Skyroot Aerospace: Fascinating story of Hyderabad startup

The 30 plus, Hyderabad boys who dared to enter the tough, competitive, high cost and risky space of building rockets and launching satellites have broken into the big league.

When Vikram S, the rocket shot into space at 11:30 am today and accomplished its mission, their joy knew no bounds. It was a triumph and a dream come true. It was history made.

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November 18, 1130 am to 1140 am will permanently be etched as the defining moment for Skyroot Aerospace, the Hyderabad-based, startup and founders Pawan Kumar Chandana and Naga Bharath Daka. Skyroot became the first Indian private industry to indigenously make a rocket (Prarambh or beginning) and successfully fly it from the Satish Dhawan Spaceport in Sriharikota of Andhra Pradesh.

The 30 plus, Hyderabad boys who dared to enter the tough, competitive, high cost and risky space of building rockets and launching satellites have broken into the big league.

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The starry-eyed youngsters, with a sound grounding in engineering (IITians) and space technology from the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), took the leap into launching the startup in 2018.

Very soon they attracted the attention of Mukesh Bansal, founder of Myntra. He instantly funded Rs 10 crore. It was followed by more investors – Solar Industries, Vedanshu Investments and a few Angel Investors. “We could raise Rs 31.5 crore,” Pawan stated.

This gave the momentum for the team to expand and build the different strengths required. Hyderabad was chosen because the city had a strong base of experienced scientists in both space and defence from whom we could draw the necessary expertise and back up say the founders.

Hyderabad is an emerging aerospace hub

The Government of India’s startup policy and the space policy announced in June 2020 that allowed private industry participation came in timely and gave the necessary push to Skyroot’s efforts.

The huge funding of $51 million, the biggest in the space sector that Skyroot got from the Singapore-based investment arm of GIC this year, bolstered the confidence of the company to fast-track its projects.

In the last 5 years space startups have been making waves. Some of these like Agnikul, Pixxel, Vesta Space, ExSeed Space and Bellatrix have raised handsome funds too.

Mockup of the Agnibaan launch vehicle and it’s engine at the International Astronautical Congress 2021. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Agnikul Cosmos from Chennai has developed and tested the first 3-D printed rocket engine and is all set to launch small satellites into the low earth orbit. It is planning a commercial launch in March or April of 2023, according to its Co-founder and CEO, Srinath Ravichandran.

There is a boom in the startup space in the country with 100 already registered with the ISRO, said the Chairman, Dr S Somnath recently. On the other hand, large industries like L&T, Adani’s etc. have also entered to build larger launch vehicles and systems.

The growth and market

The primary mission of Skyroot was to design and build space launch vehicles that can place small satellites into the LEO space. Within a couple of years, the company put together a team of rocket engineers with a cumulative experience of 300+ years in rocket design and the company was firmly on its way.

The launch Vehicles market is a multi-billion dollar and there are about half a dozen big players, like NASA, Arianespace, Russia, China, ISRO, ESA etc. Private players like SpaceX growing by leaps and bounds while Jeff Bezos ‘Blue Origin’ and Virgin Galactic of Richard Branson are firming up mega plans. Their focus is on launching large satellites and interplanetary missions.

But, In recent years, there has been a boom in small satellites with a wide range of applications from images to communication and space-based experimental research. This is where Skyroot Aerospace has positioned itself. At present, there is only one company with commercial launch capability named Rocket Lab, based in the US.

The estimated market for the launch of small satellites into LEO is expected to be $15 billion by 2027. In numbers, it translates to about 7000 small satellites.

The initial phase

Like most youngsters, Pawan and Bharat too were fascinated by rockets, cars, and outer space and nurtured dreams. The seeds of entrepreneurship were sowed during the IIT Kharagpur days for Pawan. However, being from a middle-class family, the risk-taking ability was not evolved. That’s the reason he grabbed the opportunity to join the ISRO on a campus placement offer in 2012, he recalled.

Pawan joined the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Thiruvananthapuram, the hub for building launch vehicles. This is where he also met Bharat, an electrical engineer from IIT, Madras who too got recruited in campus placement.

The coincidental and great opportunity to work with the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, especially the GSLV MK3, Launch Vehicle Development Programme was a big boon. It was a great learning time and the first time success of the rocket launcher in 2014 not only boosted the morale of ISRO, but gave us solid experience and confidence to venture into entrepreneurship, he recalled.

During the years (2012-18) when the two worked, there was a lot of action for the ISRO with Mangalyaan (2014), Chandrayaan-2 (2019) and the string of successes of the PSLV, including the launching of a record 104 satellites.

Globally too, the spectacular rise of Elon Musk’s Space X and announcements from Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos owned ‘Blue Origin’ and China’s ambitious plans, motivated us, Pawan says.

The company developed the Vikram series (named after Vikram Sarabhai) of 3 launch vehicles in two years. Vikram-S which hosts an Orbit Adjustment Module (OAM) at the top gives it the capability to place multiple satellites into space. This was tested today.

Simultaneously, Skyroot also developed the upper-stage rocket engine named Raman (named after CV Raman, Nobel Laureate in Physics). This is critical in ensuring the operational capability of satellites that will be carried by the Vikram launcher.  It has the expertise to develop both solid and liquid propulsion technologies. In addition, the 3-D printing technology and the all composite materials have been incorporated to lighten the rocket and make it tougher to withstand hostile conditions in space.

On the birth centenary year of Prof Satish Dhawan, former Chairman of ISRO & Director of the IISc, Bangalore in September 2020, the company unveiled the cryogenic engine named Dhawan-1. This engine was made entirely with 3D Printing, 100 per cent cryogenic propellants-LNG/LoX, says Pawan proudly.

All these impressive developments have won Skyroot Aerospace the National Start Up Award 2020 & another national award in 2021 in the category of Space.

Big challenges, high risks & take off

The route to our success of startups like Skyroot will be decided by the competitive and cost differential we can make in the costs of payload. At present the big launch vehicles charge about $20,000 per kg, and ISRO offers a slightly lesser price for its PSLV. Space X is targeting to dramatically lower it to $5000 per kg with its mastery of reusable rockets in the near future.

Since, Skyroot is focused on building smaller rockets, placing smaller satellites (less than 500 kg) and having expertise in lowering overall costs, it is better placed today. It also will enjoy early entry into the field, where big players might not find the business lucrative. We were quick to acquire and develop technologies in-house because of our association with the ISRO and the large pool of talent available in India, he adds.
Skyroot is targeting a minimum of 2-3 launches per year from 2025. Parallelly it will start working on the next generation of large, reusable rockets, which will bring down the launch costs considerably.

Skyroot was one of the first to sign an MoU with the ISRO and enjoys its full backing. It has scaled up its team of technically skilled professionals and increased its vendor base.

Skyroot Aerospace has tied up with a few industries across the country to manufacture the subsystems. The company has expertise in all the required aspects of Launch Vehicles, propulsion systems and fuels required too, he said.

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