It's Not Just Rocket Science Dummy!

Team Indus doesn't see the Lunar XPRIZE as just a technical problem to be solved; it's equally about ensuring a buy-in from a whole host of stakeholders

N S Ramnath

[Rahul Narayan founded Team Indus, the only team from India participating in the prestigious Google Lunar X Prize]

A 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.

A sense of purpose hangs in the air. These young engineers have recently moved into this roomy hall from another section in the building. Team Indus needed space for new and future hires. It might take some more time to set things, but, even to a casual observer, this much seems clear: the work can't wait and the rush of adrenaline can't be stopped.

Rahul Narayan, an IIT-ian who has tried his hand at entrepreneurship more than once and who 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 some of the best 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 meters over the lunar surface, and send images and data back to the Earth". India's space agency 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 systems category, demonstrating that its hardware and software can soft land the spacecraft on the surface of 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'," says Ramnath Babu who leads the 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 Alcatel-Lucent and one of its 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 R&D centre and an investor uses a similar term to describe them: audacious spunk. Kiran Karnik, former head of Nasscom and  a member of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, says while start-ups tend to go deep in one discipline - a big data company doing data science, for example - 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 and inspires a deep sense of ownership among those associated with it, 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. There is no visual feedback. (One wire agency journalist learnt this the hard way. During one of the early flights of Isro, upon seeing the rocket lifting off, he rushed to the phone to tell his team that the launch was successful. While it had in fact lifted off, the rocket had veered off course. When senior Isro officials conveyed the news, it’s safe to assume the journalist was genuinely grieved. Before the wire agency could send the correction, an eveninger had already carried that news.)

It has attracted help from many quarters even though in aerospace it is difficult to gauge where a business stands

So 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. Senior scientists with a wealth of experience were generous with their time and advice. All these partnerships gave the team stability.

"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.

Team Indus is able to make these relationships work because its approach is participatory, not transactional.

The approach resonates. Its partners Tata Communications or L&T 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 MV Kotwal, whole-time director at L&T. "This is the kind of role models the younger generation needs."

For its part, Team Indus demonstrated its willingness to accommodate partners. For example, it moved to Bengaluru from Delhi, so it could be close to mentors and tech advisors drawn mostly from Isro's old boys' network. "For historic reasons, all space organizations are based in the south, and we thought we should be in Bengaluru to tap into that network," says Narayan.

It also stretched its already scarce resources to host Space App in Bengaluru. This was a Nasa-initiated, multi-city event aimed at collaborative problem solving.

#2. A culture of ownership

Investor Sharad Sharma draws a distinction between mercenary and missionary startups. The former tend to attract people whose primary motivation is money. The latter attract those who see money as a by-product. They identify with the vision and have the drive to take up impossible challenges.

Missionary startups attract those who see money as a by-product. They identify with the vision.

The fact that Team Indus is such a start-up didn't happen by accident. In one of the early meetings with Dr K Kasthurirangan, former head of Isro, when they were discussing 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 benefits were supposed to spread out. 

Team Indus, thus has an unfair advantage over others in that it is probably the best example of a missionary startup today.

The missionary aspect is clear in the team composition: the core team consists of space enthusiasts who came together through pretty much the same route that Narayan took to arrive at the idea of Team Indus. They knew about the Lunar XPRIZE, they searched for Indian participants on the net, found out about Team Indus, got in touch with Narayan, and often started their work as interns. With them came their dreams and idols: inventor Nikola Tesla (for a geeky bunch like us, it's definitely him. Also consider that he was bashed out a lot during his good days. - Guruditya Sinha, member of the avionics team), Socrates (because he taught me to look at first principles and seek to find out answers by relentless questioning - Vishesh Vatsal, descent team), SpaceX founder Elon Musk (my idols keep changing, and right now, it’s Musk - Udit Shah, structures team), funk and soul jazz saxophonist  Maceo Parker and systems engineer at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Bobak Ferdowsi (because Parker was able to pull off unheard of things with the saxophone and Ferdowsi because you can be stressed, geeky and nerdy and still be cool. Imagine going to mission control room in mohawk hairstyle - Karan Vaish, rovers team). No Bill Gates. Not even Steve Jobs.

