Team Indus | It’s not just rocket science
Raw energy hums through the Team Indus office in Bengaluru, even when it’s half empty. It’s lunch time. Two young men who could pass for university students are discussing trajectories as they navigate around scattered cartons and chairs. A few feet away, a young engineer who had left his seat for a minute to consult with a colleague finds his chair missing. He pauses only for a second before he grabs his laptop, sits on the table and starts typing.
These young engineers have recently moved into this roomy hall from another section in the building. Team Indus needed space for new hires. It might take some more time to set things up, but even to a casual observer, this much seems clear: the work can’t wait.
Rahul Narayan, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, who has tried his hand at entrepreneurship more than once and brought these young men together, takes in this scene, shakes his head and says: “As I mentioned, this is like any other start-up.” Except that it isn’t.
Team Indus is India’s only entry for the Google Lunar XPRIZE. It is competing against teams from eight other countries, including the US, Japan, Germany, Spain, Italy and Israel. To win the prize, a team has to be the first to “land a robot on the surface of the moon, travel 500 metres over the lunar surface, and send images and data back to the Earth”.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), which has sent satellites to the moon and Mars, has never soft-landed before. Team Indus, founded in 2011, is aiming to do that. In January, it was one of four teams to win a $1 million Milestone Prize in the landing system category, demonstrating that it can soft-land a spacecraft on the moon.
None of the founding members have a background in aerospace. They entered the fray with only a dream, enormous confidence and, having signed up a little late, very little time.
“Sometimes, when we tell our advisors, veteran scientists, what we did on a particular day, they say, ‘But this is something you should have done at T minus year three, (three years before the launch date),” says Ramnath Babu, who leads operations at Team Indus. “And then, of course, they help us do things better and faster.”
It’s this aggressive ambition that has attracted many to this motley group. Arun Seth, non-executive chairman of India operations at telecom equipment maker Alcatel-Lucent and one of Team Indus’s early backers, says he first heard about it from his IIT friends, and was blown over by the audacity of what they were trying to achieve.
Sharad Sharma, former chief executive of Yahoo’s India research and development centre and an investor, uses a similar term to describe them: audacious spunk. Kiran Karnik, former head of software lobby group Nasscom and a member of the scientific advisory council to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, says that while start-ups tend to go deep in one discipline, Team Indus is multi-disciplinary, demanding deep expertise in several areas.
Even among the very ambitious, spunky and scientifically deep start-ups, Team Indus is special. It has attracted help from many quarters even though, in the aerospace business, it is difficult for an outsider to gauge where a business stands—the success of any space mission depends on so many factors, which can’t be tested in entirety.
What makes it special?
#1. A participatory model
Team Indus doesn’t see the Lunar XPRIZE as merely a technical problem to be solved; it’s equally about ensuring a buy-in from a whole host of stakeholders.
Right from its early days, help came from many quarters. Rajiv Mody, founder of Sasken Communication Technologies, let them use a part of its headquarters in Bengaluru. Tata Communications offered help with communications and connectivity. Larsen and Toubro (L&T), which has worked with Isro for years, put its weight behind the design and manufacturing. Scientists with a wealth of experience were generous with their time and advice.
“It’s a dynamic talent model,” says Julie Woods-Moss, chief marketing officer and chief executive of Next Gen Business at Tata Communications, which has provided some of the communication tools to collaborate across geographies and time zones.
Team Indus is able to make these relationships work because its approach is participatory, not transactional.
The approach resonates. Its partners don’t look at their association with Team Indus in commercial terms. “It’s the only team from India, and it’s something we can all be proud of,” says M.V. Kotwal, whole-time director at L&T.
For its part, Team Indus demonstrated its willingness to accommodate partners. It moved to Bengaluru from Delhi so it could be close to mentors and tech advisors drawn mostly from Isro’s old boys’ network.
#2. A culture of
Investor Sharad Sharma draws a distinction between mercenary and missionary start-ups. The former tend to attract people motivated by money; the latter attract those who identify with the vision and have the drive to take up impossible challenges.
That Team Indus is such a start-up didn’t happen by accident. In one of the early meetings with K. Kasturirangan, former head of Isro, to discuss partnership possibilities, he said something that made a deep impression on Narayan: Isro was never about making money; its vision was to “harness space technology for national development”.
The missionary aspect is clear in the team composition: the core team consists of space enthusiasts who often joined as interns. It’s easy to see why Team Indus attracts them. When you speak to Isro veterans, you know that by being involved in the project, you are making history, says Sheelika Ravishankar, who heads human resources (HR).
#3. Institutionalizing that culture
When Ravishankar first met Narayan a year ago, Team Indus had just about 20 people (it has 52 people now). She wondered why a start-up so small would want to have an HR person.
Narayan was clear that it was imperative to institutionalize the culture before the team expanded.
