Discover more from The Founder Thesis Podcast | Learn from disruptive founders
Democratizing Satellite Technology | Dhruva Space
Space, the final frontier…..
You might remember these iconic lines from the Star Trek series. If you have been following the space-tech sector in India you would know - space is now closer than ever.
Dhruva Space is a Hyderabad-based new space company leading the privatization of the satellite industry in India.
The scientist duo talks about low earth orbit satellites, why satellites are a big business, and how they are building the full stack for enterprises to take advantage of satellite technology.
Other Ways to Listen:
Some of the things they shared:-
Building Hard-tech startups from India
The space-tech ecosystem
The business case for satellites
Read the text version of the episode below:-
[00:00:00] Dhruva: Hi guys. This is Sanjay, CEO and co-founder of Dhruva Space. Hey guys, this is Chaitanya, CFO and co-founder of Dhruva Space
[00:00:08] My dad used to work for the military engineering services. So after my birth, I was based in Hyderabad, so I did all my schooling here and my seventh standard was little unusual.
[00:01:31] I was in this city called Bhuj and Bhuj is an Air Force station so every day after school they used to be a point where I used to go and see the fighter jets take off.
[00:01:43] I was actually preparing for IIT JEE I didn't get into any of the IITs so I had couple of options. One was Manipal, VIT and SRM. I picked SRM so I picked a stream of electronics and telecommunication. And. I used to have this unusual hobby called Ham Radio know, wherein you have a license that is issued by government of India, and you could use it to talk to different people around the world in a ham radio, essentially what you have is a radio set.
[00:02:16] And this radio set can communicate in different frequencies so you have different frequency ban. Especially for long distance communications, you use this band called HF, which is the high frequency.
[00:02:29] And in HF, you know, you can talk to people as far as even Russia.
[00:02:36] So I was I was just a ham radio operator in college and one fine day there was a scientist from ISRO who had reached out to our university and said we as students could actually build and launch our own satellite. You know, our college management was they were like very excited.
[00:02:56] They felt that if this is really possible, then they really want their students to build and launch the satellite. I thought that, this probably not kickoff, but couple of months down the line actually our college decided to fund a students satellite project and the students satellite project comprised of students from different engineering departments coming together to build the satellite.
[00:03:21] People from computer science would write the code. People from mechanical engineering department would build the structure. the triple A department would do the power systems for the satellite swan. And so, and the telecommunications department is responsible for the communications with the satellite.
[00:03:41] So our department was like, hey, we have this guy who's a ham radio operator who's been here and done similar work in the past. So, They suggested my name to be part of that group, and that's how high I got into the space of actually building satellites.
[00:03:58] So as part of the team I was handling the communication system and the, ground station part, which is operations of the satellite. And we were a team of about 30 to 40 students who were given the responsibility to build a satellite launching responsibility was in the hands of Israel because, we were not building the rocket.
[00:04:18] And it so happened that we were challenged. So ISRO said, look guys you have to build and launch your satellite and in, in less than 24 months of signing the MOU. And if you do not complete it within the stipulated time, then you know, we are sorry, you're not going to fly, so we named our first satellite SRM SAT because, it was the University SRM university who was funding the project. And it was SRM SAT Mission, India's first student nano satellite. Within a period of about 24 months, we had to develop the full satellite. And, while building this, we also had to do our coursework.
[00:04:55] The first step to getting something done, as soon as possible would be to buy different different parts and then, put them all together, and we did that exercise. So when we did that exercise of, finding different parts to put it all together, the cost was very, very high.
[00:05:11] So we were talking in terms of tens of crores. Now the budget that was allocated was was just a few crores. So in order to achieve all of this in such a short period of time it was quite challenging for us because now we had to develop everything ourselves to keep the cost low.
[00:05:29] But what was very exciting is that know, now the challenge is even bigger, you have to do it all yourself, build it all yourself. But the best part was we were getting guidance from the stalwart's of the Indian Space Research Organization. I still remember this, this one particular incident we needed to test our satellite,
[00:05:50] and for testing, you need to put it on a vibration bench, which can be very expensive. And there were also several other tests that we had to perform and they were all like, very expensive to procure. So we went to our director of research back then and told them, sir you expect us to build this, but how can we do it?
[00:06:09] We don't have the resources etc. Then, and this person is a former ISRO scientist. So, He goes on to say guys, have you seen that picture of isro carrying the satellite on a bullet cut?
[00:06:23] Akshay: Yeah. . Yeah I do recall.
[00:06:25] Dhruva: Yeah. I have , yeah. Yeah. You just have to find innovative means to actually solve your problem. And when you look at a problem and you think to solve that problem the way how everybody else has solved it that's one approach. But you could always take a very different approach to solving problems.
[00:06:46] So within a short period of about 24 months, we actually ended up building almost all the subsystems of the satellite. And we had also realized that within shoeing budget. And while doing all of this one thought that was running in my mind was we are a country with a billion people but there's not a single private company in the country that is building these solutions for the global market,
[00:07:09] because when we wanted to build the satellite and we went out into the market to find the cost of different systems putting all together, it was running into tens of crores. But now, when we built it all ourselves, it was within a small budget, and Indian Space program is well known for that,
[00:07:28] frugal innovation and that was really the motivation for me towards thinking about starting company to provide space technology solutions for the global market from India. I immediately went and pitched this idea to my fellow team members in the project, and I said, Hey guys, looks like a great opportunity.
[00:07:46] We should do it. And, but, everybody in the satellite team had job offer already in place and, the Startup India movement and the trust from the government to support entrepreneurship really came up in this decade, but in, in the last decade in the era of 2000 to 2010, it was not really that famous.
[00:08:10] So nobody was actually willing to take that risk of taking an entrepreneurial path that to in in the domain, which is not very famous or not very common, but I still did push people saying, we should do it. And one of them said what is the guarantee that if you do this, somebody is really going to buy.
[00:08:29] And if you're talking about building in India and selling globally, you really need validation that if you build in India, somebody in the western world is really going to buy it. So what we had done back then was we, I thought it was fair enough and we really had to validate, do some sort of validation.
[00:08:45] So what we did was we picked one of the sensors that we had used in the satellite. The same sensor also has some applications on ground. And we had actually produced them in a small quantity and put it up on eBay for people to buy and use them.
