India came within 2.1km of becoming the fourth nation—after Russia, the US and China—to make a soft landing on the Moon and release a rover to explore new regions of the lunar surface. The nation let out a collective sigh when the lander Vikram veered off with the rover in its belly.
But Chandrayaan-2, which deployed an orbiter circling the Moon, was still a remarkable achievement for a third world nation. One of its standout elements is frugality—the $140 million spent on Chandrayaan-2 is minuscule compared to the billions of dollars that the US and China put into their space missions each year.
The lower cost comes from indigenization. India made a virtue out of the necessity of learning to be self-reliant in its space, nuclear and defence programmes. And Indian entrepreneurs with engineering prowess are helping to fill critical gaps.
Bengaluru-based Sunlux Technovations Pvt. Ltd, for example, specializes in making smart sensors for a variety of deep tech applications. One of these was to automate the testing of Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) satellites, including the orbiter in Chandrayaan-2, in a chamber where the harsh environment in space is simulated. Earlier, these satellites had to be sent to Europe for testing, which would hike costs as well as delays.
“It was customized to our requirements," says a senior Isro official, who did not want to be named. “We have tested nearly 100 satellites using this system," he says, adding that visiting National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) scientists were impressed with the state-of-the-art technology.
Sunlux is also deploying “life-critical systems" for the navy which will enable “strategic import substitution," says founder Ram Kerur, who is not at liberty to go into details about defence projects. These systems are replacing Russian ones we depended on, at a quarter of the cost.
Radioactive Zones ::
Kerur’s journey as a deep tech entrepreneur mirrors that of India’s space and nuclear programmes, which have been a struggle every step of the way. His first exposure came in the eighties when he worked at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research after getting an M.Tech in industrial electronics. He collaborated on projects with scientists at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.
His first big break after setting up Sunlux in 1989 was a contract to build a master-slave robotic system to work in radioactive zones where humans could not go. This was at a time when India faced hurdles getting access to technology after carrying out missile tests. “We were the first in Asia to do this after India was banned from importing (such robots)," he says.
He recalls sitting on a beach in Mamallapuram with an atomic energy official and working out solutions. It was an era before the advent of Google, when information was harder to find, wireless systems hadn’t matured, and robotics was in its infancy. “We went through many iterations because the materials available were limited," says Kerur. He remembers going to Belagavi, which had casting specialists, to find alternatives. “We had to improvise but deliver the same level of accuracy."
The robots for the nuclear programme demonstrated Sunlux’s frontier engineering capability, but almost put it out of business. The cost of the project turned out to be so much more than the contracted amount that it took Kerur four years to repay the debts.
A personal crisis compounded the financial crunch. Treatment of his father’s cancer wiped out the family’s savings. Job offers were attractive, but Kerur’s passion for making deep tech products kept him on the entrepreneurial path. The defence project to replace imported systems with homegrown controls and automation has taken nearly a decade to develop, test and validate.
Use in industry 4.0 ::
The pay-off comes from new opportunities for Sunlux’s expertise in sensors, controls and automation. Industry 4.0 where machine data is analysed for everything from improving processes to preventive maintenance puts the company at the heart of change across sectors. “For anything to be intelligent, we need sensors and connectivity," he says. Smart cities and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) is an emerging domain where Sunlux’s sensor-based products are finding uses. Its automated test equipment has several applications in the electronics industry. And these are systems which have passed the test of robustness from demanding clients like defence and space organizations.
In a country known mainly for its software, entrepreneurs like Kerur have taken the road less travelled to create an ecosystem for deep tech at the cusp of hardware and software, whether its industrial IoT or the space programme. A labour of passion, more than a desire for quick bucks, drives this kind of entrepreneurship.