Encouraged by high-profile successes elsewhere, India wants its private space companies to increase their share of the global launch market by fivefold within the next decade — an effort boosted by the personal support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In the year after the country opened the way for private launches in 2020, the number of space startups more than doubled, from 21 to 47.
At the end of 2022, Skyroot Aerospace, whose investors include Sherpalo Ventures and Singapore’s GIC, launched India’s first privately built rocket into space.
“Many times initiatives get announced and they die. This is not one of those,” said Pawan Goenka, an auto-industry veteran who last year was named head of Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe), a newly created space regulatory body. “Space is one of the most favourite areas of our prime minister right now, one that he wants to see move.”
Investors poured $119 million (nearly Rs. 980 crore) into Indian space startups in 2022, up from a total of just $38 million (nearly Rs. 312 crore) in all the years up to 2017. They see a less-costly alternative to European launchers that are grounded or under development, as well as access to a bustling manufacturing hub, analysts say.
That has meant a boom for young space companies such as Skyroot and Agnikul Cosmos — which promise to slash launch costs for satellites — Satsure, offering satellite-data and analytics services, and Pixxel, which in March won a five-year contract from the US National Reconnaissance Office.
“It was a big surprise for all of us that the launch and the policy change all happened on time and we were able to meet our deadlines with complete support. We did not have a single day’s delay because of policy issues,” said Pawan Chandana, co-founder of Skyroot, which is valued at $163 million. (nearly Rs. 1,338 crore).
Other startup founders say the new approach means approvals come easier, stakeholders are aligned with each other, and there are more private industry veterans in government helping the sector.
There are challenges, however. The country accounts for just 2 percent of the space sector’s global revenue, estimated at $370 billion (nearly Rs. 30,38,720 crore) in 2020. Funding has only trickled in, as customers want to see successful launches before committing costly payloads to unproven designs.
“There are some very good companies, but at the moment, we are very behind the US or China,” said Prateep Basu, co-founder of SatSure. “Policy unlocking is very important, but the world will not take real notice until you do something remarkable like what SpaceX did.”
In the United States, the government-operated NASA handles space exploration while private companies do launches and build crewed vehicles. Proponents say that has lowered costs, but it also led to a multiyear gap in which Washington relied on Russian space vehicles to travel to the International Space Station.
SpaceX, which serves private customers and governments, conducted more than 60 launches in 2022 alone.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) manages all of the country’s launch infrastructure, although Agnikul is planning its own launchpad.
“We realised the industry’s basic need is money,” said Jayant Patil, head of the launch vehicles committee at the Indian Space Association (ISPA), a quasi-government body that helps address private sector concerns.
Patil said the government is offering millions of dollars’ worth of seed funding to startups that use satellite data to boost India’s crop yields. Startups with potential military applications are vetted for government investment separately.
Kanchan Gupta, the Modi government’s senior adviser at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, said that the country could not afford to lag behind in the space race, and that “everything cannot be done by the government alone”.
“The whole idea is to provide policy stability, predictability,” Gupta said. “Letting the private sector know where the government comes in, where the government doesn’t come in, where they can get in, where they cannot get in.”
The privatisation effort began with a late 2020 video conference call between PM Modi and executives, five people involved in the process say. Since then, PM Modi has made it clear he wants to sweep away red tape and create national champions, they say.
“The prime minister’s aim is to do with space what we have done with IT,” said one of the people, who declined to be named because the call and ensuing meetings were private.
ISRO will focus on exploration but still support private launch efforts, giving the country’s space startups global legitimacy, industry executives said.
The agency will work alongside an advisory panel – with members from In-SPACe, ISPA and NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), the government’s commercial launch arm — that helped the government announce a new, business-friendly regulatory framework in April.
Hindustan Aeronautics and Larsen & Toubro, which helped shape the privatisation policies, have a $100 million (nearly Rs. 821 crore) contract to deliver ISRO’s next launch vehicle in 2024.
“PM Modi is a technology person. So the suggestion is to hand over production and development to private players, while we look at technology. It then becomes a self-sustaining environment,” said S. Somanath, chairman of ISRO.
The country’s space companies also hope to find new customers as sanctions and political tensions have cut off Russia from much of the international launch market after the invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a “special operation”.
The British satellite company OneWeb, for example, partnered with ISRO for a launch after Russia cancelled its launches.
“If you look at high technology, it is a matter of geopolitics… India definitely has some leverage right now,”said Laxman Behera, chairperson at the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Special Centre for National Security Studies.
© Thomson Reuters 2023
Elon Musk’s Neuralink Valued at $5 Billion Based on Private Stock Trades
Elon Musk‘s brain implant startup Neuralink, which was valued at close to $2 billion (roughly Rs. 16,500 crore) in a private fundraising round two years ago, is now worth around $5 billion (roughly Rs. 41,300 crore) based on privately executed stock trades described to Reuters by five sources with knowledge of the matter.
