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Spacetech startup with eyes on the stars

Saurabh Chatterjee says his firm now procures some of the components from Trivandrum itself.

Spacetech startup with eyes on the stars

Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on February 20, 2023
Hari Kumar By Hari Kumar, on February 20, 2023

In the world of startup culture, deep tech firms are often cast as the nerds in the university of entrepreneurship. While software platforms like food delivery apps and fintech firms zoom ahead on the back of lavish investment vehicles, deep tech nerds quietly toil away in labs, developing products that require more time and money.

So it is quite remarkable when a deep tech firm manages to achieve a turnover of over 1 crore rupees in just a couple of years. And that is precisely what Trivandrum-based Vashishtha Research has accomplished.

Founded by Saurabh Chatterjee, a researcher at the prestigious Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST), Vashishtha Research has garnered attention in the space sector and won several prestigious awards in its four years of existence. In addition, the company has secured a contract from the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to develop a propellant machining robot, marking the first time an Indian manufacturer has taken on such a project.

For Chatterjee, this is just the first step towards realising his dream of developing such projects indigenously. He believes that while India has made remarkable achievements in space research, the growth of indigenous technology in the sector is still erratic.

“India has a lot of talent,” says Chatterjee, “but many are not engaged in the tough challenges of the deep tech sector. Most are working on software development or doing outsourced work for foreign companies. But I believe that no firm will outsource critical areas of their production. So, if we want to develop those technologies in specialised sectors, we need to move away from importing and start building them domestically.”

Still, developing critical technologies here is an arduous task, as Vashishtha Research is finding out. For one thing, spacetech research demands a long gestation period and deep pockets. In an environment where funding entities look for returns and valuations as markers, raising working capital for deep tech startups is a tough ask.

Chatterjee has had a laser focus on technology since his formative days in Jamshedpur in the early 2000s. That interest led him to IIT Kanpur, but he realised that many of his peers were fixated on two primary goals: securing a well-paying job or using the degree as a springboard to pursue further studies abroad.

Chatterjee believes that what is missing is a deep commitment by state agencies to encourage startups in the field. While things have changed, with the startup environment getting turbocharged over the last decade and space research now welcoming private firms into the fold, the deep tech areas need a lot more attention and encouragement from state agencies, he says.

“Everyone admires the work that Elon Musk has done in space tech, and investors are now willing to throw billions at him. But very few mention the fact that it was Nasa which spent billions to prop up the space engineering firms initially.”

He believes that India needs to develop a similar kind of vision to support and encourage deep tech startups. “Until SpaceX rockets came along, American astronauts had to depend on Russian rockets to reach the International Space Station. Now they can use SpaceX vehicles. That is the kind of vision India has to develop, to nurture indigenous industry even when such technology can be imported from elsewhere,” he says.

Chatterjee has had a laser focus on technology since his formative days in Jamshedpur in the early 2000s. That interest led him to IIT Kanpur, but he realised that many of his peers were fixated on two primary goals: securing a well-paying job or using the degree as a springboard to pursue further studies abroad.

The burning desire persisted even when he worked for Oracle and Robert Bosch. Chatterjee says he felt the need to find a place where he could chase his dreams. Leaving his well-paid job, Chatterjee enrolled in the IIST in 2014. As he started interacting with the top minds at the Indian space Research Organisation (ISRO), he saw an opening to put his ideas into action, realising that the Indian space sector relied on foreign components for many tasks.

“I had not even heard of the word ‘startups’ when Vashishtha Research was started in 2018. In any case, back then, startups meant firms that developed software, and it was unheard of in the aerospace field,” he recalls. The bootstrapping initial phase was manageable as it was virtually him and another friend doing the work. Like any new entrepreneurship, it was often a trial and error method for the firm.

However, Chatterjee's passion and laser focus soon started bringing in recognition in the form of awards and timely financial assistance from state agencies like Kerala Startup Mission and central government agencies. Vashishtha soon started generating revenue. The firm soon realised that to become commercially viable, they had to look beyond the limited number of spacetech customers.

Vashishtha found that filament winding was an area that brought in customers from beyond the aerospace sector. Soon, they started getting orders from India and abroad, keeping the cash register ringing. Chatterjee says, like any other startup, they are also finding it tricky to keep their focus on developing hardcore technology while making the firm financially stable.

“You can get an order worth 1 crore rupees to develop and deliver a product, but the money comes at the end of the job, or it’s paid after each phase of the contract. Finding working capital is difficult for us, as no private funding agency will be ready to back such ventures. This is where even government agencies should step in and prop up deeptech entrepreneurs,” he says.

The lack of such support may tempt some firms to look at places like Singapore, where fundraising is easier, or the UAE, which is boosting its presence in the aerospace industry. Chatterjee brushes away such temptations but admits his worry is more about finding enough people with the mindset to join a startup journey.

When it comes to scaling up, Chatterjee believes what is more difficult than finance is the task of putting together a team that shares the passion and is willing to go through the hard grind.

So how is he going to lure young scientists to come and work with him when more glamorous cities offer much more glitz and glamour?

“Look how peaceful this place is,” he says with a smile, gesturing towards the greenery surrounding the scenic setting of the IIST. Chatterjee argues that working in a spacetech firm in Trivandrum – or Thiruvananthapuram as it is officially known – provides a better quality of life compared to tech cities like Bangalore (officially Bengaluru), where daily commutes can take hours due to heavy traffic.

“Moreover, where else can you expect the top space scientists of the country to visit your workplace and offer you guidance and advice? Even the ISRO Chairman, Dr S Somnath, visited and interacted with us for an hour,” says Chatterjee, with a little effort to hide his pride.

He says Vashishta is even looking to develop a supply chain here itself and now sources a component, which they used to import initially, from this city itself.

Still, Vashishtha Research’s founder is under no mistaken notion about the task ahead. “It is an uphill climb, as the Indian space sector has not blossomed into an industry level. Sending a rocket up once in a while is not enough for that,” says Chatterjee. He admits things are changing but is still wistful that the industry has yet to pick up the pace to create an ecosystem needed to encourage more youngsters to venture into the adventurous field of deeptech.

When asked if the odds look overwhelming at times, Chatterjee ponders for a second and says, “Yes. it is an uphill task. But our passion will keep us going.”

Years ago, when the fledgling space industry got off to a start under the guidance of Vikram Sarabhai and conquered new horizons under the guidance of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, one thing that powered on those luminaries was their passion.

After a lengthy chat with Chatterjee, when you leave the Vashishtha lab, one gets a feeling that the flame those pioneers lit are still glowing brightly.



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Maybe the question to ask is whether it is too late to put the genie back in the bottle? There are enough AI-enabled open-source software programs that can produce realistic text, voice, images, and videos that can be used by anyone. And it is already happening. A report by Motherboard says that 4chan members have already made deepfake voices of Emma Watson, Joe Rogan, and others saying racist, transphobic, and violent thing.



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