Kerala Technology
Kerala startups yet to heed army’s call

Top army brass with panellists during the Army Academia Industry Interface event at Pangode. Handout photo

Kerala startups yet to heed army’s call

Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on March 12, 2024
Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on March 12, 2024

The pace of technological changes is staggeringly fast, happening at the velocity of a tracer bullet. To keep up, the defence sector must continually adapt to this new reality.

Since 2018, the Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX) programme has proven instrumental in leveraging the nation's startup ecosystem, thereby helping our military keep pace with contemporary army needs.

A multitude of startups have risen to the challenges presented by the defence forces, with their solutions now poised to shape future defence strategies.

Data from the iDEX website indicates that over 330 crore rupees have been allocated through this initiative, with challenges spanning across all three divisions of the armed forces.

For startups, these platforms offer one of the most active markets as India is slated to spend around 220 billion US dollars to modernise its armed forces.

But Kerala startups are yet to make a significant contribution in this area, despite the state witnessing a heap of technology-related events and campaigns.

This was the painful truth that emerged as stakeholders from the tech industry and academia got together during the Southern Star Army Academia Industry Interface at Pangode Military Station in Trivandrum last week.

At a panel meeting held during the event, CEO of Kerala Startup Mission Anoop Ambika admitted that of the 5,000-odd startups registered in the state, only a handful of firms are capable of meeting the rigorous needs of the defence sector.

KSUM now plans to encourage startups with such orientation and build up a list of 100 firms with expertise in defence requirements, the CEO told panel moderator and principal of Trinity College of Engineering, Arun Surendran.

Anoop said KSUM was willing to partner with the army to contribute to a corpus fund and build an ecosystem where startups and bright young minds on the campuses get an opportunity to play around with ideas that could come in handy for our armed forces.

He pointed out that from virtual reality to automated weapons, a wave of disruptions is about to hit traditional warfare. “War strategies are not people-centric anymore,” he said.

Anoop also reiterated the call to set up a testing zone in Trivandrum where defence forces can test out new ideas and innovative products, providing another boost to the technology scene in the state.

The terrain of Kerala is uniquely suited for such a centre as the long coastline and lush green terrain open up possibilities of providing tech facilities with varied capabilities.

This idea was mooted by KSUM last year during the interaction between the armed forces and IT industry and was warmly received by the then-head of the Pangode base, Brigadier Lalit Sharma.

A year later, as this proposal is aired again, more pieces are in place as the Pangode Station is now headed by Trivandrum-native Brigadier Salil MP, and the current CEO of Technopark is Sanjeev Nair, an ex-army colonel who was the program director of iDEX.

Hopefully, the network of those with insight into the defence needs and capabilities of the local talent pool will spur more action to make such a testing zone a reality.

Panelist Abhilash Gopalakrishnan from the Amrita Vidyapeetham took the call a step further and urged authorities to set up an experience centre where officers from the defence sector come often and talk about their experience on the ground with qualified startups.

He said Boeing, which builds fighter jets for the US Air Force, has such a centre where Air Marshalls come and talk about their requirements to the employees at the aviation giant.

“That makes sense because I have never seen a product management requirement written very well. So let us cut the crap. Let us establish an experience centre so that the army can co-create, collaborate and redefine the way things are done,” he said.

The gap between the ground realities and project plans was the main focus of the speakers at the panel discussion, which was looking at the challenges faced by academia and industry in meeting the expectations of the army.

As the experts from the industry and universities brainstormed about this, what was clear was the need for more collaboration between officers who are boots on the ground and researchers who are domain experts.

The requirements and peculiarities of the end-user often remain unknown to those executing the project at the prototype level, pointed out Sheela DS, a former scientist at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), who now heads a space tech startup called Space Labs.

She said there should be a constant collaboration between academia and industry from the concept level itself, and not after the prototype is completed as is the norm now.

Dr Alex James, dean at the Digital University of Kerala (DUK), said that institutions like the armed forces should have a system to monitor quality research papers that come out of universities in India.

James, who did his research on image processing while at Griffith University, Brisbane, said a month after his research paper was published, Israeli army officials had contacted him. “I still haven’t got any calls from the Indian army,” he said.

But there should be a system to grade research papers that emerge from the universities as a majority of them are qualified only to end up in university basements, he said.

The close relationship that universities and research labs maintain with defence forces is a prominent factor behind the strength of many Western defence forces, especially the US.

Their outreach goes beyond such formal contacts, and the US Navy has deputed a team of electronic game enthusiasts to take part in online contests to identify the young talents who frequent gaming platforms.

The defence forces can take a leaf out of the ISRO, which has opened its doors to the private sector and has generated a lot of enthusiasm among school and college kids with their engagement programmes.

This has helped space tech startups and enabled a marriage between innovative approaches provided by younger minds with the experience of working scientists and retirees who had spent their lifetime working on live space missions.

Tapping into the pool of retired servicemen could benefit startups immensely as they can provide crucial inputs on user experience, pointed out Technopark CEO Sanjeev Nair. He said defence forces present a unique set of challenges to tech experts as their requirements come with a lot of specific security needs.

Lakshmi Das, COO of Prophase, vouched for the extraordinary security ring around such projects and said her cybersecurity firm’s personnel had to cut themselves off from the internet completely while entering Sena Bhavan, the army headquarters in New Delhi. But once inside, they found the officers welcoming and helpful, she recalled.

However, she pointed out that it is not easy for startups based in the south of the country to travel all the way to the capital to take part in defence expos held in New Delhi. “We should have more such events in the south to allow cash-strapped startups to showcase their talents,” she said.

As the panel discussion ended and we were leaving the venue, one of the panellists said, “See you next year for another round of discussion.”

Hopefully, he said that in jest.



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