our mission was always about, you know, having mobile launchpads, having our own launchpads because we knew that when you’re building new tech, your interface point with the launchpad cannot be something like, what is there for a bigger vehicle? Because when you shrink a vehicle, a lot of these mechanical things completely shrink.

For example, a plumbing line that is serving a very large vehicle can in no way be used to serve a vehicle that’s very smaller because it’ll just not make sense to have that kind of a volume to fill. It’ll be like, you know, you’re having this huge hose to fill a small tumblr of water. It doesn’t make sense, right?

Very similar concepts apply when you’re filling your tank, for example. So we are very clear from the very beginning that to be able to address customers quickly, you should control the end to end of the process of the launch. There is no point in saying, yeah, I’ll build vehicles very quickly, but sorry when it goes to the launchpad I’m at the mercy of someone else because no one cares. To some extent, no one cares whose facilities you use to launch and all that, right? I want something in orbit. That is all I’m gonna ask from our launch vehicle there. So we are very clear on owning both pieces of that, building the product and doing the service of launch.

And for doing the service of launch, you need this launchpad infra, which we wanted to do mobile based out of all these. 40 feet cargo containers, right? Mm-hmm. So that is what we use even today. That’s what we use. So has allowed us to even build our own launchpad within its own facility at Sriharikota. So I think those are the ways in which we have been interacting.

There is a lot of alignment from very senior level at the government about making sure that, you know, private players in India are able to access the space market because given the level of success that you’ve had in SpaceX. The chunk of the business that we are getting in space is actually a fraction of the total.

I think that can easily change by allowing more private player participation in missions that are not even related to the government. Of course, you could also do it for the government. That’s not changing. But as an add-on, can you also do your own stuff wherein the government comes in and plays the role of a regulator*?

So that is now already in place. A system is in place. And I think that is something that has been helping us. And this is not only about Angnikul. This is about all space startups in India getting that benefit. So, that’s basically how we work with ISRO

Shripati Acharya 25:55

So that’s fascinating. So ISRO is providing the regulatory umbrella, it’s actually lending its expertise. Of course, you might be, you’ll be paying them, for doing your testing and so forth, but they’re lending their infrastructure. And expertise and also the actual physical launch pads and, and the land or whatever it is required for that.

And a very interesting point you made there Shrinath which is that India as a nation, like, so there’s only like five nations probably who have sent stuff into space. So this is where you can actually start this. You cannot go and start it in some country which has not been developing rockets. And that’s really a sort of unique sort of opportunity.

So, uh, how do you see who the customer is here? Because whenever you look at space, we would think that the government is mostly predominantly the customer or some large private folks who’ll be making these satellites. So how are you thinking, maybe it’s a little bit early in your journey to be talking directly to customers, I guess because you have to get your vehicles going and tested and so forth first.

But how are you thinking a year or two down the line who the customers would be? That’s part one of the question. And the second one, which I’m even more curious about, is what kind of applications you think are going to be possible as a result of this. And before you get that let me ask you a third question.

You talked about dimensions, right? Give us an idea of what a typical rocket height and weight is versus what Agnikul’s launch vehicle would be. Just to get that analogy between a fire hose and a Tumblr.

Srinath Ravichandran 27:35

I’ll start with that. That’s the easy question to answer, and then the customer part is actually also easy, but it’s more exciting. I’ll come to that in a second.

So, let’s take PSLV the most successful vehicle of India today, that has a carrying capacity of about anywhere between 1-2 Tonnes. And the lift of mass is somewhere around 80 to 90 tons. That’s the mass of the rocket itself.

And the height of it is somewhere around 40 meters or so. So that’s roughly the dimensions of a PSLV rocket. Ours is about 20 meters tall, about 15 tons at liftoff and has the capacity to take anywhere between 30 to 300 kgs. So that’s roughly how small it is. GSLV is actually a 5 tonne capacity vehicle, much heavier vehicle.