[00:09:01] And it actually worked. There were a few people who actually bought some of these sensors. So at least for me, the validation was there that, if you have an idea, if you have a product and if you are really trying to solve a problem, then there's a strong business case that can be explored my backup option was that, I would go and do my masters in the same field. We built satellites in India. I wanted to see how satellites were built in the western world.
[00:09:28] So I got accepted to this program called Rasmus Munk Space Master. My class size was about 44 people coming in from 27 different countries. We learned different domains of space technology in different countries. So I spent about six months in Germany where we worked on small satellites.
[00:09:46] And it was very interesting, because in India I had built a nano satellite, which was a 10 kg class satellite nano satellite would be the size of a desktop printer.
[00:09:57] and then in Germany we were working on satellites that are the size of Tiffin Box
[00:10:02] Akshay: so you're saying that nano is bigger than small satellites?
[00:10:06] Dhruva: Yeah. Nano is bigger than Picco satellites that, that I learned and learned working on in
[00:10:12] Akshay: Picco satellite. Okay, So satellites don't have propulsion in it, do they? Or
[00:10:16] Dhruva: few satellites do have.
[00:10:18] Akshay: Okay. So satellite is essentially a collection of telecommunication instruments, which are, and sensors, like it is sensing some data and then it is communicating that data back to earth.
[00:10:26] Dhruva: it has many things. it has the satellite structure. It has your satellite solar panels, which generate power for the satellite. It has a powered distribution unit and a storage unit, which charges the battery supplies it to different parts. Then like a computer, there is also an onboard computer for a satellite whose job is to do things intelligently in terms of commanding, controlling, etc.
[00:10:56] Then you have a system called Attitude, determination, and Control System, which essentially determines the orientation of the satellite in space. and that is a combination of several sensors and actuators. And propulsion is one part of it. Like you use sensors like sun sensors, earth sensors, star sensors, you use global positioning systems and you run different orbital algorithms.
[00:11:29] you know, It's a fairly complex system and you use these torquer coils and reaction wheels, et cetera, as different actuators to stabilize the satellite. After all of this comes your communication system whose job is to send health data of the satellite. Receive signals from the ground and, give that information to the OBC etc.
[00:11:52] And then you have the payload. Payload is essentially what is the main task of the satellite. So if you are a weather satellite, then the instrument becomes part of the payload. If it's imaging satellite, then camera is the payload, so on and so forth. And space systems engineering entails putting all of these together.
[00:12:13] Akshay: What is a Torquer coil?
[00:12:14] Dhruva: Torquer Coil is now it's like, coil wounded around a metal bar that is needed for producing electric and magnetic fields to ensure that, it generates a certain torque in a particular direction to stabilize
[00:12:30] the satellite. And this German University had already built and launched about three satellites by. And after that I spent the next one year in in Sweden at the Swedish Institute of space Physics. It's in a place called Kiruna and it's inside the Arctic Circle and Swedish Institute of Space Physics is really well known for building instruments that go on to a lot of interplanetary missions.
[00:12:59] So it was really exciting to mixed with different cultures, learn different parts of the space tech value chain work on different types of missions like satellites and in Germany instruments in Sweden. I think we, I also had the opportunity to work on instrument and send it up to the stratosphere about 35 kilometers using a high altitude balloon.
[00:13:25] And then for my master thesis, I had two options. The first one was doing a project at NASA Ames Research Center on a Mission to Titan. So just randomly one day, I just, wrote to a professor at NASA Ames and said,
[00:13:41] I'm really passionate about this particular subject and this my past experience and I would really like to get into doing some project under your guidance. And this professor he had actually worked on missions to Mars.
[00:13:56] And within 12 hours, I actually got a response saying, your profile looks interesting. And there is a space systems engineering project that you could potentially work on.
[00:14:06] And we had multiple calls over the next few days and you know, it was a clear fit for me to go and work on mission there. But yeah, one of the biggest challenges was to get my visa within a stipulated time to go there and do it, which I couldn't get.
[00:14:24] So my backup option if NASA didn't work out was to go to Singapore work on the first few satellites that were being built at Singapore.
[00:14:33] So I worked as a research assistant at Nanyang Technological University. And I played an important role in assessment and qualification of the first few satellites built there.
[00:14:43] Akshay: how did this lead to Dhruva?
[00:14:45] Dhruva: Yeah. As part of my master's program I was still having that thing in mind that, I should go back to India after my masters and, start a company, start space tech company. so I spoke to my peer group and said, Hey, you know, we should do this.
[00:15:00] There's a big market. Try to convince them. And, I was able to convince one of them to come back to India along with me to start through our space. So yeah, finish my master's in 2012. Came back to India and started Dhruva Space. So the founding team, initial founding team of Dhruva space is very different from the current founding team of Dhruva space.
[00:15:22] And that's what we will learn from very shortly . So when we started the company in 2012 we were mostly focused on supporting student satellite projects that were happening in the country. And I would say we were also closely working with the Indian Institute of Astrophysics with Professor Jayant Murthy
[00:15:42] his team was working on high altitude ballooning missions. So we supported some of these missions in the first phase between 2012 and 2015. It was very difficult for us to find paying customers within the country and also outside of the country because in the space sector it's extreme.
[00:15:59] It was extremely important that, there was already some heritage in the sense we should have already built and launched something, so on and so forth. and access to venture capital was also very tough. when you speak to investors, it's also the same thing,
[00:16:13] have you done this? If so, has ISRO validated it? Have you launched it into space? Do you have paying customers with you? How can we be so sure that, this model is going to work, so on and so forth. So really in the first part of the Dhruva journey with between 2012 and 2015, it was an exploratory phase, and it was very, very tough.
[00:16:35] But, we got a very good hang of, what customers want, what investors want, what partners want and how do you build a great team. So we paused our operations, in 2015. And I started consulting
[00:16:49] Akshay: Till 2015. you were running as a technology consulting partner, basically like that's what you would've been doing? Or were you trying to do a product like actually build a satellite as a product?
[00:17:00] So I would say it was a mix. Largely it was consult. But we also conceptualized the satellite program for UNAT India. We had worked through the details of it. We had the designs ready, blueprints ready but, we couldn't really do much because, for us to do that we needed access to capital.
