Agnikul Cosmos, an Indian space tech startup looking to capitalize on the huge space travel opportunity of the next decade, has been making headlines in recent times. From signing deals with Alaska Aerospace Corporation in the US, to signing a Memorandum of Understanding with ISRO to access its infrastructure and technical expertise, Agnikul Cosmos has taken huge leaps since its inception in 2017. This IIT Madras incubated startup is currently working on its popular launch vehicle. Agnibaan and intends to make its first launch in 2022. This Agnibaan launch rocket is being developed to carry 100 kg small satellites into low earth orbit.
The space company wants to provide a cab-like service to small satellite makers, allowing them to launch from anywhere and anytime from around the world. Agnikul Cosmos is also looking at research, technology development and ways to make space transportation more affordable and more accessible to businesses. In future, it plans to launch at least 20-25 every year.
Gadgets 360 spoke to Co-Founder and CEO Srinath Ravichandran, Agnikul universe To know a little more about the company’s journey so far and its future plans.
1. What were you doing before starting Agnikul Cosmos?
I am an electrical engineer turned aerospace engineer from a Wall Street trader. I have a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the College of Engineering, Guindy, and a masters degree in financial engineering from Columbia University and aerospace engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When I was working in finance, I realized that my heart was really in engineering. So, I took a leap of faith with leaving the finance job and it seems to be going well so far.
2. What inspired you to start Agnikul Cosmos? How did you meet your fellow co-founder?
The story dates back to 2015, when I was in Los Angeles, I visited a lot of universities and other companies and saw a small satellite waiting to be launched everywhere. So, I saw a problem for small satellites to reach space through conventional launch vehicles. It felt like what we see in rideshare via ground transportation – say on the bus with other people – the bus must have space, the bus should go where you want to go and it will start only after that The bus is loaded. These were pain points for all small satellite manufacturers, we wanted to address this with a solution like CAB which can be launched from anywhere in the world and anytime. This gave rise to the basic idea behind the Agnikula universe.
With my then friend and now co-founder Moin, who was running his own business, we decided to take the idea a little further. We realized, educational institute is a good way to start. We made a list of IITs that were working on technologies related to aerospace. We cold called and mailed around 70-80 professors. One such cold call introduced us to Professor Satya Chakraborty from IIT Madras. He believed in our idea and told us that he found the concept of quick cab service in space quite interesting. Agnikul was basically born at that very moment.
3. What was it like in the first year of being in business? What are your major lessons from the early days?
The early days were all about figuring things out. Although Moin had run businesses in the past and I had networked with several startups, doing something in aerospace hardware was new to both of us. Figuring this out and getting a road map out of this idea was the major challenge in the first year. Our key learnings include trying to come up with a story it can deliver to an investor, and how to present itself to clients. Fortunately, we have always had the support of retired ISRO scientists through Professor Chakraborty. Therefore, the challenges from the hardware front were more about the implementation of the product, as opposed to the core design or strategy required.
4. What are the challenges in building space technology in the country?
The main challenge used to be policy and regulation. Earlier there was no regulatory authority to license our activities. But currently with the creation of IN-SPACe and policy changes, we see space becoming the next big thing in India. I believe that as a country we are in the right place at the right time.
5. What was the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on your plans?
As a hardware company, it was very difficult for us to manage the situation without any actual hardware testing, which impacted our launch timeline. During the second wave, we stopped all our liquid oxygen based testing to support the country in oxygen crisis. However, as a team, we planned all the activities in a phased manner despite COVID and we successfully achieved our single piece 3D printed engine during the crisis. We have also built a comprehensive vendor database to help you have multiple backups in case of supply chain and procurement problems during a crisis.
6. In which year did Agnikul Cosmos make great progress? Can you give more details about what happened that year?
Each year has been huge in itself. From our start in December 2017, every year we were able to achieve some meaningful milestones. Thankfully, if we have to choose, 2021 has been a remarkable year for us so far as we test our second stage engine and also advance our Series A which is India’s largest space tech funding round. Apart from this, we also signed an MoU with the Department of Space, which has brought us much closer to our dream of launching from Indian soil.