Some purchases by bullish investors boosted the valuation in recent months, ahead of Neuralink’s May 25 announcement that U.S. regulators had approved a human trial on its brain chip, the sources said.
Experts have said it could take several years for Neuralink to secure commercial use clearance. Kip Ludwig, former program director for neural engineering at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), said he “optimistically” expected Neuralink to take at least 10 more years to commercialize its brain implant. The company also faces other challenges that include federal probes into its handling of animal research.
Following the trial’s approval, however, Neuralink shares were marketed privately to investors in recent days at a $7 billion (roughly Rs. 57,900 crore) valuation, equivalent to $55 (roughly Rs. 4,500) per share, according to an email seen by Reuters. Reuters could not establish whether the seller found buyers for that price. The email cited the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of the clinical trial as grounds for the deal being “sweeter.”
Neuralink executives and Musk did not respond to requests for comment.
Musk has expressed grand ambitions for Neuralink, saying its chip would allow healthy and disabled people alike to pop into neighbourhood facilities for speedy surgical insertions of devices to treat obesity, autism, depression and schizophrenia. He even sees them being used for web-surfing and telepathy. A Neuralink executive recently gave more modest short-term objectives, such as helping paralyzed patients communicate through computerized text without typing.
The stock transactions at a valuation of around $5 billion (roughly Rs. 41,300 crore) have been carried out by shareholders such as employees and the company’s early backers, rather than Neuralink selling new shares to investors. Such so-called secondary trades are an imperfect gauge of a company’s value; their volume is thin and they lack the wider market consensus of a fundraising round or initial public offering (IPO).
Neuralink’s valuation jump in secondary trades is in sharp contrast to other startups. About 85percent of pre-IPO companies are currently valued in secondary trades at an average discount of 47 percent to their last funding round, according to data provider Caplight.
In Neuralink’s last known fundraising in 2021, it raised $205 million (roughly Rs. 1,700 crore) at an approximately $2 billion (roughly Rs. 16,500 crore) valuation, according to data provider Pitchbook.
Many of the recent stock sales have been to relatively small investors, who typically focus more on getting a slice of a company owned by Musk than scrutinizing its valuation. The maximum amount sought for the Neuralink shares marketed for sale at a $7 billion (roughly Rs. 57,900 crore) valuation was just $500,000, according to the email seen by Reuters.
Sim Desai, chief executive of Hiive, an online platform where the shares are traded, said demand for Neuralink stock has been “tremendous.” He pegged the valuation that buyers are willing to pay at around $4.5 billion (roughly Rs. 37,200 crore).
Some biomedical experts are skeptical. Arun Sridhar, a scientist and entrepreneur who specializes in neuromodulation, called Neuralink’s valuation “bonkers” based on how early the brain implant is in its clinical development.
“A study to assess safety and tolerability is in no shape or form valid to justify a $5 billion (roughly Rs. 41,300 crore) valuation,” said Sridhar, who helped launch Galvani Bioelectronics, a developer of implants backed by GSK Plc and Alphabet Inc’s Verily Life Sciences. Galvani is not a competitor of Neuralink because its implants under development will be installed in an artery to the spleen to help treat rheumatoid arthritis, rather than the brain.
The FDA initially rejected Neuralink’s request for a human trial last year, citing safety reasons, Reuters has reported. Even after securing approval, the company faces several challenges.
Neuralink has come under scrutiny from U.S. lawmakers after Reuters reported in May that its animal-research board may have violated conflict-of-interest regulations. Neuralink employees who sat on that board, which oversees the welfare of the animals that were being tested, also stood to benefit from the implant’s quick development. Neuralink stock that some of the employees hold has jumped around 150 percent in value in just two years, based on the secondary trades.
The law enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been investigating Neuralink for potential animal-welfare violations. Neuralink staff told Reuters last year that the company was rushing and botching surgeries on monkeys, pigs and sheep, resulting in far more animal deaths than necessary, as Musk pressured staff to receive FDA approval.
The Department of Transportation is separately probing whether Neuralink illegally transported dangerous pathogens on chips removed from monkey brains without proper containment measures.
Neither Musk nor Neuralink have responded to multiple requests for comment on the probes or the Reuters reports.
© Thomson Reuters 2023
(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)
Why Human Trials for Elon Musk’s Neuralink Will Change Everything
Elon Musk’s Neuralink received approval last week from the US Food and Drug Administration to conduct human clinical trials, which one former FDA official called “really a big deal.” I do not disagree, but I am skeptical that this technology will “change everything.” Not every profound technological advance has broad social and economic implications.
With Neuralink’s device, a robot surgically inserts a device into the brain that can then decode some brain activity and connect the brain signals to computers and other machines. A person paralyzed from the neck down, for example, could use the interface to manipulate her physical environment, as well as to write and communicate.