[00:17:19] So around 2015, we took a step back. We paused the operations. My co-founding team back then, also started consulting. And they also moved out of the country Nara and Prad, who is the founder of SatSearch. Today was also the first co-founder of Dhruva Space
[00:17:37] Mr. Abhishekh Raju, who is the co-founder of Satsure was also a co-founding partner at Dhruva Space. And so what I did was I continued to stay in the country. Narayan moved to Germany and Netherlands. After that he moved to Switzerland. I stayed back in India. I was consulting for various companies.
[00:17:58] I was consulting for an antenna manufacturing company. I was consulting for Thybolt where I found my current co-founding team. And I was also consulting for a company called Exceed Space, which is now called satellites. But yeah the real mix of great team of engineers.
[00:18:18] Great team of founders came through Thybolt and today that is the real foundation block of through our 2.0.
[00:18:27] And so Thybolt is where Chaitanya's story comes in.
[00:18:31] Dhruva: Yes.
[00:18:31] Akshay: Okay. So Chaitanya tell me about your journey of starting up Thybolt
[00:18:36] Chaitanya: if you don't mind before that, I need to get a mental image out of my head.
[00:18:39] So when Sanjay was telling us the bullock cart story saying that, he said this thing. So now my doubt is instead of vibration table, did you put the satellite on a bullet and run it through a very rocky road
[00:18:49] Akshay: for the vibration bench test ?
[00:18:52] Chaitanya: Yes. But anyway,
[00:18:53] Coming back to the question at hand, we studied together 11th and 12th, me, Sanjay and Abhay then post that I, Abhay and Krishna are the other, two co-founders. We started together in BITS Pilani Goa campus, I decided early on that, I want to move more onto the business side of things. So post-graduation, I did my master's in management from EM Lyon in France. Came back worked with KPMG and Management consulting where I was advising the government of AP and then went on to work with an NGO called Safe Water Network, where I was.
[00:19:23] Leading their iot team. And about a year into working there me and Krishna started up Thybolt. So they're like, do you wanna come join earlier?
[00:19:32] Working with couple of your friends. And of course I always wanted to be an entrepreneur leading the business side of things. I jumped at the same idea, and that's when Thybolt started. So we started off in 2017 as a company, and we initially wanted to work more as a design house, so not really an out startup Because we realized that the iot products that we've chosen to build, getting the market access to these is pretty tricky. So we were trying to work with established companies who are already in that field. We build the design, we have the ip, we work with them to take the product to the market, and we take royalties out of the whole deal.
[00:20:07] So that's where it started off. And Sanjay was having already had an out and out career in entrepreneurship. He was advising us. We developed a couple of interesting products. One, a ultrasonic water meter, the first one to be officially approved by FCRI in the country with an iot angle to it, and also water quality sensors for shrimp farming and a a complete suit that we built around that area.
[00:20:29] While we were doing this Sanjay comes up to us and he is like, guys, I think it's time to revive Dhruva Space. Why don't you join me in doing that? And it. You guys, we'll make the perfect fit. You have so and so competency. I have so and so competency, this will it's really can take off.
[00:20:43] And there was also good traction from the investors around this period where space was kicking off. My take to that was, dude, I have no clue what space is I'm fascinated by space. I dreamed of space as a kid,
[00:20:54] it's brilliant. But me, I, I haven't done engineering in a while.
[00:20:58] science and and now this is, it's rocket science. So satellite science in our case, he's like, okay, why don't you do this small exercise? There was a call by European Space Agency's Business Incubation Center where for incubation they said you guys can come incubate.
[00:21:11] There was a proposal that we need write. Don't you just write it by yourself? I'm like, sure. So I wrote with a little bit of help from Abhay and I'm completely staying off it. You wrote yourself so that you get that confidence. So I got some help from Abhay and Krishna wrote most of it by myself.
[00:21:28] Then we were invited to come in Austria. So we are like, okay still in initial stages of our entrepreneurship journey, didn't want the whole team to travel. So sent, he went pitch trip, literally it was a two day trip. I was like, I felt it made sense to stay for a bit travel around, but he is like, no, I'm coming back.
[00:21:43] Went pitch was back exactly two days later and they invite us and say
[00:21:48] please come in, incubate it
[00:21:49] I was like, okay. That gave me the confidence and I think I'm like, okay, fine. I think yes, we can bring in lot of capability even if I have not, built a satellite or worked in this thing so that capability Sanjay has.
[00:22:01] Again, working with friends was the most exciting part for me.
[00:22:05] Akshay: Essentially Thybolt was like just the co-founders. Like it was not like a company which had a lot of employees and all of that. So hence the co-founders moved into through a space like that's how that like you joined forces or
[00:22:17] Chaitanya: we had a team of around 12 to 14 in th itself.
[00:22:21] But we did carry on the whole team because even the team was built. Especially on the engineering side and the product development, they were well trained.
[00:22:29] Akshay: And Thybolt was in the space of IOT, like that was the IOT and IOT based analytics, like that was the core area.
[00:22:35] Chaitanya: Yeah, exactly. It was iot and mostly on the hardware side. A bit on the software.
[00:22:41] Akshay: So when did you decide to join hands and collectively become Dhruva
[00:22:47] Chaitanya: I'd say. Early 2019. we decided to join hands and go restart Dhruva.
[00:22:51] Akshay: Let me ask Sanjay here now, like Sanjay. So when you restarted Dhruva with Thybolt team what was the the thesis like? What did you want to do?
[00:22:59] Dhruva: It was very clear that we wanted to be a product company. But we also have had the sense that services is something that we might do in the future.
[00:23:11] And that, that's been a part also at Thybolt that we were conceptualizing. So we are a product company that can, in future, do services, leveraging the product.
[00:23:23] Akshay: And what is the product that Dhruva was pitching? Like you went to Mumbai Angels to pitch for funds. What did you pitch there? What was the product?
[00:23:30] Dhruva: Yeah, so what we did was we actually broke down, what was the biggest challenge in the space industry. So that's what we looked at, constellations of satellites was becoming a very common term,
[00:23:45] and when you say constellations of satellites, you're talking about launching hundreds of satellites in one go.