7. What products have you made so far? What are you working on?
Currently, we are working on testing and integrating various sub-systems of Agniban. We have successfully designed, realized and qualified our engines. We have successfully manufactured all propulsion subsystems such as pumps and motors and are actively placing orders for many large vehicle components such as tanks and structural subsystems. We are planning our first launch by the end of 2022.
8. Can you help tell how far the Agnikul Cosmos has come in these few years? When did it start and where is it now?
We incorporated as a four-member team in December 2017, we now have around 100 members (year-on-year – 4, 12, 36, 50, 100) from various backgrounds, working to make the space accessible to all. Working together with dreams. We have raised about $15 million (approximately Rs 112 crore) every year since 2019 from three years of funding ($0.5 million, $3.5 million, $11 million) and the India Space Research Organization to use their infrastructure and technology. A Memorandum of Understanding has been signed with Specialization. We have also signed agreements with supporting agencies like Leafspace for ground stations. In addition, we have enlisted a few customers around the world to launch with us. We are still a pre revenue company whose customer letter of intent has been increasing continuously over the years.
9. How did the ISRO partnership happen? Apart from access to infrastructure, how else will it help the business?
Agnikul is the first company to sign agreement with ISRO which includes a Memorandum of Understanding (which happened recently) with ISRO. This MoU will give us access to infrastructure for testing several sub-systems such as engines and avionics packages. Working from ISRO facilities will give us invaluable guidance apart from accelerating our time to product flight ready. Furthermore, we see this partnership as a major step towards allowing private players in the space sectors to work with ISRO. Also, this will help us to review our designs with ISRO experts.
10. Can you talk about the unique 3D-printing technology you use to build your rockets?
The majority of our launch vehicles are made through 3D printing. We rely on 3D printing to reduce fabrication and turnaround times. We have recently realized and qualified our fully 3D printed, single piece and semi cryogenic engine – Agnilet. This will be part of the second phase of our vehicle and is the first of its kind in the world. We have realized the full-scale model and demonstrated it for the first time at IAC, Dubai.
11. Is India ready for a space-tech revolution? How long ago do we have companies that operate on a scale like SpaceX in India?
With the efforts of our Honorable Prime Minister, Indian Space Research Organisation, space is becoming the next fast growing thing in India. The environment is now very conducive for space startups and with increasing investments in the number of space companies, that day is not far away. Very soon India will have its own SpaceX up and running.
12. Have you thought of ways you can reduce the cost of space travel?
We are a space transportation company – everything we do has an angle of reduction in space travel costs. From highly modular vehicle designs to efficient energy management systems such as new age batteries, to easy-to-build engines, we believe that when one is able to iterate hardware at the speed of software, So the cost of space travel can be reduced significantly.
13. What are the other plans for the future?
Future plans exist from scaling up to at least 20-25 launches a year (on-demand launches every 2 weeks). We also have plans to make the rocket extremely customizable and tailor it to the needs of each satellite – all satellites specialized enough to demand their own rockets.
14. How long before space travel becomes as common as air travel?
I expect it to take about 15 years in India. Globally, this can happen in seven to eight years. Three things must happen before getting here – a) the cost of travel has to be reduced meaningfully, b) awareness of how accessible space must be increased, c) rocket science to get here not to be “rocket science” needed. Companies like ours are working on all these areas to make space transport as normal as air transport.
15. Do you have any management mantra/advice you would like to share with future entrepreneurs?
You will not always have luck but all you have to do is try till that point. This has always been my belief and I convey this to my colleagues as well. If you take a graph, and try to plot the output vs hard work, sometimes, for the same amount of hard work you’ll get more output, you never know when this phase will come. All you have to do is keep trying, persistent brute force and, one day things will suddenly be in your favor.
16. What is Employee Power? Is Agnikul Cosmos currently recruiting?
We are currently a 100 member team and we are expanding rapidly. We are currently hiring people for various verticals, please visit our careers page for details and also leave your resume at [email protected] Anyone who is really, really good at anything has a place in Agnikul!