From a small room in Bits Pilani to becoming one of India's foremost name in the private space sector, we look at how Pixxel space is rewriting the rulebooks with its advanced hyperspectral imaging smallsats.
The year is 2018. A bunch of undergraduate students from BITS Pilani are working on the IBM Watson AI problem, which is a $5 million competition to solve global challenges using AI. A young Awais Ahmed and Kshitij Khandelwal, while working on the challenge, soon run into a problem. They wanted to predict chlorophyll content in plants among other things using satellite imagery but were handicapped by the lack of high-resolution imagery data for such analysis. The students soon reached out to major companies in the satellite imagery domain to learn more about this problem and soon realised there is a market for a satellite company to offer high-resolution imagery data. This was the start of Pixxel Space, the space tech startup which seeks to solve various problems in climate change and agriculture using hyperspectral satellite imagery.
Their journey was certainly not an easy one. Awais recalls living at hardly 10k per month, but he restrains from claiming it as a very risky venture at the time. The company was unofficially started one year before their scheduled graduation, which meant it gave it sufficient safety net. Meanwhile, co-founder Kshitij already had a job so they went ahead after Awais burrowed some money from his father to get work started. After being initially started in 2018, the company went for funding stage in July 2019 and received early success by connecting with a BITS alum. This helped them tap into the BITS alumni community which helped them with the initial funding. A few months later, they were selected in the 2019 edition of Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator, which helped them get mentored by the experts in space industry. While it is certainly tough to raise capital in a risky business such as the space industry, tapping into the alumni network was a tremendous start for them. Pixxel space has already raised 40 crore rupees. Furthermore, the founders are grateful to Techstars for introducing them to the best in the space industry.
When asked about the biggest challenges they have faced until now in their journey to space, the young duo elaborated on the regulation uncertainty in the satellite industry. These are several regulation certifications one needs to obtain without which flying is prohibited.
Awais is not new to entrepreneurship, neither to the space industry. During his college days, he was a founding member of BITS Pilani chapter of Hyperloop and was also a part of the Anant, the college's CubeSat group. As a part of Hyperloop, he was a member of the team which presented at the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod competition, being one of the two teams to do it from Asia.
The founders envision a subscription-based model for selling their raw satellite data as a revenue model. While their first satellite, Anand, which has been named so as a tribute to one of the late interns at Pixxel, is a technology demonstration satellite; Pixxel aims to soon expand to have a constellation of satellites to offer real-time imaging of earth and are targetting 80 satellite launches by the middle of 2023. Satellite imagery data can be of immense usage to varied sectors, including agriculture, urban monitoring, climate studies and forestry.
While Pixxel had initially planned for a launch aboard the Soyuz rocket, they had to drop that plan during COVID -19 pandemic. The start-up has made other international collaborations including one with 'Leaf Space' for ground station operations to help transfer data back to earth. Despite the COVID-19 restrictions, Pixxel has managed to thrive in this abnormal world and has expanded in size. The company has also managed to secure a rideshare launch with ISRO this year and since the orbital parameters are quite similar to the Soyuz missions, this was an easy decision for the founders.
The latest changes in the Indian space policy and the set-up of InSpace has definitely boosted India's presence in the space sector. Given that the space industry in India is still in its infancy, there were major challenges in the production and manufacturing of Anand. For instance, given the absence of space instrument manufacturing companies in India meant they had to practically import most of their components, increasing costs. However, the young duo is hopeful the situation would soon change, especially with the government pushing for private space ventures. And with many space-tech start-ups burgeoning, the future is not that far when Pixxel uses satellite components like solar panels made in India and even collaborate with private space companies like Skyroot Aerospace and Agnikul Cosmos for future space missions.