[00:23:51] Akshay: This is what Bharti is doing for satellite internet, or Elon Musk is also doing startling for basically satellite internet. This satellite internet coverage. You read a constellation of satellites to ensure 24 hour coverage. So that is the concept.
[00:24:06] Dhruva: Yes, that's correct. So everybody was talking about constellations right guys who are building constellations what is driving that business, their business driver is not the space asset, the business driver is the data coming out of the space asset
[00:24:24] Akshay: Yeah. The, Bharti Airtel is selling and like a Mbps per Mbps s that's what their revenue would be like. How many mbps of or like what is the GB of data consumed?
[00:24:34] Dhruva: Yeah, that's correct. And there are other companies that are building weather satellites. Somebody is doing imaging satellites, etc.
[00:24:42] And now if you look at the landscape, US government has roughly about 1500 space assets. China has roughly about 500 space assets, India has launched about 80 of its own satellites in the last, four to five decades,
[00:24:58] Akshay: So this number is the government or overall US like government, private, both 1500 space assets
[00:25:05] Dhruva: only government.
[00:25:06] you know, One web has filed for launching more than 5,000 satellites. Starlink has for launching more than, tens of thousands of satellites. So now now if you can understand the scale, you're talking about launching tens of thousands of satellites like there are at least a hundred countries in the world today that have never launched anything to space,
[00:25:26] and countries, which are also known as, space faring nations. The number of satellites have been, smaller, so where I'm getting at is the problem that we are really trying to solve is to break that barrier, there needs to be a fundamental change in how you build satellites, how you launch them, and how you operate them.
[00:25:48] And that's the problem that Dhruva has picked and is building. So we are building platforms that enable organizations to launch their own constellations.
[00:26:01] Akshay: So essentially it's like a plug and play approach to launching a satellite. You don't need to like what took you 24 months at SRM to launch that one satellite.
[00:26:12] Today, somebody could just log onto the through platform and in a pretty short time, they could have a satellite scheduled for launch. That's the vision.
[00:26:21] Dhruva: Yes, that's the vision.
[00:26:23] Akshay: Got it.
[00:26:23] Dhruva: Okay. So we broke it down into simpler parts. The integral part of any space mission are, three pillars,
[00:26:30] the first one is your space pillar, which is, building of the satellite itself. The second is the launch pillar, which is, launching and putting the satellite in the orbit. The third is the operations or the ground pillar, which is used for, commanding and controlling the satellite.
[00:26:48] So we are a product company where we build products in all these segments to, enable the full constellation. So on the space segment or on the space pillar, we build satellites that are application agnostic. So for example, somebody might want to do a satellite for only communication.
[00:27:09] Then we have a different platform. Somebody wants to do imaging, then they use a different platform. Somebody wants to do, very sophisticated missions. And for that we have a different platform. What we don't do on the satellite is we don't build the payloads,
[00:27:23] Akshay: so payloads are like, because there is a lot of diversity in payloads. Every company will have their own design for a payload. So that they will like just plug into the satellite. But the everything else except for the payload, you are like a plug-in play service, correct?
[00:27:39] Dhruva: Correct. This is what we do on the space segment. On the launch segment. See, we we would want to launch satellites. at a faster pace right now, if we we could look at the possibilities of building our own launch vehicle, but instead what we thought is, that's a very difficult problem to solve.
[00:27:58] And we, and none of us have that experience in that domain. So we picked the interface problem, our satellites should have the possibility to go onto any rocket, so we build, we started building the interfaces that would enable our satellites to go onto any rocket. So we built those deployers.
[00:28:16] Then you built it, you launched the satellite. Now you need the operations piece, to operate the satellite. So we have a product that, that you can use to operate satellites existing as, as well as, the ones that will come up in the future.
[00:28:32] Akshay: So how do rockets deploy satellites? I thought that it would be like an, like a cavity in a rocket where all those satellite boxes are placed and it just ejects those. It's not like that, is it?
[00:28:44] Dhruva: Yes, it does, but those cavities are not act, those boxes are made by very few people around the world, and they can be very, very expensive So we build those boxes and cavities that can go onto any rocket.
[00:28:57] Akshay: So tell me the evolution. So you had this ambitious plan to become a platform offering all three pillars, space launch, and ground ops. Tell me the evolution, how you started and,
[00:29:10] Dhruva: Yeah. So we we went the same way how we would go ahead and build our first satellite, so before you launch a satellite, you apply for your frequency, you apply, you first set up your ground station, then you would go and also figure out the launch side of things.
[00:29:26] Like when tentatively you are launching the satellite and pay in advance and book that launch slot and then get to the space segment wherein, actually start building the satellite. So one of our strategies was that, we need to have a paying customer before we build a product,
[00:29:43] and that was extremely important for us. Oftentimes we as engineers fall into that trap of building a very rosy product but, which people may not actually need. So what we started off was, we started talking to prospective customers who were interested in having their own space program.
[00:30:05] And we had already architected the bare bones of the product and we went ahead and pitched it to a few people and one of the forward looking educational institutions based in both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, they were very excited and they they moved forward. And this is BV Raju Institute of technology.
[00:30:27] Akshay: This is like an engineering college?
[00:30:29] Dhruva: Yes. An engineering college. So they wanted their students to build and launch a satellite. And they wanted a long-term roadmap that they didn't want something one-off. They wanted a five year roadmap, a seven year, 10 year roadmap on how the program could evolve and how that would have an impact on the students on a career path.
[00:30:51] And also in terms of in general working on high tech products and projects. So with that thesis we had required our first customer, which is we ready for building the ground segment. Now on the launch segment there's an announcement of opportunity from ISRO, where they said there was a global call and they asked organizations to submit proposals that would be and they would pick proposals for a free launch that are of national importance or are of societal benefit.
[00:31:26] And we believe that there was a clear gap for production of these deployers in India. So we had submitted proposal for them to accept our strategy on building these deployers and testing them in orbit.
[00:31:41] Akshay: so a deployer is a box that goes inside the rocket and the satellites are loaded inside that deployer and it throws them out or something like that.
[00:31:51] Dhruva: Correct. Correct. And our proposal got accepted. So we have the ground segment, we have the launch segment, now comes to space segment. On the space segment. we were already architecting a platform. All the blueprints were already we had certain ideas on what the platform should be doing so on and so forth,
[00:32:12] and now that we had two pieces already solved, we are looking for a third piece so that we could offer a full stack solution, so we started talking to multiple customers and we actually ended up, finding the customer to whom we could do a full stack, which is enable them to build a satellite.
