Agnikul CEO On Challenges, Learnings & The Future Of The Startup

With the launch of the Agnibaan Sub-Orbital Technology Demonstrator (SOrTeD) this week, homegrown spacetech startup Agnikul Cosmos has set many records for the Indian spacetech ecosystem. 

By pioneering India’s first semi-cryogenic engine powering a rocket launch and using the first private launch pad (‘Dhanush’ built by Agnikul) for the same, the Indian spacetech startup marked a significant victory for the country’s burgeoning spacetech ecosystem.

Though it was a test launch of Agnibaan, which demonstrated the technology Agnikul has built over the years, it has set the stage for the startup to start ramping up for an orbital launch.

Founded in 2017 by Srinath Ravichandran and Moin SPM, Agnikul is an IIT Madras-incubated startup. It has been working on developing launch vehicles that are affordable and customisable as per customer needs.

The rocket, which took off from Sriharikota in the early morning of May 30, was also the world’s first that came with a single-piece 3D-printed engine.

We must note that the test flight finally took off after the first four aborted attempts over the last few months. 

Following this major accomplishment, Agnikul cofounder and CEO Ravichandran told Inc42 in an interview that besides validating the technology that the startup has built over the years, the launch also validates the company’s ability to set up a completely functional launch pad that is in sync with ISRO’s (Indian Space Research Organisation’s) launch systems.

Ravichandran also spoke about the step forward for Agnikul and the scope that lies ahead for the company in the global space market, which is expected to reach a size of $1 Tn by 2030.

Agnikul has so far raised $42 Mn in four rounds and is backed by the likes of Celesta Capital, Rocketship.vc, Artha Venture Fund, and Mayfield India. Agnikul expects to start earning revenue from operations by the early part of the next fiscal year.

Here are the edited excerpts from the interview:

Inc42: What is the most significant aspect of the Agnibaan launch? 

Srinath Ravichandran: Firstly, at a company level, this proves the capabilities of all our technologies for an orbital launch. The vehicle lifted off with our own engine and launch pad. The vehicle’s engine was 3D-printed at our facilities. 

It was a controlled flight, which means it was not like a sounding rocket and was continuously manoeuvred throughout the flight to track a particular trajectory. 

It had the same software that would be running for our orbital mission. From a technological milestone standpoint, it allows us to focus on precision and refinement of our work towards orbit as opposed to saying we’re figuring out our technology. So, that’s a big validation.

On a slightly different level, we’re very honoured to say that we have been able to contribute to the spacetech toolkit in the country. With ISRO’s support, we’ve been able to develop technology that ISRO has been actively working on, like a 3D-printed semi-cryogenic engine. 

Inc42: What was the reason for aborting the previous four launches?

Srinath Ravichandran: So, one thing we learned only after getting to the pad is that building a vehicle is one thing but in the process of launching a vehicle, we had to be in sync with ISRO and we were completely new to that.

The recent launch took the combined effort of 21 teams. 

Coordinating with them in an integrated and orchestrated manner during the countdown, and ensuring we either proceed or halt the countdown for the right reasons, took us some time to figure out.

So, I think the process of launching was something that we went in without too much experience. However, over the last four attempts, we’ve got a very good hang of it and that is why the fifth launch attempt was successful without any hassle.

Inc42: What purpose does this Agnibaan SOrTeD launch serve?

Srinath Ravichandran: Our customer is anyone who is building a small satellite. These could be people who are working on imaging satellites or communication satellites or building satellites for things like microgravity experiments – anyone building a satellite with less than 300 kg of mass and wants to go to orbit is a customer for us.

So, we will be targeting to help them out. Our ability is driven by our flexibility in the launch schedule because we can offer dedicated launches. Today, small satellites go to orbit only as rideshare passengers as we don’t have dedicated flights for this. But at this scale, Agnikul will be able to do dedicated launches even for small satellites, which is going to be a huge differentiator in the market.

Inc42: Are you in talks with different satellite companies for orbital launch? 

Srinath Ravichandran: We are already in talks with about 70-80 companies and in the advanced stages of discussions with 12-13 of them.

We offer them a value proposition that they don’t easily get in the market today. 

However, currently, these are still under discussion and we will come out with more formal announcements once the paperwork is done.

Following the recent test flight, interested customers have started noticing that the vehicle has performed well, hence, we can give a lot of confidence to our customers right now. We will use this launch to attract more customers.

This fiscal year or latest by the early part of the next financial year, we should start earning revenue from operations.

Right now, we are witnessing a lot of customer interest from around the world but mainly from regions like the US, Europe, Japan, Australia, and Singapore.

Inc42: Could you provide specifications of the vehicle that you are building now for an orbital launch?

Srinath Ravichandran: The maximum capacity is 300 kg, while the minimum capacity is 30 kg. Most importantly, our rocket is customisable.

Think of it like a laptop with different hard disk or RAM configurations – you could have a similar-looking and similarly-sized laptop with 32 GB RAM, 64 GB RAM, or 8 GB RAM. Similarly, the core architecture and size of our vehicle remain the same, but we can adjust the vehicle to handle capacities ranging from 30 kg to 300 kg.

This customisation is crucial for offering dedicated launches. If a satellite weighs only 30 kg and we offer a 300 kg vehicle for a dedicated launch, it wouldn’t be economically viable for us.

We achieve customisable dedicated launches by having the ability to adjust the vehicle’s capacity without altering the overall assembly.

Depending on the payload, the orbital rocket could use 4-7 engines.

The rocket is fuelled by aviation turbine fuel, which is jet-grade aviation fuel, and industrial-grade liquid oxygen.

Inc42: What’s your take on the Indian spacetech ecosystem and government policies, including the recent FDI liberalisation?

Srinath Ravichandran: One of the best developments for all spacetech startups in our country is the formation of IN-SPACe (the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre), providing a clear direction and policy framework for us to operate within.

Previously, during interactions with customers, suppliers, and investors, questions often arose about government support. Those questions no longer exist.

The launch of the Agnibaan SOrTeD was the first in India for a controlled vehicle setup, requiring significant government involvement and support. Additionally, it took place from a private launchpad that we established with government backing.

There is now more clarity at the policy level, which will greatly benefit both larger companies entering the spacetech business and smaller companies striving to prove themselves. It’s an exciting time to be building spacetech in India.

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