Kerala Technology
Buoyant spirit keeps this drone startup afloat

Reuben Mathew Shibu chose his dream drone project as his calling over lucrative job offers. Handout photo

Buoyant spirit keeps this drone startup afloat

Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on August 07, 2023
Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on August 07, 2023

Reuben Mathew Shibu graduated as a mechanical engineer from Barton Hill Engineering College in 2020 with over 90 percent marks, an achievement that would have landed him a cushy job. His grades would have also enabled him to take the other popular route among today's students – heading abroad for higher studies.

But Reuben, as he is known, has chosen a completely different path. He has decided to carry on with a startup he and his friends established to make underwater drones, a sector involving tedious research and requiring substantial funds.

Knowing his precarious financial background, many of his peers and faculty were worried about his decision, but Reuben stayed firm while other co-founders went to greener pastures elsewhere.

“I decided that I must have something of my own, perhaps it was a kind of possessiveness that develops when you nuture something," says Reuben.

This young mechanical engineer belongs to a rare but emerging breed in Kerala whose ambition to create something on their own leads them to deviate from the established path that the majority chooses. Though their numbers are insignificant to classify them as a trend, witnessing such green shoots in the local tech sector is heartening.

But Reuben's bumpy ride into entrepreneurship illustrates why it remains unattractive to the majority of young graduates. His journey shows startups are not for the faint-hearted, as they operate in an ecosystem that often fails to provide help when needed, despite the existence of a plethora of agencies dedicated to supporting startups during their formative years.

Even after securing grants and funds to kickstart their startup, many entrepreneurs face challenges in raising working capital, especially in hardware-based ventures, assembling a core team, and receiving proper mentoring from experienced individuals in the field.

After years of struggle, Underwater Drone Technologies seems to have found some stability as they managed to secure contracts with the Kerala police, resulting in an inflow of over 1 crore rupees in the last financial year. 

But the startup's journey serves as an example of the turbulent waters these young startups have to navigate.

Reuben says he was interested in aerospace and had dreams of pursuing something of his own, even before his enrolment at Barton Hill Engineering College in Trivandrum in 2016, following his schooling in Kollam. His curiosity led him to the Technology Business Incubation centre at the college, where Assistant Professor Anish K John motivated and encouraged students to innovate.

Initially, Reuben joined a group of students who came up with the idea of using drones to pluck coconuts, but that endeavor proved to be a tough nut to crack. It was then that Reuben stumbled upon the concept of underwater drones, which some of his seniors had previously explored. The idea was to develop a cost-effective and user-friendly mechanism to explore the depths of rivers and inland water bodies using unmanned drones.

As the ideas took shape, Reuben and his fellow college mates Abhinav Ajith, Ramesh M, and Rahul Rajkumar filed for a provisional patent in 2018 and officially launched their startup, called Underwater Drone Technologies Pvt Limited, the following year.

They managed to raise the 50,000 rupees required for company registration, even though some of them were already scraping the bottom of the barrel to pay the fee at the government-run engineering college. But that was the easy part. Nipah virus outbreak, the 2019 flood and pandemic shutdowns were waiting.

One of the primary goals of the startup was to develop a process to replace the clunky method of communicating with the submersibles. Previously, a drone below the water had to be connected with a cable that ran all the way to those controlling it from the land.

Reuben's plan was to attach the drone and a cable to an unmanned buoy, enabling them to send signals to the device through wireless means. This innovative approach aimed to eliminate the additional cost of cables and increase versatility later with the incorporation of technologies like sonar or satellite communication.

The patent application was filed five years ago, and now it has reached the final stage. They could have opted to fast-track the patent application, but doing so would have required raising a few thousand rupees more on top of the 50,000 rupees they already spent to file for the patent.

Unfortunately, financial constraints also compelled the cash-strapped team to abandon ideas of filing for more patents linked to their work.

This stands in stark contrast to the foreign delegations that two of the team members met when they attended a conference in Taiwan. (Reuben dropped out of the event as travel expenses were to be borne by the delegates themselves.) Participants from Japan were surprised to know the total funding Underwater Drone Technologies was around a couple of lakh rupees, which sounded like peanuts to them.