This would indeed be a breakthrough — for people with paralysis or traumatic brain injuries. For others, I am not so sure. For purposes of argument, as there are many companies working in this space, assume this technology works as advertised. Who exactly will want to use it?
One fear is that the brain-machine connections will be expensive and that only the wealthy will be able to afford them. These people will become a new class of “super-thinkers,” lording over us with their superior intellects.
I do not think that this scenario is likely. If I were offered $100 million for a permanent brain-computer connection, I would not accept it, if only because of fear of side effects and possible neurological damage. And I would want to know for sure that the nexus of control goes from me to the computer, not vice versa.
Besides, there are other ways of augmenting my intelligence with computers, most notably the recent AI innovations. It is true that I can think faster than I can speak or type, but — I’m just not in that much of a hurry. I would rather learn how to type on my phone as fast as a teenager does.
A related vision of direct brain-computer interface is that computers will be able to rapidly inject useful knowledge into our brains. Imagine going to bed, turning on your brain device, and waking up knowing Chinese. Sounds amazing — yet if that were possible, so would all sorts of other scenarios, not all of them benign, where a computer can alter or control our brains.
I also view this scenario as remote — unlike using your brain to manipulate objects, it seems true science fiction. Current technologies read brain signals but do not control them.
Another vision for this technology is that the owners of computers will want to “rent out” the powers of human brains, much the way companies rent out space today in the cloud. Software programs are not good at some skills, such as identifying unacceptable speech or images. In this scenario, the connected brains come largely from low-wage laborers, just as both social media companies and OpenAI have used low-wage labor in Kenya to grade the quality of output or to help make content decisions.
Those investments may be good for raising the wages of those people. Many observers may object, however, that a new and more insidious class distinction will have been created — between those who have to hook up to machines to make a living, and those who do not.
Might there be scenarios where higher-wage workers wish to be hooked up to the machine? Wouldn’t it be helpful for a spy or a corporate negotiator to receive computer intelligence in real-time while making decisions? Would professional sports allow such brain-computer interfaces? They might be useful in telling a baseball player when to swing and when not to.
The more I ponder these options, the more skeptical I become about large-scale uses of brain-computer interfaces for the non-disabled. Artificial intelligence has been progressing at an amazing pace, and it doesn’t require any intrusion into our bodies, much less our brains. There are always earplugs and some future version of Google Glass.
The main advantage of the direct brain-computer interface seems to be speed. But extreme speed is important in only a limited class of circumstances, many of them competitions and zero-sum endeavors, such as sports and games.
Of course, companies such as Neuralink may prove me wrong. But for the moment I am keeping my bets on artificial intelligence and large language models, which sit a comfortable few inches away from me as I write this.
© 2023 Bloomberg LP
NASA Panel to Hold First Public Meeting on UFO Study; Report Expected Soon
A NASA panel formed last year to study what the government calls “unidentified aerial phenomena,” commonly termed UFOs, was due to hold its first public meeting on Wednesday, ahead of a report expected in coming weeks.
The 16-member body, assembling experts from fields ranging from physics to astrobiology, was formed last June to examine unclassified UFO sightings and other data collected from civilian government and commercial sectors.
The focus of Wednesday’s four-hour public session “is to hold final deliberations before the agency’s independent study team publishes a report this summer,” NASA said in announcing the meeting.
The panel represents the first such inquiry ever conducted under the auspices of the US space agency for a subject the government once consigned to the exclusive and secretive purview of military and national security officials.
The NASA study is separate from a newly formalised Pentagon-based investigation of unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs, documented in recent years by military aviators and analysed by US defense and intelligence officials.
The parallel NASA and Pentagon efforts — both undertaken with some semblance of public scrutiny — highlight a turning point for the government after decades spent deflecting, debunking and discrediting sightings of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, dating back to the 1940s.
The term UFOs, long associated with notions of flying saucers and aliens, has been replaced in government parlance by “UAP.”
While NASA’s science mission was seen by some as promising a more open-minded approach to a topic long treated as taboo by the defense establishment, the US space agency made it known from the start that it was hardly leaping to any conclusions.
“There is no evidence UAPs are extraterrestrial in origin,” NASA said in announcing the panel’s formation last June.
In its more recent statements, the agency presented a new potential wrinkle to the UAP acronym itself, referring to it as an abbreviation for “unidentified anomalous phenomena.” This suggested that sightings other than those that appeared airborne may be included.
Still, NASA in announcing Wednesday’s meeting, said the space agency defines UAPs “as observations of events in the sky that cannot be identified as aircraft or known natural phenomena from a scientific perspective.”
US defense officials have said the Pentagon’s recent push to investigate such sightings has led to hundreds of new reports that are under examination, though most remain categorized as unexplained.
The head of the Pentagon’s newly formed All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) has said the existence of intelligent alien life has not been ruled out but that no sighting had produced evidence of extraterrestrial origins.
© Thomson Reuters 2023
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