[00:32:31] We'll be launching the satellite for them and establishing a ground station. And we went one step further where we also found repeatability of customers.
[00:32:42] Akshay: which customer was this, that you signed up?
[00:32:44] Dhruva: it's an academic institution in Orissa.
[00:32:47] Akshay: So again, the goal is education. Like it would have an engineering course and the engineering students would learn to build satellites and work on the data from them and stuff like that.
[00:32:58] Dhruva: Actually, no. So as part of the ecosystem building exercise, we wanted our programs to, have a very strong industry academia collaboration.
[00:33:10] So most of these programs that we are doing about three programs now and with academia and all these three programs are faculty led programs. So it's not like a student satellite project, but it's a a faculty satellite project.
[00:33:26] Akshay: Got it. Got it. So it, it allows that college to go out and get work from corporates essentially they, as knowledge partners for corporates can run some of these things.
[00:33:37] Dhruva: Yes, absolutely. So think of it this way, so today we, we are training the faculty in building and launching the satellite tomorrow. We would be in a position to actually give the faculty an R&D project to build and develop it and give it back to us.
[00:33:52] Akshay: Okay. Okay. Got it.
[00:33:53] Dhruva: It. so this is one market vertical. Then the other market vertical that we have is government and defense. And the third vertical that we have is enterprise customers. So on the government vertical, also, we have a customer.
[00:34:08] there's a defense client for whom we are building space grid solar panels for their satellite project.
[00:34:15] And on the enterprise side we are having conversations with overseas customers to meet some of their requirements.
[00:34:22] Akshay: and are these funded by customers or did you raise funds to fund these projects?
[00:34:28] Dhruva: So all in all we are executing orders worth three and a half million dollars and for all these projects. Although the customer had given us a small advance we had to raise capital to execute these orders.
[00:34:42] Akshay: Okay. And, tell me about that fundraise journey. Did that pitch to Mumbai Angels? Did it work out? Did it convert?
[00:34:48] Dhruva: Yeah. Yeah. When we raised our first round of capital, we had met about 160 investors in the country. And I'm really thankful to the Mumbai Angels team and actually enabling us quite a bit.
[00:35:01] See, most of the investors that we met felt that we were raising two less capital with a very broad goal. And it wouldn't be sufficient for us. But, out of the 160 there were quite a, I would say a small portion of them came on board to support our journey.
[00:35:18] So we raised about four and a half crores through Mumbai Angels and lead Angels. This was our first round in November of 2019. After that. We raised our next round last year of about 3 million from the Indian Angel Network Fund and Blue Ashva Capital
[00:35:37] Akshay: so when you say you have 3 million worth of orders to execute, so how do you charge? Is it that, say somebody like your first client was an engineering college that wanted a ground operations center to be built. So is it a subscription or is it a one-time fees or what is the economics of it?
[00:35:56] Dhruva: as I mentioned, we are a product company, so we have a product pricing customers pay for the product. Some of these have a lead time for delivery. Usually we have customers also pay in advance before the full delivery of the product.
[00:36:11] Akshay: like, give me an idea how much would it cost to set up a ground operations center, or how much would it cost to launch a satellite?
[00:36:17] Dhruva: Yeah. We of offer training to organizations to build, launch, and operate their satellite, starting at about two crores,
[00:36:28] Akshay: and this doesn't include hardware, like the actual satellite?
[00:36:32] Dhruva: This includes hardware.
[00:36:33] Akshay: Okay. It includes hardware. Okay. Okay. Okay. In starting at two curves, the organization could have a satellite in space, which is sending the data back, and they're able to work on that data.
[00:36:43] Dhruva: Correct. But this would be only a communication satellite.
[00:36:47] If you are looking at imaging satellites, et cetera, the price can go up to two to $3 million depending on, what size of satellite which orbit do you want to launch your satellite how many ground stations you need, so on and so forth.
[00:37:02] Akshay: Help me understand some of these decisions which orbit does a satellite go into? What is the criteria for that decision? And whether you need one ground station or more than one ground station, what is the criteria for that decision?
[00:37:14] Dhruva: Okay. so most of the satellites that we build at Dhruva are all going into the lower earth orbit. And typically a satellite in lower orbit will go around the earth 14 times in a day.
[00:37:25] you know, It's capturing a lot of data. Right Now, if you want to bring down all of this data, then you know, you will have to have ground stations distributed around the world, but if you are interested in data only, let's say over India, then, you know, maybe a few ground stations in India or one ground station in India would suffice.
[00:37:47] This is with respect to the ground segment. Now, with respect to the orbit see, the orbit will come into question largely when you want to launch more than a few satellites in one go. Okay. Because think of it this way if you launch more of them you'll have the flexibility to get coverage over a region of interest with less number of satellites or more frequent visits, so on and so forth.
[00:38:15] Akshay: Typically, satellites are launched on lower earth orbit only, like that's the ideal orbit, or what determines that, whether it's a lower earth orbit or what is the opposite of, is it a higher orbit or what do you
[00:38:26] Dhruva: Yeah, so when I say orbit selection, I'm talking specifically in terms of inclinations.
[00:38:32] The small satellites are usually launched into the lower orbit, typically between 400 and 1200 kilometers. And what defines your orbit is also the primary satellite, because your small satellites typically weigh anywhere between one kilogram and, 50 kilograms, or you know, less than 300 kilograms.
[00:38:53] If you're talking like, launching on a launch vehicle, like PSLV, PSLV carries up to 1800 kilograms, so now if you have to put only one satellite on rocket that is carrying 800 kilograms, you cannot demand where you want to be put in orbit, so you, you'll have to take what you get.
[00:39:16] Akshay: And but you said that these satellites have a propulsion system on board, so you are able to finalize like what is the height at which, what is the altitude at which they should be, what path they should be taking through the propulsion.
[00:39:28] Dhruva: Actually it's a very good question. Not all satellites have propulsion systems Akshay.
