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Skyroot Aerospace: Lift off, and how

Startup Skyroot Aerospace might be small in scale, but its founders Pawan Kumar Chandana and Naga Bharath Daka have made Indian spacefaring history with the successful launch of their Vikram-S rocket—the first privately built space rocket from India

Harichandan Arakali
Published: Apr 11, 2023 11:03:03 AM IST
Updated: Apr 11, 2023 11:20:05 AM IST

Pawan Kumar Chandana (left) and Naga Bharath Daka, co-founders, Skyroot Aerospace
Image: Madhu Kapparath
Pawan Kumar Chandana (left) and Naga Bharath Daka, co-founders, Skyroot Aerospace Image: Madhu Kapparath


 
This year, as Forbes India looked at candidates for ‘Emerging Innovator’—a new category under our annual flagship leadership awards—there were several deserving entrepreneurs who stood out, in sectors ranging from electric vehicles to health care to space faring.

The idea was to recognise entrepreneurs tackling technically daunting problems with ventures that would require years of perseverance and a fair amount of money, with no guarantees of even technological success. Commercial orders would come much later, in very competitive arenas.

Skyroot Aerospace’s Pawan Kumar Chandana and Naga Bharath Daka stood taller than the rest, as they made Indian spacefaring history, with the successful launch of their Vikram-S rocket—the first privately built space rocket from India—in November 2022. The successful flight test showed off both the tech readiness of the Hyderabad-based venture and commercial prospects ahead.

“Rockets are the only way to take something from Earth to space,” Chandana points out, talking about their ambition to build space launch vehicles. “We believe space technology can transform human lives, but today space access is expensive and unreliable.”

Skyroot is on a mission to build rockets that can make space launches reliable and affordable. “That’s the core problem we have set out to solve,” he adds.

The two former engineers from the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) started Skyroot in 2018, anticipating that the market for low-Earth orbit satellites would explode, requiring a large number of launches, worldwide. They are not alone, with competition brewing both at home and from other nations. For example, Agnikul Cosmos, an IIT Madras-incubated startup, is expected to launch its own rocket this year.

Pawan Kumar Chandana (left) and Naga Bharath Daka, co-founders, Skyroot Aerospace
Image: Madhu Kapparath
That Skyroot’s founders have gotten this far in less than five years and with only about $68 million in funding (with most of it raised only late last year) is spectacular, many agree, including our jury members.

And, that the Indian government opened up the space sector to private enterprise, around three years ago, with much more liberal rules, and backing new institutions such as InSPACe to encourage private-public partnerships, helped a lot, Chandana acknowledges.

When Isro opened up its facilities to private startups for tests and launches and so on, Skyroot was the first to take advantage of that, signing an MoU with the space agency. Many others have since followed.

The government estimates India’s space industry to go from $7 billion in 2019 to $50 billion by 2024. The global space launch vehicle market could go from $14.21 billion in 2022 to $31.9 billion by 2029, Skyroot cited another industry estimate in a press release in September 2022, when it announced its Series B funding.

In any case, investors have taken note of India’s nascent, but promising, spacetech startup scene. Skyroot itself, for example, scored $51 million in one go, in a funding round led by Singapore’s GIC, in August 2022—the biggest funding round for an Indian space startup so far.

That took the company’s total funding to $68 million and post-money valuation at the time to $163 million, according to private markets intelligence provider Tracxn. As part of the investment, Mayank Rawat, managing director of GIC India Direct Investment Group, joined Skyroot’s board of directors.

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With the successful launch of Vikram-S, one should expect an ‘up round’ as the venture capital investors say, but the worsening global macroeconomic conditions have made fundraising more difficult.

Vikram-S was named after Vikram Sarabhai—seen as the father of India’s space efforts—and its propulsion system Kalam-80 honours another doyen of India’s rockets technologies, and former president, the late Abdul Kalam.

The mission named ‘Prarambh’, meaning ‘the beginning’, signifying a new era for the private space sector in India and the first mission for Skyroot, was unveiled by Isro Chairman Dr S Somanath in Bengaluru on November 7, 2022, after the technical launch clearance from the space regulator IN-SPACe.

A launch window was initially set for between November 12 and 16. On November 14, Skyroot offered an update on Twitter: “India’s first private rocket, the Vikram-S, is bracing for launch from Sriharikota with a revised window between 15 and 19 November 2022.”  

Eventually, on November 18, a Friday, the 6-metre tall, all-composite rocket, weighing 545 kg, took off at 11.30 am, reaching an altitude of 89.5 km, crossing five times the speed of sound before splashing back into the ocean in the Bay of Bengal after a few minutes. It’s capable of taking a payload of 83 kg to 100 km above the Earth.

Future Vikram series rockets will be able to carry heavier loads—as much as 800 kg, eventually—and go farther. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted the successful launch was a “historic moment” for private space industry in India.

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From a commercial standpoint too, Vikram-S was important because it tested and validated most of the technologies, such as the flight avionics, that will go into the upcoming Vikram series of rockets, starting with the Vikram-1.

“Within the next two years, we want to hit a cadence of one launch every month at least,” Chandana says. “After that we want to ramp up production to reach one launch every week,” depending on the demand. In an earlier interview with Forbes India, he said that “one launch a day is aspirational, but it’s something we believe is possible”.

An important reason Chandana and Daka have come this far is the complementary nature of their experience. “Rocketry is a domain of multi-faceted engineering expertise,” Daka says. And this is where both founders being engineers with hands-on experience with rocket systems really helped, he says.

After a BTech and an MTech dual degree from IIT-Kharagpur, Chandana worked as an Isro scientist at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Thiruvananthapuram, Isro’s main centre for the design and development of launch vehicle technology. He spent nearly six years at Isro before starting Skyroot.

Daka is a former flight computer engineer from VSSC. He designed and helped build multiple avionics modules for Isro’s launch vehicles. He has a BTech degree in electrical engineering and MTech in microelectronics and VLSI (very large-scale integration) semiconductor design from IIT-Madras, and has previously worked in the semiconductor industry, with multinational companies.

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With Chandana bringing a lot of the mechanical hardware experience and Daka excelling in electronics and software, they could figure out their strengths and weaknesses, and therefore, knew what kind of experts they needed to bring on board.

The idiom “it’s not rocket science” is about telling someone that a task isn’t complex or tough. Therefore, in actually thinking about a rocket company, ideas about its biggest challenges might revolve around all sorts of technical problems, be it the weight of rocket or how much power its engines can generate and for how long and so on.

Chandana says the first biggest challenge was about putting together a “world-class team that could execute”. The second was not even technical. It was “how to raise the capital needed, which was large and unprecedented” in India, especially.

Having surmounted both the challenges, Chandana and Daka are already clearly looking ahead, or should one say skyward, again.

“Team Skyroot is fully focussed on launching our Vikram-1 rocket into orbit by the end of this year and begin our commercial launch operations in 2024,” Daka says. “In the long term, we also want to develop reusable launch vehicle technologies, which would truly open up space for everyone.”

(This story appears in the 31 March, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)