Also, not many start-ups will have an Isro veteran who cut his teeth working on the Aryabhatta project years ago and a 13-year-old prodigy exchanging notes in a cubicle. The prodigy is Saad Nasser. Home schooled with help from online courses such as edX and Udacity and mentors from the industry, Nasser came to Team Indus through Sasken founder Rajiv Mody, through someone he knew at Intel. Nasser spends three days a week with Team Indus, learning, testing, participating in the discussions.

It’s easy to see why Team Indus attracts such people. When you speak to Isro veterans or when you listen to someone like Kasthurirangan sharing their stories, you know that you are experiencing history and - this is important - that by being involved in the project you are making history too, says Sheelika Ravishankar, who heads HR.

#3. Institutionalizing that culture

When Sheelika first met Narayan a year ago over a plate of idlis at Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (MTR) in Bengaluru, Team Indus had just about 20 people. She wondered why a start-up so small would want to have an HR person.

But, 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," says Narayan.

It's better to not have a resource, instead of having a resource that will disrupt the system

To capture the spirit of adventure, that brought in so many people, Team Indus has unconventional titles, says Sheelika. Narayan is fleet commander. Ramnath Babu is Jedi master for structures. Sheelika 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 always small - about six persons per team - and the structure is flexible. The team is told, "The structure is just a guide. Feel free to stretch it."

"I like to think of the structure in terms of an amoeba. It's very flexible, it stretches, changes shape, and when it divides, it;s an identical replica of the original. The core remains the same," says Sheelika.

One of the ways this translates into practice is by letting people 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 is more about automotive".

Because it is a multi-disciplinary project, Team Indus encourages everyone to spend at least 20 percent of their time in other teams. It's important for everyone to get to know how the system works. And it has also helps them feel ownership over their subsystem and the project as a whole. Sharma once attended an event along with this team and what struck him most was the passion for their work and the ownership they felt towards it. "Even before it appealed to my head, it appealed to my heart. And I knew I was in," he says.

Even before it appealed to my head, it appealed to my heart. And I knew I was in

#4. Having a plan, even if it is based on just 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 realized that there were no Indian teams competing for the prize. So he decided to throw in the hat. 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 off the mark or outright 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 Antrix, the commercial wing of Isro, 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 assumptions that went wrong, and incomplete information - helped them 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 they refined their plan.

#5. Question your assumptions

But one big question remained unanswered: "There are 29 teams [initially], how do we know we are not the 29th team?". The uncertainty over that question made all conversations difficult.

In one of the videos shot at that time, Narayan says, "We understand this is not pure science. It's street fighters' stuff. We need to fight every day. We need to prove ourselves every day."

Then something happened. In January, Team Indus won a $1 million Milestone Prize in the landing systems category. Winning that involved some amount of last minute tweaks - as they were designing the lander, they were constantly coming up with new solutions and testing them; they used whatever worked better. The night before they were sending in their application for the Milestone Prize, there was a brainwave, and the team made a fundamental change in the design that involved a new engine. A frenzy of activity following: new calculations were made, questions flew, quick explanations followed. The lander, which underwent elaborate tests by the XPRIZE jury, was itself built at amazing speed, in just 100 days.

The lander, which underwent elaborate tests by the XPRIZE jury, was itself built at amazing speed, in just 100 days.

It was the external validation they were hoping for. Suddenly, everybody seemed to take them seriously. Newspapers carried reports, news channels covered them and they didn’t have to explain why they believe they have a good shot at winning the prize. (By this time, they had also added some high profile names as investors, including Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys and the man in charge of the UIDAI project.) Since the award, more people have expressed an interest in working with them, and there are more people willing to donate funds.

#6. 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, the range of things to be done 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. When you wake up every morning, you don't think how do I get to the moon today, but you think about one or two problems that you have to solve today and focus on them. That's how things get done," says Narayan.