Looking at 500 tons mass at lift off or something of that sort. It’s a huge vehicle, right? But that is still, I think, considered at the end of the medium class of lifting capacity compared to say the Falcon nine of SpaceX, which is a 22 ton capacity vehicle. Which has a liftoff mass of somewhere around 180 tons or so.

So, the idea is that, you know, what they call as a payroll traction, right? A rule of thumb. You can, you can look at a, uh, unless some, you know, extreme crazy breakthrough happens, you can look at the carrying capacity of a rocket and simply scale it by a hundred to say roughly that, that’s the mass of the rocket itself.

So if I’m carrying one ton, probably my vehicle lift off mass is hundred thousand. Usually. I mean, yeah plus or minus a few tons here and there, but that’s what physics allows us today. That’s what the engineering that is based on the physics we know allows us to today. Unless some extremely, you know, lightweight material of extraordinary strength is invented or is, you know, figured out or some other crazy new way to propel yourself to our better as figured out.

But all those things are, you’re not even close to getting the core physics of it right, which means engineering is much further down the line. So I think for the very, uh, you know, for, for the near future at least, definitely till we get into whatever warp drives and all of the things that we see in, you know, the science fiction movies, we’re gonna be in that class, right?

If you wanna take one ton to space, you need to have a rocket that is lifting off hundred tons, right? 90% of it is fuel. In fact, the more you make it fuel the better. The struggle is always to make as much of your rocket as only the fuel. Everything else, it is the payload and the fuel is the, if it is possible to actually build a rocket, which is, yeah, here is my satellite and everything else is fuel. Can I just go? That will be the ideal rocket.

Of course, you need tanks, you need, you need systems, you need plumbing, and all of that adds a lot of what we call, you know, structural mass, which is just generally frowned upon in industry. But, yeah that’s how our vehicle compares to any other vehicle in the market.

Now, customers are super exciting for me. So let me give you a bit of history before coming to today, right? So people used to go to space for two reasons, right? You go up and you take photos, remote sensing or earth imaging, whatever we call that. But it is basically photography from space, right?

And photography in exactly the same context of how you look at, you know, photography on earth has various dimensions to it. What wavelength of light you use? What is the framing, right? Basically your swat with, as they call it, basically how much of the, how much of the surface of the earth you’re covering in one photo and what is the resolution, right?

All the same things that you look at in regular photography with an added flavor of timing. Meaning what? What is my revisit time? If I’m gonna take a picture of Chennai, am I gonna come over Chenai every day? Am I gonna come over Chennai every day at the same time? Those kinds of questions. There’s a time dimension added to the typical photography problem, and this is why people used to go to space, or they used to go to space for communication.

Then you go up far enough, then you can see a lot of earth and people can bounce off signals between two points. And that whole communication system was also working and that still works, except that people have figured that going closer to earth, you are able to do these better by doing more distributed systems.

If you’re far away, your advantage is you saw a lot more. But because it’s far you need more powerful cameras, you need more powerful transmitters. Everything had to be like, imagine taking a sub one meter resolution photo from 3600 kilometers away. It’s extremely complex. Whereas supposed to say just being a few hundred kilometers away and taking a one meter resolution photo, the problem is reduced 50 times literally in complexity.

So that is what is happening in the imaging space. So one of our class of customers are, people are building small satellites for taking pictures. The end game of why pictures is also interesting, right? People are now using, before it used to be about weather and you know, land usage and all that, but now people are using it to predict all sorts of logistics, do a lot of tracking, do a lot of monitoring, do a lot of figuring out how people are using specific real estate, and this has now become data points for people in the finance industry betting on real estate or insurance guys who are actually trying to build a factor in how agricultural land usage is changing. So consumers are also growing for data now, right? So that is one thing. Then the other one is communication itself, where people are figuring out various different streams of, you know, communication.

