As Team Indus' seven-year-long gruelling quest to put a rover on the moon is drawing to a close, all eyes are now on the launch which will happen anytime between 28 December 2017 and 31 March 2018. Team Indus threw its hat in the ring for the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE contest on the last day of submission of applications on 31 December 2010. What started off as an audacious attempt by two persons has now become a mission by more than 100 engineers to put a spacecraft on the moon.
The team has already emerged as one of the five finalists from 30 contestants and won a milestone prize worth $1 million. The judging panel of top space scientists has expressed satisfaction over the preparedness of Team Indus. “Several of the technical milestones have been met and the team is heading in the right direction,” Alan Wells, chairman of the panel, said previously.
While the lunar mission will get over soon, Rahul Narayan, founder of Team Indus speaks to VCCircle about the journey beyond the upcoming launch. Starting with drone and satellite technologies, Team Indus has got a few things up its sleeve, he says. Excerpts:
The Lunar XPRIZE competition is coming to its culmination. What do you intend to achieve by participating in this contest, besides the prize?
Prize was the initial motivation. There is an independent verification of what we do and we got the milestone prize. That motivated us to put together a team. As we delivered continuously on the commitments, we have come to the realisation that this is a special configuration of a set of people. We have unique capabilities and can use them to solve other problems. I see the moon mission as a starting point of our journey and not the end of it.
Can you elaborate on the journey beyond the moon mission?
We can work in over a dozen engineering disciplines. We see applications of what we do in complex problems in areas such as ports, satellites, data connectivity, ground station management and data analytics. Which one will we pick up? I don't see ourselves going out and marketing ourselves as one kind of a service. We see ourselves as programme managers who have solved a complex problem in a limited time with a limited budget. That is our descriptor and we think we can solve any engineering problem better, faster and cheaper than many others. That is going to be our calling card. We have done something very complex from the scratch. We learned a lot along the way. We also developed capabilities to prototype, analyse, design and deliver solutions.
Any specific technology area to begin with?
We have already been running a couple of programmes involving small teams of four-five people. We are doing technology demonstrations that we will test out—we have been able to validate processes and use the outcome. We have done this with drone and satellite technology. By the time the moon mission is completed, one of these initiatives would be ready for commercialisation.
Many prominent individuals, including Ratan Tata, Nandan Nilekani and Bansals of Flipkart, have invested in Team Indus. What is the financial viability of your endeavour?
The moon mission programme alone is not going to make profit—that has never been the intent. However, the outcome will make India proud. Our achievement also lies in the fact that we have managed to put together a team which is capable of taking this forward. Many large engineering companies such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin were born out of a need to deliver something very complex in a short period of time. Similarly, this competition allows us to deliver something very complex in a limited span of time and kick off the next phase of our journey.
You have been in discussions for large institutional funding. Are the talks progressing?
We completed Series A early this year and raised close to $20 million. Now we are trying to raise Series B funding. It is a long-drawn-out process. Series A itself has taken a year or so. We expect to close Series B midway through next year. That will be a much larger round—something in between $20 million and $50 million.
Given the complex engineering problems you are aiming to solve, you would be consuming a huge amount of capital for many years. Is such long-term capital available?
For the next four-five years, we will be raising and consuming capital in order to find the right product and programme and reach commercialisation. Engineering needs a lot of investments. We are in for a long haul. We are not looking for typical venture capital money. We are targeting institutions which are going to stay invested for 10-15 years and even longer. This cannot be compared with investments made in segments such as ecommerce. This space is almost like infrastructure. The gestation is much longer.
You were also looking for sponsorship and crowdfunding for the moon mission. Is there an update?
We have raised half of the Rs 450 crore project cost. We have a couple of conversations which are at a very advanced stage. Hopefully, we will be able to close the deal soon.
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