The cost of components alone posed significant challenges for the startup, as a single motor cost around 15,000 rupees, and a drone required approximately eight of them. Reuben acknowledges such costs were beyond their reach, especially when compared to other attendees at the conference who had access to university grants worth crores of rupees.

Despite these financial limitations, the startup continued to make progress. However, as their engineering course came to an end, the co-founders went their separate ways – some seeking jobs while others pursued higher studies abroad. This is a common fate for many college-based startups in Kerala, as the institutions often lack the necessary funds to ensure continuity. Additionally, most students tend to view such ventures as part of their academic project work, limiting their long-term commitment. 

Reuben took up the baton and persevered, determined to keep the project alive. He enlisted the help of some juniors who became his mentees, and he managed to sustain the project by raising funds through tuition classes for engineering students.

During the prolonged Covid lockdown, even after graduating in late 2020, Reuben didn't let go of his dreams. He convinced a junior student to join him at his home, and together, they continued to push forward with their drone development. To raise working capital, Reuben took on a gig as an Amazon delivery person.

“I would work during the day while my friend attended online classes and drew some designs,” Reuben recalled. “After my work, I would join him, and we burned the midnight oil to assemble things according to the designs we devised.”

“It was a difficult time as financial worries often made me question the path I chose. But I can't say it was all sleepless nights as we were so exhausted both mentally and physically that we were knocked out at the end of each day,” he recalls with a smile.

Fortunately, the startup received a stroke of luck when another Trivandrum-based drone startup called AI Drone Private Limited took the budding entrepreneurs under their wings and collaborated with them, especially when the Kerala police decided to incorporate drone technology into their Cyber Dome project. The goal of the project was to enhance the police's ability to tackle emerging cybersecurity challenges by adopting new technology.

The contract for the Cyber Dome project and the collaboration with AI Drone company brought in some steady income for Underwater Technologies, raking in over 1 crore rupees including subsidies and other incomes in the last financial year, reveals Reuben. However, most of this is required to fund further research and development efforts, he says.

Given the difficulties he faced and the challenges that lie ahead, the natural question arises as to whether the choice he made for his career was a wise one.

“I have no regrets,” he says confidently. “Sure, I could have landed a job that would have paid me well or obtained a scholarship in some foreign country with my academic track record and project achievements.

However, what I have learned during these few years is something I would have never experienced even if I worked for a decade in some company.”



New Delhi plan should inspire Kerala

The Indian government has taken another step towards setting up a fund to enable universities to set up research facilities and R&D centres. In Anusandhan National Research Foundation Bill introduced into the parliament, the central government says it aims to tap the private sector and philanthropists to provide much of the planned 50,000 crore rupees. Officials say the private sector earmarks around 24,860 crore rupees as CSR funds but only 11 percent of it goes to research centres, most of it to IITs and other elite institutions. The idea now is to ensure more equitable distribution among the universities and other educational centres.

Given that most of the colleges in Kerala also struggle to finance research activities, maybe this is a model the state government can also replicate. Although the state has a thriving IT sector, at the university level, some budding tech entrepreneurs struggle to raise even a few thousand rupees, as our main story this week shows. While there are government agencies trying to boost research with grants and subsidies, it is clearly not enough. Perhaps we should tap into the private sector and channelise some of their CSR funds to students who are struggling to keep their research projects and startups going.



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Zomato brings home some good news

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Crowd-funded Reggae Girlz keep waltzing

Social media takes a lot of stick over its role in polarising societies but once in a while comes a tale that truly illustrates the power of the medium to do good. Like the crowdfunding that helped the Jamaican women’s football team play in the World Cup. The team had no funds despite the presence of one of the best-known footballers Bunny Shaw, who plays for Manchester City in England. Two crowdfunding campaigns raised over 10,000 US dollars to help the team travel to Australia. One notable supporter of the team is Cedella Marley, Bob Marley’s daughter. After knocking out Brazil, the overwhelmed Jamaicans danced and swayed to the Bob Marley song "One Love", reports Reuters. The Reggae Girlz take on Colombia next on August 8. Dance on Girlz.