Before it used to be about either telephone communication or the internet, but now you have Iot you have streaming for low bandwidth, but also extremely low latency data like audio streaming, for example. So that is, it’s a very unique class of data because you’re not like streaming out GBs of data to get one, just one song, but you need to obviously not have a buffer.

So you have low latency, but also low bandwidth requirements. So you could use a traditional constellations to do that, or you could have your own constellations in space to get that done. Similarly iot, right? If your car has to talk to your apartments, cooling system or whatever, your weather monitoring system or climatic system to turn it on, turn it off, it’s a few kb of data. That’s it. Just kilobytes of data is getting exchanged. It’s not, again, like MBs or GBs of data going through. Why do you need to tap into the regular internet for that is why iot constellations are coming together. So communication is still very much. The style and the nature of that has completely changed. But all of this, including these changes, I’m only calling them conventional applications, the unconventional applications of what is really exciting.

These are people who tend to use space as a platform right? Now, what do I mean by that? Space used to be a destination, meaning you go there and take photos or you go there and bounce off signals. But if you want to think about it differently, you could think of space as you know, like a platform wherein you have a certain set of environmental conditions.

You are in a vacuum. If you stay away from the sun, basically you are almost at absolute zero 0K, basically. And, you also have the ability to be in microgravity if you are in orbit. Right now, if a manufacturing process actually demands any of these things, say prolonged periods of vacuum or prolonged periods of low gravity or prolonged periods of extremely low temperature, then today there are people who are actually looking at, Hey, can I just put something in orbit for some time and then de-orbit it after sometime and get it back.

Yeah, so there are manufacturing processes which involve creating microgravity for prolonged periods of time. This is mostly in the pharma industry for drug discovery, for example, and it’s extremely painful to have six months of microgravity created on earth.

You’re running a huge centrifuge and you know, and we, and usually these processes are in such a way that if you’re, if you’re in the middle, there is something, there is a failure and you lose your microgravity condition. Most of the processes are wasted already. Like there is so much of a burden there.

You may as well actually put stuff in orbit for some time and it’s out… you’ve already taken the effort to get there and you’re now using a little more of nature to help you. So that is happening. People actually are thinking of storing data in space, not just bouncing it off. Because if you think of data storage, large data data firms, right? Data farms actually have one of the biggest running costs are cooling costs, right?

There is a lot of heat generated. You may have read about how these server farms are usually in cold arctic places as well. But in space, you actually just, you know, just orient yourself away from the sun and you basically have 4 Kelvin, it’s almost, it’s as good as you’re now suddenly talking superconductor level, you know, temperature suddenly.

So now the question is, will I, will I be able to actually store data and get it at the right latency. And that answer is yes. Today the technology has changed. It’s not like you’re 36,000 kilometers away. You’re only a few hundred kilometers away. It’s not like your transmitters are less powerful. I mean, or not powerful enough. It’s not like your computational resources are less.

So for certain classes of data already it seems like if you look at a 10 year period of running a server farm versus creating a server farm in space, it may actually be cheaper. So that is another set of the, so these are people who are actually going to space, not, not to do this typical photography and communication, but because space offers you something that is simply not easily available anywhere or earth.

So that’s what I mean by, you know, it’s a platform. It’s not a destination anymore. It’s an environment that people are trying to tap into. So I think that is actually booming. There’s a very interesting company in Japan, which is actually trying to create entertainment from space. You go up there and you throw a bunch of stuff, it burns up on the way back. And they call it artificial shooting stars.

So think of it like a celebration or something where, like a sports event or something where instead of burning all the fireworks here and creating more pollution, you may as well do it with a little bit of debris, which creates amazing patterns in the entire sky. And an entire nation can watch it in one shot.

Shripati Acharya 39:00

You can have diwali for the whole country.

Srinath Ravichandran 39:02

Exactly right in one shot. So, those are also coming up and suddenly now you’re looking at the entertainment industry as the end customer and that completely changes dynamics of how you even look at the money available to be made here.