[00:39:33] There are few satellites that specifically need propulsion system. There are a few satellites that don't need propulsion system. and usually customers are okay to go to a location where the primary satellite is going, because largely the primary satellite will also have a very decent coverage around the world.
[00:39:53] Akshay: And what determines whether a satellite will have a propulsion system or not?
[00:39:57] Dhruva: Okay. One if the as you pointed out, if they want to do some sort of maneuvers moving an orbit up and down, then the propulsion system is needed. If you want to do orbit raising specifically moving from one orbit to the other orbit, then the propulsion system is needed.
[00:40:17] Today one of the upcoming areas where people are also using propulsion system is for deorbiting and to avoid collision risk. Okay, which will the omitting is after your satellite life is over, you'll try to bring down the altitude of the spacecraft so that it can reenter and reenter the earth atmosphere and burn out during reentry.
[00:40:44] Akshay: And why would a satellite want to change its orbit? Like you said, you need propulsion. If they wanna raise the orbit why would a satellite want to do that?
[00:40:51] Dhruva: Okay. That depends on the application. Some missions let's say you're doing formation flying wherein, three satellites have to come close to each other to study a particular area.
[00:41:05] In that case, without a propulsion system, doing a formation flying will be extremely difficult.
[00:41:11] Akshay: This would be like for taking photographs or something like that.
[00:41:14] Dhruva: comms also let's say you want to triangulate and triangulate a signal on the ground, then also you'd need to do formation flying, et cetera.
[00:41:22] Akshay: I wanna talk a bit on use cases of satellite from a business perspective. And, maybe you could throw some light that, what are the business opportunities through satellites? Like,
[00:41:31] Dhruva: First one is communications. Second one is earth observation, which is, you are studying your planet using imagery obtained from the satellites. It could have impact on how cities are designed how much agriculture produce is happening, et cetera. Third could be in navigation.
[00:41:54] So there's something called as p and t, positional, navigation and timing, these are very important for your civil engineering construction applications for your navigational applications. So if the future of vehicles is autonomous satellites will play a very important aspect then autonomous navigation,
[00:42:15] in addition to this, you have space weather. , and you also have earth weather, okay? And then you have general research and interplanetary missions. And then one of the other fields, which is really upcoming is pharma and biotech.
[00:42:35] Akshay: Okay? But what is the use case for a pharma company to have a satellite?
[00:42:40] Dhruva: Okay, usually if you have to get a drug out into the market, it takes anywhere between seven to 10 years or probably beyond that, so one of the very important aspects in this phase of drug development and drug discovery is crystal growth,
[00:42:58] where different molecules are put together and crystals are grown and they're, characteristics are studied right now. When you're doing this on you are actually trying to put it inside a small centrifuge that is trying to create some artificial gravity to, for those crystals to grow.
[00:43:19] Akshay: So the crystal grow faster in zero gravity, that's what you're saying?
[00:43:23] Dhruva: Yes. Yes. And they're very clear.
[00:43:26] So a lot of those can be used for drug discovery and, drug discovery experiments a lot of these are also being used for new cosmetics formulations, so on and so forth. So there's an upcoming field.
[00:43:41] Akshay: How would they be grown? Like every time a pharma company wants to grow a crystal, they would launch a satellite with those raw ingredients in it, and the crystals will grow, and then they would be some onboard microscope, which would allow them to study it. Or would they then bring it back to earth and then study it?
[00:43:56] Dhruva: Very good question. One of the capabilities of Druva is also that we can take things to space and bring them back to earth. So we we have a partner in the US through whom we could take payloads to the International Space Station, run an experiment there, and also bring them back to earth.
[00:44:15] We are also trying to work with ISRO where, you know, we could in the future also do something similar here in India.
[00:44:23] Akshay: These use cases for which you feel that countries would launch satellites. A lot of these are like off the shelf plugin play services, like communication navigation, or even I'm sure for earth observation, as a layperson, I know Google Earth does it, but I'm sure there would be more business like pro tools than just the Google Earth for space observation. So like, why would countries want to launch satellites for all of this?
[00:44:48] Dhruva: A lot of data that we use today in our common life is data for which somebody is paying somewhere and it doesn't get noticed in a in a big way, and also your data may not be extremely accurate,
[00:45:05] so you must have if you've used an iPhone and, put that thing on on find my iPhone, and if, if you go and try to really find the exact location, especially in India, you'll never be able to track where exactly is the phone. It'll only give you an approximation.
[00:45:24] Chaitanya: Just to add to that the gps boards that we get are built in with a certain offset wherein they're actively making your product, showcasing little mistake in your final location.
[00:45:35] So this is because the foreign, the government that has built your setup, they do not want you to use this for highly accurate systems where you can probably abuse it, so they don't wanna give that to your foreign government similarly, you look at Ukraine. So during the war Russia, one of the first things they did was destroy most of the comms the internet, etc..
[00:45:55] So there was all this thing where they were taking help from Elon Musk on starlink. So there are a lot of cases where you might not be able to rely on existing infrastructure, be it the government infrastructure, in foreign government or a foreign company.
[00:46:09] Same thing comes with, imaging. So you're at war or you're in a critical. again, you are dependent on a foreign company to give you the images. So there are quite a few these things where you, it is necessary that you have your own thing.
[00:46:22] Akshay: Okay. Got it. Is there a way for governments to stop satellites from trying into sensitive areas? Can India just put over satellite and look at China's nuclear facilities, for example?
[00:46:35] Dhruva: There are very interesting ways in which you could, misguide the satellite also,
[00:46:41] for example, the satellites might detect a few colors you know, you can have a camouflage on the ground that doesn't show off those colors. Or, when you look from space objects look in a particular way. So you could actually have dummy objects trying to look like real object.
[00:47:01] And of course you could also jam signals if you don't want certain signals to to come etc.
[00:47:08] Akshay: How would you jam a signal like you, you'd shoot a radio beam at that satellite to, to jam its outgoing signal, something like that?
[00:47:13] Dhruva: Yeah, jammer so going into the technicalities of the jammer, you can produce higher power to saturate the other radio.
[00:47:22] it's not very different from, how you jam signals on the ground. It's the same principles.
[00:47:27] Akshay: My last question to you what's the road ahead for Dhruva? Say by 2025, where do you see yourself?
[00:47:34] Dhruva: We've come a long way since we started the company in 2012.
