Agnikul Cosmos, an Indian space technology startup looking to capitalize on the massive space opportunities of the next decade, has made headlines lately. From signing contracts with Alaska Aerospace Corporation in the US to signing an MoU with ISRO for access to its infrastructure and technical expertise, Agnikul Cosmos has made huge strides since its inception in 2017. This incubated startup from IIT Madras is currently working on its popular Agnibaan launcher and plans to make its first launch in 2022. This Agnibaan launcher is being developed to launch small satellites weighing up to 100 kg into low earth orbit.
The space company wants to offer small satellite manufacturers a cabin-like service that allows them to take off from anywhere, anytime anywhere in the world. Agnikul Cosmos is also looking for ways to make space transportation more affordable and accessible for research, technology development and business. In the future, at least 20-25 market launches should be carried out every year.
Gadgets 360 spoke to Srinath Ravichandran, Co-Founder and CEO of Agnikul Cosmos to learn more about the company’s journey so far and its future plans.
1. What did you do before you started with Agnikul Cosmos?
I’m an electrical engineer who turned into a Wall Street trader and an aerospace engineer. I have a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the College of Engineering, Guindy, and a master’s degree in financial engineering from Columbia University and aerospace engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. When I worked in finance, I realized that engineering really is my heart. So I took a leap of faith when I quit the finance job and it looks like it has gone well so far.
2. What motivated you to start with Agnikul Cosmos? How did you get to know your co-founder?
The story goes back to 2015 when I was in Los Angeles visiting many universities and other businesses and saw that every place that was worth something had a little satellite waiting to be launched. So I saw a problem for small satellites going into space via conventional launch vehicles. It felt similar to ground transportation – let’s say on a bus with other people – there should be space on the bus, the bus should go to the same place you want to go, and it will only go after the starting bus is full. All of these were weak points for the small satellite manufacturers. We wanted to approach this with a cabin-like solution that could be launched from anywhere, anytime in the world. From this came the core idea of Agnikul Cosmos.
Together with my friend at the time and today’s co-founder – Moin, who ran his own business, we decided to pursue this idea a little further. We thought academic institutions were a good place to start. We have compiled a list of IITs working on aerospace-related technologies. We called around 70-80 professors coldly and emailed them. One such cold call introduced us to Professor Satya Chakkaravarthy from IIT Madras. He believed in our idea and told us that he found the concept of a quick taxi ride into space very interesting. Agnikul was basically born in that moment.
3. How was the first year in business? What are your most important insights from the early days?
The early days were all about figuring out things. Although Moin had run companies in the past and I had networked with several startups, it was new for both of us to do something in aerospace hardware. Finding this out and turning the idea into a roadmap was the main challenge in the first year. One of our key takeaways was trying to come up with a story to give to an investor and how to present yourself to clients. Fortunately, through Professor Chakravarthy, we have always had the support of retired ISRO scientists. So the challenges on the hardware front were more about the implementation of the product than the required core design or strategy.
4. What are the challenges in building space technology in the country?
The biggest challenge used to be politics and regulation. There used to be no regulatory body that licensed our activities. But right now, with the creation of IN-SPACe and policy changes, we see space becoming the next big thing in India. I think we as a country are in the right place at the right time.
5. How did the COVID-19 crisis affect your plans?
As a hardware company, it was very difficult for us to handle the situation without actual hardware testing, which affected our launch schedule. During the second wave, we suspended all of our liquid oxygen-based testing to aid the country in the oxygen crisis. As a team, however, despite COVID, we planned all activities in phases and successfully qualified our one-piece 3D-printed engine through the crisis. We have also created extensive supplier databases to help us have multiple backups in the event of supply chain and procurement issues during the crisis.
6. In what year did Agnikul Cosmos make significant progress? Could you provide more details on what happened this year?
Each year has been huge in its own way. Since our start in December 2017, we have achieved a significant milestone every year. Fortunately, if we have to choose, 2021 was a remarkable year for us as we tested our second stage engine and also launched our Series A, India’s largest funding round for space technology. In addition, we have also signed a MoU with the Department of Space that has brought us much closer to our dream of starting from Indian soil.
