We may not all have Van Gogh’s knack for keeping a starry night alive forever, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t mesmerized by the night sky.
Young Paul Savio was no different.
During his evenings with his father as a young boy, Paul was held captive by the night sky. Growing up in Bengaluru, he was a regular visitor to the planetarium, participating in events and competitions organized by NASA and ISRO.
After graduating from IIM Calcutta in 2010 and working at Nokia, Airtel and Samsung, Paul decided to pursue his interests – and earn money.
In 2015, Paul and Ramashish Ray started Starscapes Experiences, an astro-tourism startup that runs a chain of observatories.
“We were in corporate life and found a passion that translated into business. Seeing the potential and trying to realize it has been very exciting. We entered this space for the adventure of creating something new,” says Paul.
Starscapes Experiences is India’s first platform focused on “delivering an integrated astronomy experience”. It offers private observatories with professional equipment for observations, astrophotography and research projects.
The target audience? Anyone fascinated by the sky.
The Gurugram-based startup has public and private observatories in Kausani and Bhimtal in Uttarakhand, one in Ooty and a mobile observatory in Jaipur.
Starscapes is present in Goa, Pondicherry and Madikeri in partnership with Club Mahindra, a hotel company of the Mahindra group. Here, customers can head to the closest starry sky spots where Starscapes provides stargazing technology and guidance.
The startup is also developing Benital as India’s first Astro Village, in association with the Uttarakhand Tourism Board.
What it offers
The startup organizes events such as night sky shows, solar sightings, star parties, experiential science activities, and selfies with the stars. All of these activities are guided by the StarGuides from Starscapes.
“We want to bring astronomy experiences to everyone. ‘Everyone’ is the key word here. It’s not just for astronomy enthusiasts. It’s for people who are looking for something new” , said Paul.
All observatories are equipped with telescopes and other necessary equipment. They are also home to astronomy museums, where Starscapes has set up exhibits, VR experiences, and a merchandise store.
Starscapes offers one-hour day and night experiences at its observatories. The daytime show costs between Rs 300 and Rs 500, and the nighttime show – the main attraction – costs between Rs 500 and Rs 800.
“You will see the moon, the planets which are then visible, the rings of Saturn, the satellites of Jupiter, the phases of Venus which resemble those of the moon, and certain deep sky objects such as the Orion Nebula, which is of 700 lights. coming years when stars are born. That’s the whole show,” says Paul.
Events are led by 25 trained staff who talk about the stories, anecdotes, science and mythology behind the constellations, planetary bodies and deep sky objects. People who sign up for the experience also learn to spot certain stars and constellations.
If someone can’t reach an observatory, Starscapes brings the experience to their doorstep with portable observing tools and temporary installations. However, the startup discontinued this offer after the pandemic.
Workshops for making rockets, sundials, models of spacecraft and rovers are organized for children. Astronomy and photography enthusiasts can attend astrophotography workshops with experts. The price of these goes up to Rs 10,000.
Astro evenings and more
Starscapes has partnered with small homestays and hotels to provide an astronomy experience at their locations. The startup leverages its relationships with them to publicize its offerings.
“We have a partnership with Club Mahindra across all of its properties and currently service six of its largest resorts. We are in talks with four of the world’s largest hotel brands for activities within their properties, one of which is expected to close next week.”
“Apart from that, many homestays and smaller hotels around our observatories run astronomy experiences,” says Paul.
Other offerings include three-hour astro nights for small groups with activities including stargazing, constellation hunting, sky gazing and astrophotography. These parties cost Rs 40,000 (plus transport for parties away from the centers). Each can accommodate up to 30 people and is available at major dark sky sites across India.
It also organizes events for residential apartments and has partnered with JK Lakshmipat University in Jaipur and Shiv Nadar University in Dadri.
Business took a hit during the pandemic and the startup did not relaunch operations until 2021.
Starscapes has served 50,000 customers since then. It recorded revenue of Rs 35 lakh in the first 10 months of 2021. It envisions 11x growth in the next 12 months and aims to boost its revenue to Rs 3.8 crore.
Aim for the stars
Astrotourism is emerging in India as part of ecotourism. It is further supported by a recent initiative by the Ministry of Tourism to discuss and explore ‘nature-based tourism’. The concept has been promoted by the ministry through the “Dekho Apna Desh” webinar series.
Astronomical parks are being established in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan under the aegis of the State Department of Art and Culture. In Ladakh, the government has partnered with the Indian Institute of Astrophysics to launch an astrotourism initiative in the village of Hanle.
The sky seems to be the limit, which has led to the emergence of other actors. Starscapes faces competition from startups such as Chennai-based Space Arcade and Delhi-based Spark Astronomy. While some of the offerings from these startups are similar, Starscapes is the only one that has observatories and partnerships with hospitality companies.
Starscapes is looking to launch a new observatory in Coorg and revive astro tours where tourists are taken to dark sky locations in places like the Spiti Valley, Ladakh and other parts of the country. These have come to a halt during the pandemic due to closures and travel restrictions.
The startup is also considering more partnerships with schools and colleges for excursions and outings.
Founded with an initial investment of Rs 20 lakh, Starscapes is looking to raise funds this financial year. He also wants to double the size of his team over the next four months.
“We are currently experimenting with many business models. And we are looking for an investor who is also interested in and passionate about astronomy as a subject,” says Paul.