Kerala Technology

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Kerala’s spacetech sector needs an immediate lift-off

Kerala’s spacetech sector needs an immediate lift-off

Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on January 23, 2023
Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on January 23, 2023

The sky is the limit is a usage that is overused when it comes to technology. But one area that rings true is spacetech, especially when it comes to Kerala.

Trivandrum is home to India’s many premier space institutions. The Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) , ISRO Inertial Systems Unit (IISU), Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC), BrahMos Aerospace, and Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST)’s an impressive list.

Despite the vast pool of expertise in the field, the number of space technology startups in the state is limited. With space exploration and satellite technology expected to generate billions of dollars in the coming years, a supportive ecosystem is needed in Kerala to nurture entities that could become key players on the global stage.

Efforts to create a supportive ecosystem for space technology startups in Trivandrum, Kerala began in earnest in 2019 when the Kerala Startup Mission (KSUM) announced plans for the establishment of a Space Park and put in place a launchpad. But a political scandal that snared some of the key officials in it and the plans disappeared like a shooting star.

Meanwhile, other southern IT centres like Bangalore and Chennai have moved ahead quickly in developing their own space technology industries. Telengana and Tamil Nadu are also actively courting space technology firms. Kerala now has some catching up to do, but the talent pool in Trivandrum is still an advantage, according to Sheela DS, a former ISRO expert who has started a startup called SpaceLabs with three others.

“Nearly 8,000 people who play or have played key roles in India's space missions over the years reside in Trivandrum and their expertise is sought by space technology firms. As most of the applications can be done remotely, this area has the potential to become a hub of global importance,” said Sheela DS, an expert in space vehicle guidance and mission design.

“There are some former ISRO employees who are interested in such plans, but there needs to be more activity in this sector for them to come forward,” she added.

Sheela herself stumbled into the space technology sector after being lured out of retirement by another firm offering a consultant role and later decided to start her own space technology venture.

Governments across the world find it difficult to keep pace with fast technological developments, as even Japan struggles with this as a recent BBC report revealed that Tokyo is still trying to end the use of floppy discs. Arcane rules can discourage not just new ventures, but also pioneers in the field, as Kortas Industries, a nationally renowned space hardware manufacturer, is finding out.

Established in the late 1990s by Shahabudeen Mohammed, a contemporary of APJ Abdul Kalam when he was heading the ISRO, Kortas Industries has played a key role in almost every major space mission India has achieved to date. Located in the industrial zone in Veli, Trivandrum, Kortas has earned a reputation for high-quality manufacturing of critical components needed for rocket launches.

The specialized unit has an impressive track record as its relentless pursuit of quality and innovation has seen it grow from a small unit established by Shahabudeen and the late Ram Mohan Unnithan to a private limited company employing around 100 people with a paid-up capital of over 15 crore rupees. Their laser focus on quality has helped them to compete with larger, deep-pocketed players like Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL), and this prompted Alpha Elettronica Defence Systems, a multi-crore company based in Bangalore, to take a majority share in it three years ago.

With the private sector also entering the picture, Kortas is finding it difficult to keep up with increased demand and is looking to expand its unit. However, despite their efforts over the last couple of years, they have yet to secure the land they need. To add to their woes, when the partnership firm changed into a private limited company recently, they even had to surrender their earlier lease as the firm's status change mandated this, according to Shahabudeen.

“While this is the way Kerala is moving, the Tamil Nadu government machinery is going all out to attract industries like ours to locate there. They are willing to provide ample land and other support services, and it is very tempting for anyone given the slow pace at which things move here,” says Shahabudeen.

The lack of a supportive ecosystem in Kerala will squander away the advantage that the state has due to the location of premier space agencies here. Moreover, the young scientists produced by the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) are also being courted by successful space technology startups elsewhere in India and abroad.

Many of the researchers at IIST are aware of the private sector possibilities, but the lure of well-paid jobs, especially in the state sector like ISRO and Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, weigh against choosing such adventurous paths. “Deeptech startups face steep odds now, and unless one is not passionate enough, it is difficult to sustain through the initial period,” says Saurabh Chatterjee, an IIST researcher and founder of Vasishta Research, an upcoming startup.

A private firm needs a lot of support initially, says Chatterjee, whose established his firm in 2018 and has since secured robotic supply contracts with prestigious institutions like the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). But finding finance is a difficult task for deeptech firms, as very few investors look at such long-range exits, he says.

“A beginner cannot match the state sector salaries to attract talent and the manpower expenses remain one of the main hurdles for firms like ours,” he says. Chatterjee thinks a corpus fund set up by state players could overcome such hurdles. “Elon Musk has achieved a lot in deeptech, but Nasa provided billions needed to get his SpaceX off the ground,” he points out.

The Kerala government recently announced that the stalled Space Park will now be registered as a society by the name K-Space and preparatory work for this ongoing. The work ahead is cut out for the new entity as Kerala is already on the backfoot as other southern states race ahead to establish themselves as space technology hubs.

As any rocket scientist can explain, a rocket launch mission consists of thousands of components put together. Every part is crucial, but the most critical component is the navigation and guidance controls, or the "brain". It is that analogy that Kerala officials have to remember before that asset too shrinks.



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