Parents present their children with books on space early in their formative years all over the world. Often, this is to keep the children informed about the universe we live in and to spark their imagination. Somehow space tends to fade out of focus as we get older and our imaginations become rooted to the ground ahead of us and sometimes behind. We stop looking at the stars in the sky but there are a few people like Elon Musk and Pixxel founder Awais Ahmed, who tend to look skywards with imaginations ablaze. They seem to stay rooted to earth through a tether that inspires them to innovate and build solutions for making life sustainable on the planet.
Ahmed’s journey as a space tech entrepreneur takes him all over world. Last month, he was at Svalbard, Norway signing a ground station deal with Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) and now, he is in the US. But his company, Pixxel, is a space technology startup based out of Bengaluru, India. And it is pushing towards creating the world’s highest resolution hyperspectral imaging satellite constellation.
Under Ahmed’s leadership, Pixxel launched its first fully-fledged commercial satellite Shakuntala (Technology Demonstrator-2) on 1 April 2022. Shakuntala is India’s first private commercial imaging satellite to be launched into the low-orbit on the SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket.
Recently, Awais Ahmed spoke to BW Businessworld’s Rohit Chintapali. During the interview, Ahmed talked about his journey from BITS Pilani (Rajasthan) to Hyperloop India and starting Pixxel. He also shared some insights on the status of Indian companies’ innovation in building rocket technology, government support and more.
Your entrepreneurial journey began with Hyperloop. What made you pivot towards space tech?
I have always loved Space ever since I was a kid. Most of us do when we are growing up. It all started with my father getting me encyclopedias on space and that love for space never went away. But my experiences in college perhaps led me to Pixxel. At BITS Pilani (Rajasthan), there was a student satellite team that was working on building satellites and they were being guided by scientists at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). I became a part of that team. It was a very steep learning curve there and I learned about the different ways in which one can build a satellite and how differently something has to be engineered in space.
In the second and third year of college, I was one of the founding members at Hyperloop India. This too came along as we were following the space segment. In 2017, SpaceX decided that it would hold a competition where they had a one-mile-long vacuum tube. They wanted teams from around the world build a hyperloop pod that could travel at really fast speeds. We decided to participate and got through one round after the other. Eventually, we managed to manufacture and take the pod to Los Angeles (LA).
While we were in LA, they took us on a tour of the SpaceX factory. Looking at Falcon 9’s Booster rockets that they keep in front of their HQ gave me my eureka moment. The thought had then crystallised in my mind that space is where I want to work at for the rest of my life.
Working with NASA was not an option because of the restrictions. And after looking at different ways on how I could contribute to space, I decide satellite imagery seemed something that was possible for a college student to start delving into.
What are you looking to do with the launch of Pixxel’s satellites in this year and in 2023?
We built demo satellites that didn’t cost a whole lot of money this year and last year. But we were able to prove the technology that we were working on. In our case, this is hyperspectral imaging, hyperspectral cameras and satellites.
In 2023, we are launching full commercial-grade capacity satellites, which means that these are not demo satellites. These will be much larger satellites, much more expensive and they will have a much longer lifetime as well. We are moving away from building demo satellites to show that our work is technologically viable and start selling data to begin making revenue orders. And we can do this in a limited way today.
Speaking of launching satellites, do you see Indian startups making headway in making launch vehicles? Would they be ready in a 10-year period?
We have two or three companies today that are seriously focusing on building their own rockets. And I would say in the next two years, we will definitely have a rocket that has gone into orbit. It’s not too far away when we have someone doing that.
We are seeing different government entities showing their interest in procuring these services as well. So, I think we don’t have to wait for 10 years. We will actually start seeing the fruit in the next two to three years – (optimistically) our worst-case scenario is the next three to four years for the rockets.
Coming back to Pixxel, do you see any competitors coming close to you in India or is this limited to international players?
The competition is more on the international front right now from North America, China and Europe. There’s no one else in India that has come close to us in building such satellites. It will take some time for someone to catch up. But I do hope that others come up. It will create more ideas and foster a better ecosystem. We right now have the world’s highest resolution hyperspectral satellite and are looking to better that next year.
Are you seeing a lot of interest coming in from the governments?
We recently signed a deal with the Telangana government. This was for monitoring crops for the entire state – to keep tabs on how the crop health is and where the yield will be. Our initial customers are in three major sectors including agriculture, oil & gas and mining.
How has the government support been for space tech companies?
The biggest thing for the government to do for the space industry is to be able to set up a policy and let the startups/companies get to work. You need an open and free market for companies to come up with different ways of going at the same goal. This was lacking two to three years ago. But in mid-2020, when the government announced the privatisation of space, it really opened the floodgate to investment and innovation. More and more companies are now coming up in the space. So, if private companies can specifically do this – not just are they allowed to do this – but they are encouraged to do this, it gives them a different level of confidence. It has given everyone in the sector a boost.
Pixxel is a startup. Have there been any hindrances and challenges in your journey so far?
Covid caused a major slowdown in the pace at which we were moving at. We would have preferred to have launched more satellites by now. But we got delayed for a few months because of the lockdowns, which brought about a lot of problems in the supply chain. The equipment that we generally need to order for our satellites come from around the globe and those supply chains are taking a lot longer. Ensuring that we are able to stick to our timelines would be the biggest challenge.
What are your plans for Pixxel in the next two years?
Our focus is just to keep our heads down and launch these satellites that we are talking about – six next year and at least 12 more in 2024. And then use that to provide actual useful information to customers on the ground. Our data can create positive impact. It can help make agriculture more efficient, help fight forest fires and keep track of the health of our planet.
On the company front, we have already grown our team more than 60 people now. As we move forward, we will double this number in the coming two years or even more than that and expand our footprint in Bengaluru or elsewhere in India.
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