“We are more like a cab,” Mr. Chandana said. His company charges higher rates for smaller-payload launches, whereas SpaceX “is more like a bus or a train, where they take all their passengers and put them in one destination,” he said.
SpaceX propelled India’s start-up energies toward space. By the time Mr. Modi made it a priority, some of ISRO’s own engineers were getting into the game, including Mr. Chandana of Skyroot and his partner, Bharath Daka, 33.
One of India’s advantages is geopolitical. Two countries that have long offered lower-cost options for launches are Russia and China. But the war in Ukraine has all but ended Russia’s role as a competitor. OneWeb, a British satellite start-up, took a $230 million hit after Russia impounded 36 of its spacecraft in September. OneWeb then turned to India’s ISRO to send its next constellation of satellites into orbit. Likewise, the U.S. government would be more likely to approve any American company’s sending military-grade technology through India than through China.
India’s vendor ecosystem is staggering in size. Decades of doing business with ISRO created about 400 private companies in clusters around Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune and elsewhere, each devoted to building special screws, sealants and other products fit for space. One hundred may collaborate on a single launch.
Skyroot and Dhruva work in the relatively sexy sectors of launch and satellite delivery, but together those account for only 8 percent of India’s space business pie. A much bigger slice comes from companies that specialize in collecting data beamed by satellite.
Pixxel is a notable start-up in that area. It has developed an imaging system to detect patterns on the Earth’s surface that lie outside the range of ordinary color vision. It has headquarters in Bengaluru and an office in Los Angeles — as well as a contract with a secretive agency within the Pentagon. Even bigger chunks of the satellite business will inevitably go to consumer broadband and TV services, beamed down from low orbit.
In Skyroot’s hangar, its engineers turned entrepreneurs, educated at two of the original Indian Institutes of Technology and given on-the-ground experience working at ISRO, talk the language of venture-capital funding. After “the seed round,” Mr. Chandana recounts, “next is the series A, that was around 11 million, and then there’s a bridge round of 4.5 million.”