The big picture helps in getting the vision right. After that it's about breaking down the problem into manageable bits

It's not really 'not seeing the big picture', it's about not getting overwhelmed by it. For that, the team follows a number of practices. Every morning, all team members get together to give and get updates on what they are doing. The meetings are short; no one even sits down. It gives everyone an idea of where things stand. And then there are more elaborate review meetings which again everyone attends, that focus on the logic, on the impact that previous efforts had, and course corrections that need to be taken. Each team member is also expected to set aside 20 percent of his or her time for other teams. All these put together gives everyone the bigger picture - and the fact that they have to make some of these presentations, give updates, go through reviews, keeps them focused on the steps that will lead to the final goal.

#7. 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 senior scientists from Isro have been extending their help almost from the beginning, but now some of them spend more time in the office, coming in early and on most days of the week. As advisors and consultants, their job is almost like that of a professor combined with a coach. They guide, mentor, train, offer solutions and above all, bring the rigour of doing scientific work to the start-up.

"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."

Between retiring from Isro and helping Team Indus with his expertise in propulsion systems, Jayaraman honed his skills as an energy consultant, auditing companies' energy use and helping them save energy. He puts all those skills to work at Team Indus.

It happens in a formal way during the review meetings, where different teams make presentations, take questions and face the heat. As important, the same rigour is often applied every day as young members bounce out ideas with each other or go to the mentors for their guidance.

The senior scientists also play a more mundane role in Team Indus - help them get things done. "The books can only teach so much. For some reason, text books don’t tell you how to do things. It's considered infradig to write about the practical stuff," says PK Nair, an Isro veteran who has worked on the Aryabhatta project and designed a satellite bus. He and his colleagues pass on what they learnt over the years, often through trial and error.

Perhaps one of the biggest achievements so far for Team Indus is the way they've managed to make this combination of young enthusiasts and veteran space scientists work. 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."

They have a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of passion. And sometimes my job is to slow that down a little.

#8. 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.

There is however, some element of subjectivity in it. How the team thought about the problem of landing gives some insight to it. Soft landing a spacecraft is a tough problem. As the spacecraft approaches the surface of the moon, it needs to slowdown. Parachutes won't work because the moon doesn't have enough gravitational pull and very thin atmosphere. It has to be done by changing the engine's thrust. Isro hadn't done soft-landing, so 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 seriously considered was to just send a projectile that would travel 500 meters on air, and as it travels it would capture images and data. Not an elegant solution, though it would fulfil the Lunar X mission objectives. Eventually, M Jayaraman came up with a solution that was both practical and elegant, and the team is in the process of trying that out.

Tata Communications's Julie Woods-Moss says that this singularity of purpose - of having a specific goal, of having a specific deadline - can mobilize a lot of people and energize them. This is something that big enterprises can learn from Team Indus, she says.

For many in Team Indus, what keeps them going is the ambition, the willingness to reach for what others say is impossible, and to see things as they aren't and ask why not.  

It's a truly human endeavour, as human beings we want to explore. It's human to try really, really hard

Narayan calls this an essentially human impulse. "It's about, as Sun Tzu says, being truthful to yourself and knowing yourself - and if you persist and continue things will happen around you. It's a truly human endeavour, as human beings we want to explore, learn more about ourselves and those around us. We want to reach out. 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 Mission and the Opportunity

Team Indus's mission might seem non-rational to some: They will raise about $40 million to take a shot at winning $20 million in prize money. However, in the longer term, they and other contestants could be operating in a lucrative market:

   In 10 years  In 25 years
 Overall market opportunity  $1.9 bn  $6.4 bn

 Established market opportunities

 (Scientific and technical data, payload hosting, spacecraft and

hardware, subsystems and  proprietary technologies)

 $800 mn  $3005 mn

 Emergent market opportunities

(Lander systems, lunar rovers, lunar/asteroid/planetary orbiters,

lunar samples, Mars rovers)

 $820 mn  $3078 mn
 Technology transfer opportunities  $293 mn  $293 mn

Source: London Economics


Also go backstage with Team Indus in this slideshow.

[An abridged version of this story was concurrently published on Mint]

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Sachin Joneja on Apr 23, 2015 2:13 p.m. said

Lovely story Ramnath.

And brilliant inspiring work by Team Indus. Reading it makes me hopeful about the future of Indian engineering and science beyond "paper writing."

About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath


NS Ramnath is a senior writer and part of the core team at Founding Fuel. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.

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