“The ability of a person is important. Our assessment of the ability of that person to fit into the system is equally important because it’s better to not have a resource, instead of having a resource that will disrupt the system,” he says.
To capture the spirit of adventure that brought in so many people, Team Indus has unconventional titles, says Ravishankar. Narayan is fleet commander. Ramnath Babu is Jedi master for structures. Ravishankar is a Jedi master in people capital. The mentors are called commanders. And there are ninjas, skywalkers and troopers in the team.
The teams are small—about six to a team—and the structure is flexible. People can go where their passion takes them, rather than being restricted by, say, their specialization at university. Arpit Sharma, for example, studied aerospace at IIT Kanpur, but works in the rover team, which, he says, “is more about automotive”. Since it is a multi-disciplinary project, people are encouraged to spend at least 20% of their time in other teams. This helps them understand how the system works, and helps them feel ownership over their subsystem and the project as a whole.
#4. Having a plan, even if it’s just based on assumptions
There is an element of magical realism in the way Team Indus came to be. In 2011, three years after Lunar XPRIZE was announced, Narayan found there were no Indian teams participating. He decided to throw his hat into the ring. None of the founding members had relevant experience.
“Well, one of us, Sameer Joshi, was a pilot in the Air Force, but that has nothing to do with the moon,” Narayan says. They decided they had a running chance based on certain assumptions and a few back-of-the-envelope calculations.
Some of these assumptions turned out to be wrong. For example, they thought they could save money by having their lander and rover piggy-back on another payload on a satellite launch vehicle.
It turned out that theirs would have to be the only payload, with no room for even an extra kilogram.
Still, having a plan helped. When they pitched to Isro’s commercial wing Antrix, it took them seriously because Indus had more than just an idea—Narayan had put together a team and could explain how they planned to go from point A to point B.
Having a plan—even though it was based on incomplete information—helped Indus take the first few steps with some degree of confidence that the goal is achievable. In the first year, they met partners, advisors, potential investors and mentors—and refined their plan.
Once external validation came with the Milestone Prize for the landing system, there have been more people wanting to work with them and donate funds. (It’s giving finishing touches to a crowd-funding plan now.)
#5. Getting things done for the day
The big picture can be intimidating. When you are aiming for the moon, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the goal and the complexity of the tasks.
“The big picture helps in getting the vision right. After that, it’s about breaking down the problem into manageable bits, and getting them done,” says Narayan.
So, every morning, all team members get together to give and get updates. And then there are more elaborate review meetings that focus on the logic, the impact that previous efforts had, and course corrections.
All this put together gives everyone the big picture, and the fact that they have to give updates and go through reviews keeps them focused on the steps that will lead to the final goal.
#6. Testing constantly
“As engineers, we have to constantly think about what could go wrong and try to fix it before something breaks,” says Vinayak Vadlamani, who works with guidance control and navigation.
Former scientists from Isro have extended their help almost from the beginning.
As advisors and consultants, their job is to guide, train, offer solutions and, above all, bring the rigour of doing scientific work.
“At Isro, scientists enjoy a great deal of freedom. And the review process is extremely rigorous,” says M. Jayaraman, a propulsion systems expert. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what your designation is; your ideas go through a drilling that you might not enjoy, but at the end of the day, you know that it helps you. You know that you can’t afford to make even a single mistake.”
N. Srinivasa Hegde, another Isro veteran, says, “Here, you will find a few old people like me, and the rest are these boys. They have a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of passion. And sometimes my job is to slow that down a little.”
#7. Doing what is needed
When you are launching a product, you can decide to drop a couple of features to bring it to market a little faster. But you can’t afford to do that when launching a spacecraft. You have to do everything it takes, and you have to do it right.
How the team thought about the problem of soft-landing provides an insight into this.
As the spacecraft approaches the surface of the moon, it needs to slow down. Parachutes won’t work because the moon doesn’t have enough gravitational pull and has a thin atmosphere. It has to be done by changing the engine’s thrust. Since Isro hadn’t done soft landing, there was no ready idea that Team Indus could borrow. Having multiple engines with varying thrusts would make the spacecraft too complex, heavy and possibly unstable.
One of the ideas the team considered was to just send a projectile that would fly 500m on air capturing images and data. Not an elegant solution, though it would fulfil the Lunar X mission objectives.
Eventually, Jayaraman came up with a solution that was both practical and elegant, and the team is in the process of trying that out.
Julie Woods-Moss says this singularity of purpose—of having a specific goal—can energize people. This is something that big enterprises can learn from Team Indus, she says.
For many in Team Indus, what keeps them going is the willingness to reach for what others say is impossible. Narayan calls this an essentially human impulse. “It’s human to try really, really hard. That’s exactly what we have done. It has taken more than a village to get us where we are today, and we owe it to them that we finish what we have started.”
(The unabridged version of this story appears on www.foundingfuel.com)
N.S. Ramnath is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is working on his first book.