[00:47:37] We are working very hard towards being a full stack service provider for use cases in India for customers in India and also outside of India. We believe today we have the potential to look towards owning our own constellation of satellites to offer specific services.
[00:47:56] I believe between 2025 and 2027 we might be heading towards having our own sets of satellites and orbit trying to power solutions on the ground.
[00:48:08] Akshay: Wow. Which would probably need a lot more fundraise also, to launch a constellation. How much money would that need if you want to launch a constellation of satellites, like hundred million dollars or something?
[00:48:17] Dhruva: It really boils down to the application. , it depends on what type of application you're targeting.
[00:48:24] See using our Pdot series of satellites, we could create a network of satellites in the lower earth orbit to provide low data rate communications. And for us to put about 5,200 satellites, it would cost us anywhere between 10 to 20 million dollars.
[00:48:39] Akshay: What is a low data rate communication and what Low data rate, as opposed to what? It's basically like bandwidth is low. Is that what it means?
[00:48:47] Dhruva: Yeah, this would be well suited for IOT applications, but may not be great for streaming 4k data.
[00:48:54] Chaitanya: You can also probably use it for messaging in extreme remote areas, especially for, emergency situations, etc..
[00:49:01] Akshay: So you do you currently have customers outside of India, or is your revenue largely from India?
[00:49:07] Dhruva: All our current booked revenues are from India. We are closer to signing something with customers from outside of India.
[00:49:15] Akshay: Do you have competitors in India, or all your competitors are global? Are there other companies in India which are offering this full stack solution to launch satellites?
[00:49:24] Dhruva: I would say within India we are largely complimentary within the ecosystem. I've not come across a player who's a full stack provider from India yet.
[00:49:33] But yeah, we are largely complimentary within the Indian ecosystem.
[00:49:36] Akshay: And there are globally, there are players who are doing what you're doing, like
[00:49:40] Dhruva: When it comes to competition from outside of India there are definitely people who've raised more capital who've already been there, done that, etc.
[00:49:48] Our thesis is very simple Akshay we are based in India. India has launched about 80 satellites so far. We believe, these numbers are going to increase. We would like to be a very strong regional player. We want to be in the top three space companies in the country, and at the same time provide our solutions in the global market.
[00:50:09] Our competitors have raised a lot of capital and there are way ahead offers also, because, they come from very different markets.
[00:50:18] Akshay: But I guess your strength would be frugal. Innovation, like probably the cost at which you would be able to do it would be much lower than what a global company would charge.
[00:50:26] Dhruva: so our key differentiator would be being faster, reliable and providing an economical solution for the global markets.
[00:50:36] Akshay: So, Sanjay we recorded, and this is just a note for the audience, that what you've heard so far was recorded in May of 2022, and Sanjay is joining us here for some updates since then. So Sanjay please share with our listeners about some exciting updates that have happened.
[00:50:54] Dhruva: Yeah, I think I would say less than a year. And we've gone to space twice. In the process of going to space the third time. So I think the last one year has been like pretty crazy. Pretty busy. And and most importantly you know, we've been doing a lot of things in space successfully.
[00:51:12] Akshay: So, what do you mean going to space? Just like paint a picture of that.
[00:51:16] Dhruva: Sure. So, you know, maybe just giving a quick refresher to the audience. You know, through OurSpace is a full stack space technology company. We work on the space segment where we build satellites. We work on the launch segment where we don't necessarily build the rocket, but we build we build the interface between the spacecraft and the rocket, which enables our spacecrafts to sit on any, any rocket in the world.
[00:51:39] And then, You know, the ground segment where we build these communication terminals for operating satellites once they're in the orbit. So, in the last one year, you know, we've we've happy to bring your attention that we've completed the full loop. So we've built the satellite. We've launched the satellite, we've operated the satellites.
[00:51:57] And you know, as of first February two of our satellites Thybolt I and Thybolt II have gone around the earth more than thousand times, which is crazy.
[00:52:08] Akshay: so this would have been like, an Indian rocket company which launched it? Or like when did you launch?
[00:52:15] Dhruva: Yeah so let me actually break it down into pieces and, you know, I'll just tell.
[00:52:20] You know about going to space. So our first launch happened in June of 2022. And in this particular launch, what we did was we tested interface between the spacecraft and the rocket. So we didn't deploy anything into space, but that interface you know, stuck onto the Indian polar satellite launch vehicle.
[00:52:43] And, you know, once it went safely tested, its performance, you know, whether the door is opening properly whether its responding to the commands from the rocket properly and so on and so forth. And in November, 2022, what we did was we used the same interface to actually deploy two satellites one and two which are based on the platform.
[00:53:10] Platform of Dhruva Space and. these, these missions are all authorized by the new regulatory body in India. called Inspace.. So until 2020 in India, you know, there were, there were no I mean the regulatory regime has been evolving. So in the year 2020 Inspace was formed and Inspace is the regulatory body which will govern all the private space activities in the country.
[00:53:38] So the and you know, technically they were the ones who authorized us to do both of these missions.
[00:53:44] Akshay: Hmm hmm. So it's like a try for telecom. So similar kind of a body for the space tech industry.
[00:53:52] Dhruva: Spot on.
[00:53:52] Akshay: And what do these two satellites do? What's their commercial use?
[00:53:57] Dhruva: Okay. So, you know, these two are technology demonstration satellites which do not have a commercial use case. But they're suited for the amateur radio applications where ham radio operators. India could actually utilize these satellites to you know, operate them for communication applications.
[00:54:19] What did we actually test? I would say, you know, the entire p.Spacecraft platform of Dhruva Space. So essentially every part of the spacecraft, meaning the satellite structure, the satellite solar panels, the communication module along with an antenna deployment mechanism, the attitude, determination, control system of the spacecraft, all of.
[00:54:45] Have been indigenously developed in, Hyderabad. Essentially, you know, most of it is not, most of it. In fact every part of the spacecraft has been designed manufactured in India and sent to space for the first time. And all of them have performed nominally which I believe is a, is a significant achievement cause you know, it's, it's definitely rocket science.
[00:55:13] Akshay: Fair. What do you mean perform nominally? What does that term nominally mean?