7. Which products have you built so far? What are you working on?
We are currently working on testing and integrating various Agnibaan subsystems. We have successfully designed, implemented and qualified our engines. We have successfully manufactured all propulsion subsystems such as pumps and motors and are actively placing orders for many of the vehicle’s large components such as tanks and structural subsystems. We are planning our first launch by the end of 2022.
8. Could you give us a sense of how far Agnikul Cosmos has come in these few years? From its beginnings to what it is today.
We joined together as a team of four in December 2017, now we have almost 100 members (year – 4, 12, 36, 50, 100) with different backgrounds working with the dream of making space accessible to everyone. We have funded nearly $ 15 million (approximately Rs.112 billion) every year since 2019 over three years ($ 0.5 million, $ 3.5 million, $ 11 million) and a letter of intent with the India Space Research Organization for the use of their infrastructure and technology signed expertise. We have also signed agreements with supporting agencies like Leafspace for ground stations. In addition, we have brought some customers on board around the world to start with us. We’re still a pre-revenue company whose letters of intent for customers have grown steadily over the years.
9. How did the ISRO partnership come about? Besides access to the infrastructure, how will it help the company?
Agnikul is the first company to sign agreements with ISRO, including a MoU with ISRO (which was only recently). This MoU will give us access to an infrastructure for testing multiple subsystems such as engines and avionics packages. In addition to speeding up our time, the work in the ISRO facilities will give us invaluable assistance in preparing for the product flight. In addition, we see this partnership as an important step to enable private actors in the space sector to work with ISRO. This will also help us to review our designs with ISRO experts.
10. Can you say something about the unique 3D printing technology that you use to build your missiles?
Most of the parts in our launcher are 3D printed. We rely on 3D printing to reduce manufacturing and lead times. We recently implemented and qualified our fully 3D printed, one-piece and semi-cryogenic engine – Agnilet. This will be part of the second stage of our vehicle and is unique in the world. We realized the scale model and presented it for the first time at the IAC, Dubai.
11. Is India Ready for a Space Technology Revolution? How long will it be before we have companies in India that operate on a scale like SpaceX?
With the efforts of our honorable Prime Minister, the Indian Space Research Organization, space travel is set to be the next boom in India. The environment is now very favorable for aerospace startups and with the number of aerospace companies raising investment the day is not yet ready. India will be launching its own SpaceX very soon.
12. Have you ever thought about how to cut the cost of space travel?
We’re a space company – everything we do has a space cost-cutting aspect. From highly modular vehicle concepts to efficient energy management systems such as New Age batteries to easy-to-manufacture engines, we believe that the costs of space travel can be drastically reduced if hardware can be iterated at the speed of software.
13. What are the other plans for the future?
Future plans consist of scaling up to at least 20-25 starts per year (one on-demand start every 2 weeks). We also have plans to make the rocket extremely customizable, tailoring it specifically to the needs of each satellite – all satellites are specific enough to require their own rocket.
14. How long will it take for space travel to become as widespread as air travel?
I expect this will take about 15 years in India. Globally, it could happen in seven to eight years. Three things have to happen before we get here – A) Travel costs have to be reduced significantly, B) Awareness of how accessible space is should increase, C) Rocket Science shouldn’t be “rocket science” to get here. Companies like us are working in all of these areas to make space transportation as common as air transportation.
15. Do you have any management mantras / advice that you would like to share with future entrepreneurs?
You won’t always be lucky, but all you have to do is try until this point. I’ve always had this belief and tell my teammates too. If you are graphing and trying to plot performance versus hard work, sometimes you get more performance for the same amount of hard work, you never know when that stage will come. All you have to do is continue with steady, consistent brute force effort and one day things will suddenly be in your favor.
16. What is the strength of the employees? Is Agnikul Cosmos currently hiring?
We are currently a team of 100 and are scaling quickly. We are currently recruiting for various industries. Please visit our careers page for details and also send your CV to email@example.com. Anyone who can really do everything has a place at Agnikul!