India’s Agnikul gets $26.7M to prepare for commercial space launch

-Gudstory

India’s Agnikul gets $26.7M to prepare for commercial space launch -Gudstory

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Agnikul, an Indian space tech startup developing small-lift launch vehicles, has raised $26.7 million in fresh investment as it looks to begin commercial launches using its customizable satellite rockets.

Companies – from big tech giants to startups – are looking to launch their own small satellites (weighing up to 500 kg) into space to improve their existing technologies and bring new experiences like precise location tracking and Internet connectivity to remote areas. Are. As the European Commission has underlined, this has increased the demand for smaller rockets.

Small satellites have typically been launched as secondary payloads on larger launch vehicles. Existing players including Elon Musk’s SpaceX are operating rideshare missions for small satellite launches. However, their increasing demand has encouraged space companies to find specific solutions. Astra, Virgin Orbit and Rocket Lab are some of the US space companies that have introduced small satellite launch vehicles to meet the growing demand. Nevertheless, by most accounts the gap between demand and supply of small launch vehicles is still quite significant, leaving ample room for new entrants.

Agnikul is one such entrant through its ‘Agnibann’ small satellite rocket. It will use a single-piece engine with no assembly or traditional manufacturing process to offer a faster production timeline and compliant launch. Instead it will use additive manufacturing, otherwise known as 3D printing – the same approach being adopted by US-based Relativity Space. The Chennai-based startup has shown some glimpses of its plan by launching a 3D-printed engine called Agnilet, which was successfully tested in early 2021.

Last year, Agnikul acquired the patent for the engine and set up a facility to make several such engines using end-to-end 3D printing. It also launched India’s first private launchpad and mission control center at the Satish Dhawan Space Center in Sriharikota, located in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, in November and began the integration process of its launch vehicle Agnibaan SOrTeD (Suborbital Technological Demonstrator). ,

Agnikul co-founder and CEO Srinath Ravichandran told TechCrunch that the startup wants to complement India’s space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), and is aiming to handle launches in the sub-300 kg payload segment.

“When the customer looks to India for solutions, we are filling a gap that is not directly addressed by ISRO today,” he said in an interview.

ISRO currently has its Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) to launch satellites weighing up to 500 kg into low Earth orbit. However, the space agency intends to completely transfer the vehicle to the private sector through bidding.

Ravichandran founded Agnikul in 2017 with Moin SPM and IIT Madras professor SR Chakraborty. In December 2020, it became the first Indian private space company to sign an agreement with ISRO. Subsequently, the startup started developing its launch service for satellites weighing up to 100 kg into a 700 km (about 435 mi) Earth orbit using the Agnibaan rocket.

“We have not launched the commercial yet; We have not entered the commercialization phase. But at the same time, today, people are able to see what we have done with the money we have received, how efficient we are on capital, and what technology we have been able to create,” Ravichandran stressed.

Without disclosing specifics, he said the startup has received some inbound interest from potential launch customers, primarily from companies in Europe and Japan, and has also signed MoUs with some. There are also some satellite tech startups in India that could become Agnikul customers once it begins commercialization after its first test flight, which is expected to happen sometime before the end of 2023.

The small satellite launch vehicles space where Agnikul operates is already occupied by Indian startup Skyroot Aerospace, which is backed by GIC, Sherpalo Ventures and Graph Ventures, among other investors. The latter has Vikram S to carry 80 kg payload to an altitude of 100 km. Similarly, there is global competition from players including Rocket Lab, which also has the Electron rocket for small satellite launches. However, Ravichandran said the ability to customize the vehicle based on payload requirements helps Agnikul bring cost-effective benefits.

“The vehicle can be tailored to whatever payload is being sought or whatever orbit it is being asked to go to, without compromising cost,” he said. “So just because you have only 30-40 kilograms to launch, we don’t believe in very high dollar per kilogram pricing. “Let us say between 30 to 300 kilograms, the dollar per kilogram will be the same for anyone in that range.”

He further said that the vehicle is also being designed to launch using mobile launchpads, and that they can be reused.

Agnikul currently employs approximately 225 people, primarily in manufacturing and launch operations. It operates from four facilities and a mission control center.

With the capital investment, the startup is looking to hire talent to help it grow beyond its first few launches and realize and build multiple launch vehicles.

“It’s about moving out of a very design-centric phase to a design+production+manufacturing phase, with a core focus on quality, in which we will actually be able to tell our customers that exactly ‘Your assets are safe with us,’ Ravichandran said.

“Agnikul’s pursuit of innovative space solutions is in line with our investment focus on India’s leading technology sectors,” Arun Kumar, managing partner of Celesta Capital, Agnikul’s investor, said in a prepared statement. “We are excited to support their pioneering vision and innovative approach to modernizing and democratizing the space industry. Their mission underlines the spirit of collaboration between the Indian Space Research Organisation, space regulators and entrepreneurs in bringing advancements within India’s vibrant space-technology ecosystem.

Agnikul sees an annual demand of around 50 tonnes in the satellite launch segment weighing less than 300 kg. Therefore, it plans to develop multiple variants of its Agnibaan rocket and increase launches from one or two per year to one or two per month over time.

“As India’s answer to SpaceX, Agnikul is set to revolutionize the space industry not only domestically but globally. Led by Srinath, Moeen and Professor Satya, the team is extremely passionate, and we wish them every success in their first mission,” said Shailesh Ramakrishnan, Managing Partner, Rocketship.vc, who also participated in this round.

Agnikul is an example of how India’s space technology industry has evolved in the last few years. The country opened up its space sector to private companies in June 2020, and created the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Center (IN-SPACe) as a nodal agency to collaborate with startups. Since then, its space activities have seen significant growth.

The South Asian nation, which currently has more than 150 space tech startups, unveiled its anticipated space policy in April, detailing public and private collaboration guidelines. The country also saw successful launches of missions, including the highly acclaimed Moon lander mission Chandrayaan-3 and solar probe Aditya-L1. Additionally, India’s growing space activities have attracted attention and investment from large technology companies including Google and Microsoft.

The government recently said in Parliament that foreign satellite launches earned India $174 million, of which $157 million came in the last nine years. However, the industry seeks clarity on the recently issued guidelines for FDI in Indian space tech startups and the private sector to move forward.

According to data shared by analyst firm Traxon, equity investments in the Indian space tech startup ecosystem are set to increase by nearly 312% to $114.9 million in 2022 from $27.9 million in 2020. $65.5 million was invested in 2023 alone.

“Since our early days with Agnikul, it has been an exciting journey,” said Anirudh A Damani, fund manager, Earth Venture Fund. “Now, to see them attract such esteemed investors not only reflects their current achievements, but also signals unprecedented achievements on the horizon in the space technology sector. Doubling our investment is not just a financial move – it is a strong endorsement of our belief in the power of Agnikul. We all look forward to watching and supporting each of their great leaps in reshaping space exploration.

The all-equity Series B funding round saw participation from Celesta Capital, Rocketship.vc and Earth Select Fund. Agnikul’s existing investors Earth Venture Fund, Pai Ventures, Special Invest and Mayfield India also participated in the round. The six-year-old startup has raised $40 million in capital so far, including an $11 million Series A round in May 2021.

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