With recent historic space missions and the announcement of the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid belt, opportunities for cutting edge space-tech start-ups are abounding in the UAE.
Stellar ascent of Dubai beyond earth
A string of successful launches and ambitious long-term goals have put the spotlight on UAE’s space program. Dubai played a significant role in this development with the establishment of the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST, 2006) later incorporated into the now famous Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), formed in 2015. MBRSC oversaw the first Emirati-designed and manufactured satellite ‘KhalifaSat’ (launched in 2018) and managed the UAE Astronaut Program, which sent the first Arab astronauts to the International Space Station. UAE’s ambition is exemplified by the 3 billion AED National Space Fund managed by the UAE Space Agency to boost local and international space-tech companies. Space investments have now exceeded 22 billion AED, with commercial spending reaching 10.9 billion AED in 2020.
Spacecrafts and statecraft
UAE and India soared to space success this year, with record-setting missions of the longest-ever Arab space voyage and Chandrayaan-3 and Aditya-L1 operations respectively. Space technology is a key area of cooperation between India and UAE amidst flourishing bilateral relations. The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) was used to send the MBRSC’s Nayif-1 in 2017.
Amidst the tech war between the US and China that is resulting in global siloing and technology barriers, India and UAE realised two vital things – the need to localise critical space and defence manufacturing and collaboration on technologies, expertise and funding. This lays the groundwork for a future India-UAE space corridor employing the strengths of each country – the design and manufacture of components in India; assembling, integration (high-end manufacturing) and testing in the UAE; and the final launch from India.
Start-ups will play a vital role in this ecosystem. India’s ISRO established the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorization Centre (IN-SPACe) in 2020, opening opportunities for private players in space exploration, manned missions, research, and international collaborations. Indian space start-ups have shown tremendous interest in participating in the Dubai Airshow 2023, which focuses on space exploration, with IN-SPACe facilitating these engagements.
While explaining the opportunities in Dubai’s space sector, Prateep Basu, the Founder and CEO of SatSure Ltd said, “The MBRSC has been at the center of space exploration of the UAE. The space sector is a broad value chain that starts from satellite manufacturing and rocket launching. However, Dubai has also prioritized the downstream value chain, which revolves around data and value analytics. It is an evolving landscape and people like me are scouting for opportunities and partnerships.”
Such partnerships can especially occur in manufacturing small components and satellite parts, knowledge transfer, and material supply. According to Sanjay Nekkanti, the Founder and CEO of Dhruva Space, “India has one of the most reliable launch vehicles which the UAE can benefit from when launching their satellites. Additionally, there are critical technologies where both countries can collaborate on, which could perhaps be built by the UAE with its local industries”. Being a part of the MBRSC Space Ventures program has exposed Dhruva Space to the global space community, networks and funding. Nekkanti said that “the initiative by the MBRSC to bring global innovative space companies into their ecosystem is commendable. We are eager to see how technologies developed in India can support the UAE’s space ambitions.”
According to Dr. Devendran Thirunavukarasu, the Founder and CTO of ST Advanced Composites, “Dubai is the right place to establish regional offices to connect with the rest of the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.” ST Advanced Composites played an essential role in MBRSC’s Rashid-1 Lunar Rover in 2022 by supplying lightweight materials such as carbon fibre to reduce the weight of the payload. Dr. Devendran is in talks with the MBRSC to perform the same tasks for the Rashid-2 Rover. Regarding his collaboration with MBRSC, he highlighted the advantages of pre-existing smooth business relations and the lack of a language barrier. He said, “MBRSC was very supportive and decided a timeline with scheduled payments and planned weekly meetings to discuss updates and urgencies. They were also helpful in logistics and transport requirements from Chennai to Dubai.”
Dubai is also seeking to employ other technologies in its space endeavours. The main theme of the Dubai Air Show 2023, slated for Nov 2023, is space exploration and strengthening of a new space economy led by private business, industries and start-ups. According to Ibrahim Al Qasim, Deputy Director-General of the UAE Space Agency “UAE is looking to facilitate enormous opportunities for start-ups in the UAE and there is no better platform than Dubai Air Show that has generated upward of AED 3 trillion in business.” The Air show also aims to facilitate discussions on wider use of space, including correlation between aerospace and climate change.
Navigating the space-time continuum
Navigating the opportunities in Dubai’s space spectrum will require Indian startups to understand the local challenges and culture. Besides additional costs, they would have to compete with established players in the industry with advanced capabilities and adapt to stringent regulations while collaborating with international and government agencies. Moreover, as the UAE is keen on localising the entire supply chain, Indian start-ups may find it harder to manufacture within the UAE as it remains more cost-effective to ‘make in India’ and then export.
When expanding to newer geographies, Indian start-ups analyze various factors such as market opportunities and incentives. According to Basu “one thing that attracts entrepreneurs is certainty around policy and regulations. The second is the government’s support in enabling partnerships with local industries and foreign companies. Dubai is already well-integrated with the global industry with its financial services, and we examine how the government enables space sector companies to leverage its international relations.”
Beyond the stars
With historic achievements this year and the recent announcement of the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid belt (EMA), opportunities abound in Dubai for nanosatellites, moon missions and interplanetary explorations.
Indian start-ups agree on the potential for collaboration with Dubai and call for more joint ventures and bilateral agreements between the two countries in this sector. According to Dr. Devendran, “Bilateral research programs with the funding and collaborations of the Science and Technology departments from both governments will provide mutual benefits. Dubai can benefit from the experience of India in space projects and cost-effective solutions provided by start-ups and MSMEs.”