SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — An Indian satellite propulsion startup with eventual plans to also build a small launch vehicle has raised $3 million from a group of venture capital investors.
Bangalore, India-based Bellatrix Aerospace intends to use the funds to demonstrate its thruster technology in space.
IDFC-Parampara, StartupXseed, Karsemven Fund and Survam Partners led the pre-Series A round. GrowX Ventures participated in the round, as did Indian actress Deepika Padukone through KA Enterprises, and the incubators CIIE (from IIM Ahmedabad) and SINE (from IIT Bombay).
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Formed in 2015 at the Indian Institute of Science, Bellatrix currently consists of 14 people, but will use the investment to increase that number, co-founder Yashas Karanam told SpaceNews.
Bellatrix is building propulsion systems for all sizes of satellites, he said. The company's first product is an electric propulsion system that runs on water. Karanam declined to say when Bellatrix's first thruster would launch.
Bellatrix is not alone in building water-based propulsion systems. Momentus Space, Deep Space Industries and Tethers Unlimited have also detailed plans to use water as thruster fuel.
Karanam said Bellatrix believes it can leverage cost-saving techniques learned by working with the Indian Space Research Organization to win on price in the commercial market.
"Coming from India, one of the things we can offer is a very affordable price tag with the frugal engineering that we are able to bring," he said.
Bellatrix is also reviewing standards from NASA and the European Space Agency to make sure its products meet global expectations.
"The aim is to be a global player," Karanam said, adding that Bellatrix wants to eventually set up offices in the U.S. and Europe.
In contrast to the U.S. and Europe, few space startups have emerged internationally from India, but that could soon change. Seraphim Capital Investment Manager Conor O'Sullivan said India's achievements in launch and space exploration lay the foundation for space startups to emerge.
"This engineering heritage combined with the talent pool and ambition is a great platform upon which to develop the newspace economy in India," O'Sullivan said. "We see a steady flow of opportunities in India, albeit fewer than from other major space faring nations."
Karanam said that while Bellatrix's first capital raise came fully from Indian investors, the company will reach out globally for its next round. Bellatrix Co-founder Rohan Ganapathy said the company hopes to complete its Series A round by the end of 2020.
The most famous private Indian space initiative is arguably TeamIndus, which competed for the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize to privately develop a spacecraft, land it on the moon, travel at least 500 meters across the lunar surface, and return images and video. The competition ended without a winner, but TeamIndus may get a second chance through its partnership with BeyondOrbit, an Edison, New Jersey-based company that received $97 million from NASA in May as part of the agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.
O'Sullivan said he expects more Indian space startups to gain traction, similar to Bellatrix.
"We're reasonably confident that we'll see more funding round announcements like this in India across all parts of the space value chain, both hardware and software," he said.
Bellatrix is working on a launch vehicle that Karanam said will launch around 200 kilograms to low Earth orbit — a part of the small launch market Rocket Lab currently serves with its Electron vehicle.
Karanam said Bellatrix's launcher likely won't be ready until 2023 or 2024. Companies in the small launcher market say more than 100 such vehicles are or have recently been under development, creating concerns that many more vehicles are in the works than will survive.
Karanam said Bellatrix is preparing its vehicle in great detail to be one those survivors.
"Even if we are slightly delayed in entering the market, we believe we will be giving a better product," he said.
B. V. Naidu, Managing Partner of StartupXseed, said in a statement that the venture firm is excited to journey with Bellatrix as the startup grows.
"Emerging out of India and with global applications, their innovations in the area of thrusters, have tremendous opportunity worldwide," he said.
Bellatrix was inspired by the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, a star-forming region visible in the night sky near the star Bellatrix in the constellation Orion, which led to the company name, Karanam said.
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