So those are, I think for me, the more fascinating use cases. Yes, data transmission and yes, photography is there. But, that’ll get better and that’s getting better. That’s always been the bigger chunk. But these other guys are coming up really rapidly. People are suddenly figuring out that space offers you something that is close to impossible to create for prolonged periods of time on Earth. And that is something that we should tap into.

Shripati Acharya 39:45

Fascinating. So, you know, I had always thought of photo and data related to photography, as you mentioned, which is remote sensing and all those things. Or communications, which is like starlink, which is you know SpaceX’s global Satellite Network and what iPhone 14 is doing.

Which is another example of the low, low data use, which you said like emergency usage via satellite. Yeah, where there is, you could be in Himalaya and I could actually send a message, which is actually really, it’s a great use case, but what I hear you say is that we might actually have manufacturing in space.

Pharma and where you are actually, it’s not just about digital data being sent back from space, it’s actually physical products being sent back from, it’s like you manufacture these pills and they show up here and absolutely like three degrees or four degrees kelvin, the space temperature, making it, a lot of these things viable, just impossible to do that with a, in a cost efficient way for prolonged periods of time.

The data centerpiece I’ve never heard of before, which is, which is fascinating, which you’re saying that could be a class of data which needs, which doesn’t have as high a latency required. But which needs to be stored and it’s very critical and so on and so forth. So, the idea of actually having a manufacturing facility in space, right? It is really, really amazing.

Srinath Ravichandran 41:10

Well, there are at least three companies also working today on manufacturing in space and, and I think most of them are reasonably funded as well actually. And it’s all about manufacturing in space.

Shripati Acharya 41:20

Makes sense. It has to be a very high value item. So as soon as you said like pharma molecule, That makes sense, right?

It’s a light high intellectual property item and once you make it, you know, obviously you cannot possibly do it. So I could see why the desire or the race to win that is going to be a very valuable one for private companies. So, we are kind of like running over time. So let me ask you this question, Srinath.

So what would be your advice to entrepreneurs who are our listeners, looking at this area. They are into aerospace. They understand this opportunity. From what you say, there’s a lot of very interesting inflection points here, where, which is making this viable. And also the infrastructure support, which being in India offers.

So if you are a new Space tech entrepreneur, right now starting something new, let’s say you’re, you’re still a newspaper entrepreneur in my book, but, if you’re starting something new today, which are the areas you would look for? What are some of the opportunities you would say are most exciting?

Srinath Ravichandran 42:30

So I think most interesting or interesting opportunities lie in what, whatever stuff can be done in, orbit. All right, so what I just said, as those unconventional use cases that are picking up, manufacturing and space, or working from space or having systems that work from space, repairing in space and all of those stuff, all of those systems actually are very exciting. I also think there is a lot of scope in the energy storage in space category. Because I don’t think you can. So energy availability in space today has been mostly about tapping into solar energy with solar cells, but it has its own, it’s a, it has its limitations in terms of how often it has to be done and how efficient it is and all that, right?

But there are a few other systems that can be figured out that have to be set up in orbit, wherein, you know, you actually have energy sources available there already, like basically having, you know, fueling stations in orbit or not exactly for fueling, it could be for charging, for example. And you can run with that, like your gas stations on the road

Shripati Acharya 43:43

And for other satellites that are running around space stations.

Srinath Ravichandran 43:45

Precisely. So those kind of technologies I think are like, you know, they’re, they’re not too far away to be science fiction, but also not. Not to so directly pursue, which is making it a very intense comp, intensely, you know, competition intensive market. I think launch vehicles actually are more on the intensive side because a lot of people have been working on it for five, six years now.

And I think the industry, if you start now, may be a little late on the vehicle side, but I think there’s a lot more to be done about what can, what goes in orbit itself. So those are some very interesting opportunities. I think more and more applications of, you know, what to do with data that’s coming from there.