[00:55:17] Dhruva: Performed as per the design. So all of the systems are performing exactly the way they're supposed to perform without any abnormalities
[00:55:29] Akshay: so this is your proof of concept up in the sky, basically.
[00:55:32] Dhruva: Absolutely.
[00:55:34] Akshay: Right, right, right. And how has this helped you in terms of being able to win business? Are, are there some deals in the pipeline or,
[00:55:40] Well, to be very honest, Akshay you know, for the Pdot platform we had we already have customers even before the tech demo missions.
[00:55:48] But you know, being a very customer-centric company it was extremely important for us that, you know, we wanted to give our customers the best experience. So we wanted to do this trial mission before the customer demos. So the customer demonstrations will happen this year. In terms of how has been the market reaction to what we've done?
[00:56:11] The market reaction has been extremely positive. You know, and, and I truly believe that you know, the small milestone of our company is having a significant impact not just for our company, but for the whole country, right? A lot of foreign players who have leveraged the Indian rocket for.
[00:56:36] Launching their satellites are now looking to the Indian industries on how they can support their global ambitions. So I would say, you know, it's a small step but but a great milestone for, for the entire private space ecosystem.
[00:56:54] What are the kind of customers and for what kind of use cases are you like focusing on? Because I mean, obviously the market is pretty huge, but you would probably want to have some specialization initially to go after a certain type of customer who wants to launch a certain type of satellite.
[00:57:10] Dhruva: Sure. So Akshay I you know, what is missing today especially from an Indian private space tech ecosystem scenario is you don't have like a prime contractor in India, right? In the US you have you know, Boeing Lockhead Martin in Europe, you have Thales Alenia, you have Airbus.
[00:57:30] Right. But in India you know, there's no such framework that exists. And if you, if you go down to the fundamentals of what Dhruva has been building a prime contractor in India so, so from a customer perspective. Our customers largely come from three segments. The first segment is Government and Defense. The second segment is enterprise customers. And the third is academia or research customers. And because of our full stack approach, which is, you know, being, having the ability to.
[00:58:12] Satellites and satellite systems on the launch vehicle provide an interface enabling the satellite to go onto any launch vehicle in the world. And then, you know, the ground segments to operate these satellites. Our customer base has been quite wide, so we are not focused on any specific application, but we are focused on serving the entire swath
[00:58:36] of the space tech ecosystem. So I mean, you know, we've been getting customer interest from across the spectrum. In fact you know, we are already delivering certain systems across all the segments, enterprise, government, defense
[00:58:51] Akshay: How many satellites a year would you be launching once you are at profitability stage? Like what would that look like? Just paint the picture for me.
[00:59:00] Dhruva: Like at a profitable stage you would be doing X launches a year or working with deploying X number of satellites or these number of satellites in orbit. And what is the timeline for that? Like,
[00:59:12] Sure. So actually I think I'll, I'll just you know, go back to the thing that, you know, we are focused on being a, a very strong customer-centric company. And today the market is, you know, from the 1960s, 2020, were probably about 15 thousands launched.
[00:59:27] It estimated that more than a hundred thousand satellites will be launched in the coming decade or so. So there is definitely. Very huge need for satellites to be produced rapidly launched rapidly and have the ability to operate these satellites in a, in a very simple fashion. So to. To answer your question we don't have a specific number in mind to say that, you know, this year we want launch, like, you know, thousand satellites on and so forth, but the foundation that we have built is to ensure that you know, at least the Pdot platform on which Thybolt are made we could produce at least a few of them every single day.
[01:00:09] And for the P 30, which is a slightly larger platform you know, produce a few per week, and then the large platform, which is a P 90 maybe produce a few every quarter. . So. that's the goal that we, that we are targeting and considering that, you know, we have been a very capital efficient company.
[01:00:29] You know, we've, we've raised the smallest amount of capital in the space tech ecosystem in India. We already have a few satellites in orbit. Now we are looking. And that growth capital that will define, you know, how, how these will pan out in the next few years.
[01:00:45] Akshay: Sounds like, like it would need a heavy amount of investment in manufacturing also if, if you're producing a few small satellites every day. So, so you, would you have like a factory or, or how do these satellites get built?
[01:00:58] Dhruva: So the short answer is that yes, we need a very large manufacturing capability and newer ways of manufacturing things to hit that rapid scale.
[01:01:07] And our approach is the following. See you know, they're more than 300 to 400 MSEs in India that have been acting as the backbone for the Indian Space Program for, for the last few decades. So, you know, we are, we are already leveraging this ecosystem to to be very capital efficient and, and, you know, our.
[01:01:27] Actions speak for themselves. So now what we are trying to do is we plan to raise capital that will act as a. There's already a lot of things that exist in the market but there are also a lot of things that do not exist. So the idea is we bring in, we build that capability so that all together it augments the capacity, not just of our one company, but the entire ecosystem.
[01:01:54] Scale globally. So that's, that, that's what we plan to do in the next few years. We have a blueprint for establishing the hundred thousand square feet facility here in hba to propel our. You said that
[01:02:09] Akshay: you're looking to be a prime contractor from India. What does this term mean, a prime contractor?
[01:02:15] Dhruva: Okay, so in the satellite world I think you know, the prime contractor is a, is a pretty common terminology. So essentially prime contractors are the one who design manufacture. To scale and deploy them in orbit. In the, in the western world, you, you've always had prime contractors, so, you know, who would who would do the, impossible right.
[01:02:38] You know, for example, you know, just consider the James Webspace telescope or even in simpler terms, you can look at look at the fighter jets, right? The, you know, they were all built by the prime contractors. Who would who would design, who would work with the ecosystem. And create something unique that is that is needed for the world largely but is also extremely important for the nation.
[01:03:07] Akshay: Like, Reliance Jio is getting into like a satellite internet kind of a business. Bharti also has it, so these companies work with prime contractors to get their satellites out in space. .
[01:03:18] Dhruva: Wow. That's a, that's a good that's good perspective. Yes. They would work with prime contractors or they would team up with very well established players to to get a strong entry point into services or create a large enough entry barrier for others to not pop in in.
Before you go……the analytics only tell me so much, I want to hear what you feel and think about the conversations.
Mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments & feedback or if you just want to hear my comments on your startup idea - I love getting your emails!
Until the next founder's thesis📕,
Your host, AD