Team Indus’ Sheelika Ravishankar: Becoming the first private Indian firm taking a moon shot
TECHNOLOGY startups are known to face many challenges, but possibly none have to overcome as many as Indian-based space startup, Team Indus.
Based in Bangalore, Team Indus consists of 85 engineers and 15 ex-scientists from the Indian Space Research Organization who are competing in the US$30 million Lunar XPRIZE competition sponsored by Google.
To win the much-coveted first prize (US$20 million), the team must build a spacecraft from scratch and in December 2017 land it on the moon, then move it 500 meters and send images back to earth.
Fifteen other teams from all over the world, including the U.S., Israel, Malaysia and Japan, are also competing for the prize.
— Google Lunar XPRIZE (@glxp) November 4, 2016
Speaking to Tech Wire Asia at the WIRED 2016 event in London last week, Sheelika Ravishankar, who leads Team Indus’s Outreach and People programs, and is known as their ‘Jedi Master’ on her LinkedIn profile, discusses the project and the team’s approach to problem solving.
Sheelika, with just over a year to go, how is the moonshot project going?
It’s a big challenge, but we have come a long way and met most of our technological milestones.
There are three elements to the challenge; one is the technology, another is having the right kind of team, and the last is funding.
I think on the first two we struggled in the beginning, but for the last couple of years we have been well on course and managed to attract some of the brightest minds of the country.
Funding is another story, but we are on target.
Where do you look for finance for such an ambitious project?
Any space mission involves deep capital investment. This mission is about just getting to the moon and proving we are able to do that, so there is no real business model. It is all money going out and no revenue, so it is very difficult to attract people.
We have still managed to keep, with frugal engineering, our costs very low. It has cost us close to US$75 million so far; anywhere in the world it would be at least US$150 million, I would say.
Out of this we have raised 15 percent from equity. In the beginning it was very difficult to convince some of the potential lenders that we could become a business, but increasingly we are able to prove our technology and get a lot of validation from the industry. For instance, the French Space Agency is contracted with us and it is the first time they will be flying with a private entity outside of Europe. The Indian Space Agency has validated all our technologies.
From the capabilities and capacity we are building, we have a lot of space to spin-off from that. The first spin-off will be a satellite business. Some elements of investments have come in because they can see the potential beyond the moon mission and see the mission as more of a demonstration of our capabilities and being able to potentially build an aerospace company.
However, now we can’t really rely on investment or equity, the rest has to come from non-dilutive or payload sales.
Our spacecraft can take up to about 30kgs of payload to the moon and 20kgs we can send commercially. We have already had interest from people. Our other opportunity is sponsorship.
It hasn’t been easy, we have been laughed out the door many a time, but I think, increasingly, people are changing their minds.
Many in the industry say India is the next global technology hub – do you agree?
I think, to a very large extent, India has – at least externally – been seen as an IT services hub where you get all your coding and outsourcing done. But over the last 8-10 years it has been changing; India has rolled over when no one was watching. A mission like ours is not something we could have done 10 years ago.
But today, the kind of entrepreneurs we are able to generate, those who want to stay or move back to India, and the policies the government is bringing forward to enable folks to come up with innovative tech ideas, has really changed the environment.
Before, all the brainy Indians went abroad and now there is a reverse brain drain – they are all coming back. There is so much focus on artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
There still lies the little challenge of convincing the rest of the world, however. Perceptions take time to change, but I think now the perception is slowly but steadily changing.
As a startup, how important are competitions like XPRIZE for you?
I think XPRIZE has been huge in disruption. The idea for this prize, in my view, was to disrupt this hold that governments have of space and get privatization in because that is the only way to get it to people.
For us especially, XPRIZE was the catalyst to get into space technology. We always wanted to do something different and big. We didn’t think of the moon because it was a bit outlandish but when this competition came along we saw it as an opportunity to do something completely different and prove something to the world.
Small independent teams doing space is completely unheard of, where do you find that?