Cofounders of Spacelabs led by former ISRO scientist Sheela DS (right) Swarna Latha (middle) and Deepa are determined to succeed despite a lack of support. Photo: TikTalk Newsletter
After heading high-intensity projects for decades and leading your team to new heights, most would look forward to putting their feet up as retirement dawns. The former Group Director of Control, Guidance, and Design at the Indian Space Research Organisation, Sheela DS, had also thought along those lines when she retired in 2019 from the premier space research centre.
But four years down the line, she is heading a startup called Spacelabs, founded by an all-women team that has recently secured some prestigious contracts with both public and private sector organisations. The firm is now poised to clock a revenue of over four crore rupees by the end of this financial year.
For all three co-founders of the firm, it is like embarking on a new journey in their own way. Swarna Latha holds an MBA degree but never opted for a full-time job, as she focused on her family duties, and this marks her first full-time job. Deepa is a commerce graduate, and she too is venturing into a full-time career now while balancing family responsibilities.
“I had no plan to start a business of my own and was thinking of settling into a quiet life after retirement, like many of my colleagues. I did take up a consultancy in 2021 during the Covid lockdown days, but that was working online from home,” says Sheela DS.
But the wealth of experience she has in critical areas of space missions attracted startups like Agnikul Cosmos and Skyroot Aerospace which tapped into her knowledge. She helped them out as a consultant during their historic rocket launches, as the private sector took giant strides into the Indian aerospace sector.
As the word got around in the space tech community of her role in their project, a couple of her friends in Trivandrum, now known officially as Thiruvananthapuram, approached her with a plan for a startup that provides guidance and navigation, ground station monitoring and related areas. The idea was to become a provider of solutions for private aerospace companies that were coming up as well as state players.
“First I thought I would remain as an adviser of the company my friends were planning. But as my involvement got bigger and bigger, I decided to take the plunge and became a co-founder of Spacelabs,” says Sheela DS.
Starting a venture on their own is a risky task for retirees as they have to develop a setup on their own and find finance to run the firm. Such a difficult challenge keeps most of them at bay.
Trivandrum can probably claim to be the city with the most number of space scientists, both working and retired, thanks to establishments like Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), ISRO Inertial Systems Unit (IISU), Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC), BrahMos Aerospace, and Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) located in the city.
Efforts to create an ecosystem for space technology sector in Kerala began in 2019, but that got waylaid by a political scandal. Last year, the government decided to revive the project by launching a space park called K-Space and the agency is to develop “Kerala as a major hub for the strategic domains of space and related areas in Aviation and Defence related products and services”.
Still, for spacetech startups, the journey continues to be difficult. Spacelabs, which was incorporated in 2022, is being bootstrapped even now. The co-founders say they have knocked on many doors and got some encouraging promises, but they still had to dig into their own pockets to get their firm off the ground.
The cofounders say they had to be judicious with their early spending and decided not to locate their firm inside the Technopark as renting a private building nearby was more cost-effective for them.
There have been offers of loans, but as a startup we are not ready for that as a steady revenue is needed before we can take such a liability, says Sheela DS.
Moreover the funding schemes in Kerala are mostly focused on software and product development and that leaves deep tech companies out in the cold. Some of the financial incentives for such firms are available only after they show a substantial revenue flow.
“We had attended conclaves aimed at encouraging women entrepreneurs and there also we found deep tech funding is not in their radars,” says Sheela DS.
This is something mentioned in the draft paper of the National Deeptech Policy issued by the Indian government last month. It recommended that the governments should mandate grants to be invested in women-led startups, and VCs should be incentivised to earmark 15 percent of the existing funding corpus to be allocated specifically for investments in startups led by women in the deep tech startup ecosystem.
While plans and schemes continue to promise a lot, Spacelabs is yet to get any aid. That has not bothered the cofounders who are steadily manoeuvring their startup towards a lift-off.
Their first break came when Hyderabad-based MTAR, a multi-crore business empire and one of the major suppliers to ISRO for the last 50 years, contracted them to supply navigation and mission control systems for a rocket launch project they were contemplating. Spacelabs has already supplied some designs to them and expects to deliver more this year.
The startup is also in talks with the defence forces to develop navigation and guidance control software for them. The talks are in an advanced state and Spacelabs is optimistic that a MoU can be signed soon. The startup is currently in the process of setting up its own lab needed for such projects which use state-of-the-art technology.
The company which started with two employees has now hired ten more people including a senior-level personnel and expects its lab buzzing with activity in a couple of months’ time.
Still, Sheela DS who had played a key role in the earlier Chandrayaan missions acknowledges the challenges ahead are formidable. But she gains strength from the history of ISRO itself as the organisation started from scratch to build up an entire space science ecosystem, to make India a counted member of the global space community.
“I find the challenges very invigorating as I am not only putting knowledge and skills that I have to work, I am also learning new things as civilian and defence requirements vary vastly. It is an intellectual challenge and very exciting.”
The passion she has for such challenges sees her often beavering away till late into the night and even till 2am sometimes. Sheela DS admits she spends 10 to 12 hours a day on average on her job even while playing the role of a housemaker to perfection. She gets everything ready for the family in the morning, and packs her own lunch before she heads to work.
“Sometimes I reach the office only around 10.30am. But that is a privilege I get as a co-founder,” she says with a laugh.
Her lawyer husband and two sons are fully supportive of her new venture. They say in jest that when MTAR satellite projects come through, Sheela DS will be treated like a celebrity, just like ISRO chief Dr S Somnath was after the Chandrayaan-3 mission
When difficulties arise at work, does she rue the fact that she didn’t opt for an easy-going, retired life?
“No regrets,” she says in a firm voice. “It is like starting a job as a fresher. I feel just like the time I joined ISRO after graduating from the Engineering College of Trivandrum. That is very rewarding.”
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