Space pioneer recounts journey behind India's first private rocket launch

Unlikely recruitment drive by ISRO at his campus, getting first investor through a LinkedIn message, $51 million fund are what the young space pioneer terms as 'streaks of luck'



Pawan Kumar Chandana, CEO and co-founder of Skyroot Aerospace
Pawan Kumar Chandana, CEO and co-founder of Skyroot Aerospace
by

Ashwani Kumar

Published: Wed 7 Dec 2022, 3:09 PM

Last updated: Wed 7 Dec 2022, 8:39 PM

A few weeks back, India’s first-ever rocket developed by a private company was launched into space. It was a successful mission in its maiden attempt by a startup – a first instance in the space sector. The launch of Vikram-S, made in a record time of two years, heralded the entry of private players into an arena dominated by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

However, Pawan Kumar Chandana, CEO and co-founder of Skyroot Aerospace startup, noted that there were huge streaks of luck behind creating the historic moment. An unlikely recruitment drive by ISRO at his campus, getting his first investor through a LinkedIn message, getting $51 million support from a Singapore-based fund, and a marriage in his entrepreneurial journey are what the 32-year-old young space pioneer terms as “streaks of luck”.

Pawan, which in Hindi means wind, hails from Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh. Later, he moved to the port city of Visakhapatnam, where he did his schooling and his mechanical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology – Kharagpur. From his college years, he was passionate about setting up his own company and doing something in the space sector and rockets. An unusual visit by ISRO for campus recruitment gave wings to Pawan’s dreams.

“From college years, I wanted to join ISRO, but they would never come to the campus during the placement season. Luckily in 2012, they came,” the youngster said during an interview on the sidelines of the Abu Dhabi Space Debate.

Pawan, who termed himself a backbencher at IIT, tried his luck among toppers to grab an ISRO job. “All the toppers came for the interview. Four got selected. Three toppers and me, who is more of a backbencher.”

Pawan said his confident conduct, doing a Nasa project during his masters and an interviewer asking lots of questions on thermodynamics, which was his subject, helped him shine in the interview despite his low grades.

“Questions on thermodynamics were sheer luck as they were checking the fundamentals. They selected me.”

Having cleared the interview, he got a lucky placement too at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Kerala, where he worked for six years till 2018.

“All my friends were sent to different centres except me who got into VSSC.”

Seed funding through LinkedIn message

At ISRO, he fell in love with its work culture and thrived under some able leaders to win two innovation awards, but the entrepreneurial bug returned to bite him. And that’s how in 2018, he founded Skyroot Aerospace along with IIT engineer Naga Bharat Daka with an ambitious aim to make space open for all to travel, maybe live and work there. And this journey happens by developing cost-effective rockets. Hence, the team started looking for investors, and this time Pawan got lucky with seed funding.

“Mukesh Bansal (founder of e-commerce platform Myntra), our first investor, responded to our LinkedIn message. Can you imagine?”

UAE-based AUM Ventures is one of the investors in Hyderabad-based Skyroot. Last year, Skyroot became the first space startup to sign an MoU with ISRO for testing at its facility. In September this year, Skyroot Aerospace raised $51 million in a funding round led by Singapore sovereign investor GIC.

Skyroot, Pawan said, has raised around $68 million to become a leading player in the market with a team of 200 people.

“And we launched India’s first private rocket just two weeks ago. So, that was a very historic moment, both for us and for the government as well, because they opened up space reform just two years ago,” he said referring to the Narendra Modi government's decision to open the space sector to private players in 2020. The setting up of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (IN-SPACe) was a big booster to the startup community, especially Skyroot as they could launch their rocket named after Vikram Sarabhai, hailed as the father of India's space sector.

Historic moment would’ve happened at all

But what if ISRO hadn’t come to IIT – Kharagpur for campus placement that year?

“I would have joined some other company or started one, but all this wouldn’t have happened. Everything is luck. Basically, I am a very scientific guy, who sometimes has to believe in destiny because of all these things happening in my life. These things strike in your mind that all this was destined to happen. Otherwise, how can your first rocket launch be a success? We are the first company in the world to succeed in the first attempt with the launch to space.”

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The rocket was built using cutting-edge advanced technologies like carbon composite structures and 3D-printed components. “And we developed this in two years, from November 2020 to the launch last month. That is also a record.”

The historic mission was named ‘Prarambh’, which literally translates as ‘beginning’. And now, the team is working on their next rocket: Vikram-1, which will go to orbit.

“Steel built modern civilisation, space will build future civilisation.”

Asked about his wedding, he chuckled: “Yes, getting married in an entrepreneurial journey is also a streak of luck.”

At the Space Debate, he is holding lots of meetings with space agencies, startups and investors, and exploring opportunities to collaborate and grow.


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