I think people have not even started fully utilizing the data available there. That is… that alone, just the fact that you’re going to break away these obstacles that were there to get data and get data and with so much detail, it’s so much dimensions toward with the time dimension, with the depth dimension, with all of these other things across wavelengths.

I think the end use case of where the data can be used and how it can be used, that data analytics is going to be a huge potential place as well. I also think Space Tech is not only about tech, it’s also about all of the enabling systems. So there are going to be questions about what is going to be the legal aspects of a lot of these things, right?

There are gonna be questions about who owns which orbit and why you should, who cleans up which orbit actually more than who owns but…

Shripati Acharya 45:20

I was reading about debris in space.

Srinath Ravichandran 45:25

Yeah, those areas I think are going, because spaces now, as I said, it’s become like, it’s, it’s not like a, you know, it’s not like, okay, you go there and done.

It’s like you go there now only things are beginning. It’s become a platform now, right? And once, once, so much is going to happen now only after you go there. It’s not about going there, it’s about what happens after you go there. A lot more logistics, a lot more, all of the aspects of what is needed to do business on earth are going to be replicated in space.

And I think those are some of the places where people should concentrate on today so that in the next five years or so when they get there, there’ll be an actual business model that can be built around it and people can, you know, actually add value to people.

That said, it’s a long journey as I’m casually telling you about five years, five years is not a joke, right? So it does take time. So, yeah, I think generally speaking, space attracts a lot of people who are passionate about the sector. It’s just, something that I think as humans, a lot of people, like a lot of kids have seen, you know, grow up wanting to do something in space and then they do something else.

And me being one example of that before I came back to space, right? So I think space does take its toll in terms of time. It’s hard to get things right. So unless you really love what you’re doing, it’s gonna be very hard to sustain. I mean, that’s true of 99% of startups, but I’m saying a little more so for Space tech because you get to go through a lot of bad days before you get to a good day.

So I think, from that standpoint, identifying a business model or a business area, value addition area. Within your area of passion is going to be more important as opposed to saying, Hey, there is a, there is some money to be made. Let’s go. That is probably going to be a little hard to sustain.

So, but to summarize, in India today, I think, literally today might have been in, in all of the years since our independence, today might be literally the best time to build a Space tech startup in India. Investors are looking at Space tech seriously. The government wants companies like us to succeed. Globally the market is just exploding. And India is a space faring nation today.

It is not. If you are doing this, 25 years ago, India was also struggling, right? But today, India is a Space faring nation. That’s how the world looks at it. That’s how we are…we are actually getting things done. So it is a very interesting set of things that are aligned and there is a lot that can be done with that.

So yeah, anyone who has a little bit of real passion for space should just jump in like tomorrow or today rather. That’s what I would say.

Shripati Acharya 48:05

Wonderful. And so if I’m an entrepreneur, how would I like to contact you? I can just reach out to you on LinkedIn and so forth. Is that the best way to get in touch?

Srinath Ravichandran 48:15

Yeah, we have this email on the website, curious@agnikul.io and I end up actually reading all emails that come there, whether I read other emails or not. So, that will probably be a better way. I mean, I am active on LinkedIn but I don’t reply to most of those messages. Sometimes there are days where I don’t, that’s the other thing. Sometimes connectivity is an issue because of security reasons and all that. So I then caught up with work emails as opposed to LinkedIn.

Shripati Acharya 48:50

Wonderful. curious@agnikul.i o. So, thanks so much Srinath. It was a lovely conversation. Really, really enjoyed it. And, it does look like a really exciting time, to look into space as, as a huge and emerging market.

So all the best for the upcoming launch in April. I’m sure that you’ll be on, on tenterhooks as you see this thing blast off and I wish you all the success for the many more launches to come. We’ll be rooting for you.

Srinath Ravichandran 49:25

Thank you. Thank you so much and thanks a lot for having me here.

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